Australia’s largest resource companies are adept at embracing new ways of describing their business, but often much slower to embrace new ways of doing business.
Recent days have provided two cases that are demonstrative of how for some in the inner sanctum the triple bottom line is still measured in pounds, dollars and Euros.
The AGM of the world’s largest mining company, BHP Billiton, provided the first example of corporate single-mindedness – from the company that used to be the Big Australian but is now just the Big.
Listed on both the London and Australian Stock Exchanges in the age of global capital, BHP’s loyalty is evidently no longer to a nation, but to itself.
This became increasingly apparent during the AGM as shareholder after proxy holder attempted to grill Chairman Jac Nasser on the company’s environmental and social impacts.
The concerns were extensive and well argued, but with the majority of proxies in his back pocket, Nasser was unsympathetic and unfazed. He had the numbers, meaning there was no need to quibble on uncomfortable details.
Mining is a tough trade – full of high-vis clothing and low-down politics and to become the world’s biggest miner requires a particular skill set.
Persistent questioners had their microphones turned off, miners concerned about health and safety impacts and the human cost of FIFO (Fly In, Fly Out operations) were urged to have faith in the BHP ‘family’, and Aboriginal landowners were patronised.
Workers with decades of history at the less regarded subsidiary companies that BHP are currently in the process of rolling into a separate new company, with the inspired name of NewCo, were told that negotiations to date hadn’t included preservation of their entitlements and advised to take the issue up with the new boss.
Sorry, ‘colleague’ – the preferred term to cover everyone from the bellboy to the Chairman in the BHP ‘family’.
The second case study in faux shared interests and advocacy was a weekend call in Darwin by Gina Reinhardt, undoubtedly Australia’s richest woman and arguably its poorest poet.
Ms Reinhardt has called for the scrapping of all regulations that might apply to enterprises in Northern Australia employing less than one hundred people.
If this call were heeded it would mean so long to industrial awards and rights, goodbye modest environmental and Aboriginal heritage protections and thanks for the OHS memories.
The Trojan Horse aspect of Ms Rinehart’s agenda is obvious and long standing – Gina calling for all checks and balances to be turned into blank cheques and an increase in her bank balance is hardly likely to resonate with punters locked in perpetual struggle with the mortgage monster.
But Gina as a people’s champion for calling for the local petrol station or workshop to be given a break from bewildering BAS statements and complex compliance forms is aimed to showcase her as a person in touch with the people.
One of the growing Orwellian features of contemporary politics is the shameless positioning of the big end of town to present as the champion of the rights of the battler, the voice of the small that has been unfairly targeted and tied down by multi-coloured tape and joyless bureaucrats.
In the early 1950’s the US commentator and Columbia University Professor of Sociology Charles Wright Mills put the case succinctly. He said that the big end of town facilitated the small business narrative because of the ‘usefulness of its image to the political interests of larger business.’ He further declared that small business was used as a ‘front, a concealing façade’ and a ‘shield’ in the battle against organised labour and government regulation.
Self-interest and corporate interest should never be mistaken for national interest. Australia’s north is not a free fire economic zone and massive extractive operations are not benign.
It is important to recognise and reflect that we live in a nation with diverse interests, rights and responsibilities – a living community, not a slash and burn economy.
Jac Nasser, Gina Reinhart and their fellow travellers have every right to try and win hearts and mines, but they have no right to undermine hard won protections for Australia’s people and places.
Dave Sweeney is nuclear free campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation