War is hell: how the corporate class is coping with Covid’s injustices (Crikey Sep 16, 2020)

Sep 17, 2020

“This is not wartime,” thundered our business heavyweights this week. That’s probably a relief or they might be asked: “What did you do in the war, Daddy?”

Profiteered over patriotism? Ludicrous.

Fled to foreign climes? Heaven forbid.

Blew up a few sacred sites? Surely not.

Sent dick pics to female staff? These are difficult times.

Yep, despite the many, many failings currently being exposed in corporate Australia, the bosses of Wesfarmers, CSL and BHP joined forces this week to call for an end to Victoria’s “wartime curfew”.

That’s not to say there isn’t genuine concern about the overkill of a draconian curfew on top of already severe lockdown provisions, but being lectured to by the corporate class is a bit rich to say the least.

Still, at least they were speaking from the actual home front — which is more than can be said for Australia’s richest man, Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest. He recently gave an interview to the Australian Financial Review from Croatia (or was it Afghanistan?), where he has decamped for the duration.

Not content with digging up taxpayers’ resources and shipping them overseas, Fortescue Mining Group (FMG) is now exporting itself to the rest of the world because, as Twiggy tells the AFR: “Fortescue’s culture is easily its greatest asset in Australia.” And here was I thinking FMG was making its record billions from our iron ore.

So how is everyone else faring on the frontline of Australian business?

There’s Victoria’s Solomon “cry me a river” Lew, whose Premier Investments boasted in its latest results it was enjoying record profits thanks to government subsidies, a rent strike and delaying payments to suppliers thanks to the war — sorry, pandemic.

He’s not alone. According to recent research from proxy group Ownership Matters, 17 of the top 300 companies in Australia that received government subsidies paid dividends to investors totalling more than $250 million.

It found a further 25 companies in the ASX 300 who had been given JobKeeper support payments paid their executives bonuses totalling more than $24 million.

And this is despite the head of the industry lobby group, the Business Council of Australia (BCA), specifically urging members not to do this.

BCA chief Jennifer Westacott said in an interview the week before the report that companies receiving JobKeeper should not give bonuses and should “think twice” about dividends.

By the sound of it, some didn’t even think once.

Thank goodness Australia Post has not yet been privatised; a government minister was able to make a quick call bringing that board into line after CEO Christine Holgate’s embarrassing interview pondering a bonus.

We can probably also blame wartime delays for the almost three months it took for Rio Tinto chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques to step down after overseeing the destruction of sacred Aboriginal sites in the Pilbara.

Meanwhile, one front on which there has been an advance is sexual harassment. Executive groping, inappropriate pictures or emails and other unacceptable behaviour is finally causing some casualties, as AMP and QBE can attest.

War is hell.

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