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Tag Archives: Jac Nasser

May 19, 2012
Ian Verrender

I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees. Asked the Lord above, have mercy now, save poor Bob if you please. 

 Is this really where we are at, that awful space between heaven and hell, where the legendary Mississippi Delta blues king Robert Johnson found himself shortly before his untimely demise in 1938?

Legend has it that Johnson, one of the greatest guitarists who ever lived and whose skills still are impossible to emulate, sold his soul to the Devil to further his musicianship shortly before being poisoned by a lover’s jealous husband at the tender age of 27.

The road signs are all there. But which direction should we take?

Jac Nasser certainly does not know. He has straddled both sides of the business divide – manufacturing and resources – in a stellar career that began shortly after leaving school.

Emigrating with his family from Lebanon shortly after World War II, he started at the bottom of the line at Melbourne’s Ford factory in Broadmeadows on a 33-year journey that led him to the very top of the global company’s Detroit headquarters, and in more recent times to become chairman of the world’s biggest mining company, BHP Billiton.

This week, in an address to the Australian Institute of Company Directors, he hinted the China-led resources boom was running out of steam. That is bad news for resources groups such as BHP, Rio Tinto and Fortescue.

That has been partly reflected in BHP’s plunging share price, now down 5 per cent this year after a 25 per cent plunge last year, as the company diverts its bumper cash flow to fund massive mine expansions that may not be needed.

Underpinning that was the political calamity unfolding in Europe – China’s biggest export market – with Greece plunging headlong into an economic catastrophe that now seems irreversible and has held forth the stark reality of the European Union and the single currency unravelling. China’s growth, too, is under question, raising doubts about the sustainability of the resources boom.

But then there was the counterbalance, the tantalisingly slim ray of hope to the local manufacturing sector that a permanently weaker Australian dollar could deliver.

Nasser is trapped between the two worlds. For as much as he is a proponent of a free market, and a minimal government intervention model in a booming resources industry, he continues to harbour the belief that governments should intervene to support its fragile and fracturing manufacturing base.

But who should pay? Consumers through the cost of higher protection levels? Or taxpayers generally through direct government support?

From his musings on Wednesday, it is pretty clear Nasser certainly is not keen on the mining industry doling out any extra cash to subsidise manufacturing. He prefers taxpayer handouts.

When asked after his speech whether the government made the right decision to tip even more funds into the ailing auto industry and whether we even should be producing Holdens and Fords, Nasser hesitated only briefly. ”I knew I wouldn’t be able to escape this one,” he said. ”I’d like to think the answer is yes.”

After a blistering attack on the federal government for its heavy handed taxation and industrial relations policies – which he claimed had harmed the national interest and Australia’s competitiveness – Nasser suddenly was transformed into an interventionist and a government supporter.

”You have to give the industry the best chance possible, and I always ask: ‘Is the juice worth the squeeze?”’

Jac says that involves tying management, suppliers and unions to agreements that will help the industry evolve.

It is an arresting philosophy. But in terms of car manufacturing, it does not seem to have worked. The industry has been on the taxpayer teat for seven decades, has paid minimal tax and continues to threaten successive governments, state and federal, almost every other year with a retreat unless more cash is doled out.

Jac’s rationale? ”It’s an industry everyone either loves or loves to hate but if you look around the world, almost every government provides assistance.”

What happened to the concept of laissez-faire and minimal government intervention? Surely if every government around the globe is supporting an industry, those involved are having a lend of taxpayers and pitting nations against one another.

Perhaps the auto industry is not the best case study, given it again has notched up massive losses and never has made a return without government support. But in a perverse kind of way, Nasser may be on to something.

What if we pursued a completely laissez-faire approach and allowed all our industry to move offshore, only to find the resources boom come to an abrupt halt and the dollar collapse.

An economist would rationalise that as: Capital will shift back and the industry once again will be viable. That’s fine in theory. In reality, however, it simply does not work that way. As Nasser pointed out on Wednesday, industry needs certainty, it needs stability particularly those sectors with huge capital costs. Once gone, it could take years to return.

BHP clearly believes the resources boom still has some way to run, that China still has a good deal of growth left in it. But for Australia, it is pretty obvious the best days of the boom are behind us, and the ”stronger for longer” mantra no longer holds sway.

That is a problem for BHP. Having committed itself to massive expansions – delaying returns from this boom to future generations – it is faced with an investor backlash.

Both Nasser, and the chief executive, Marius Kloppers, indicated this week the planned $80 billion investment blitz during the next three years would be scaled back.

And there was a less than subtle message that unless the federal government played ball on tax and industrial relations, the Big Australian could become the Big Foreigner, looking for opportunities elsewhere.

Clearly, it is every company’s duty to direct investment to places and industries that will deliver the best returns. It just so happens the most fertile ground for resources returns has been here.

While there is never a guarantee that will continue forever, the simple fact is that Australia – abundantly rich in resources with a stable democracy, robust legal system and great infrastructure – is the star attraction for a resource-hungry world.

As Nasser mentioned, resource booms do not last forever. And booms, as we are discovering now, can involve painful readjustment.

But if Jac truly believes manufacturing should be supported, that we need to keep an eye on the longer term, then perhaps he should reconsider his views on the taxation side of the industry causing the pain to manufacturing in the first place. Someone has to pay.

You cannot have it both ways.

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Deborah Snow

May 19, 2012

Julia Gillard Photo MIchele MOssopTuesday 15th may 2012Julia Gillard speaks at the ACTU national conference in Sydney todaySeen here with ew ACTU secretary Dave Oliver (on her immediate right)Tale of humility … Julia Gillard with the newly-elected secretary of the ACTU, Dave Oliver, speaks at the congress in Sydney. Photo: Michele Mossop

Key players are trying to claim the high ground on industrial relations, writes Deborah Snow.

The politician, the union leader and the business boss all had a story of humble origins to tell this week. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking each was trying to out-humble the other.

The BHP kingpin, Jac Nasser, told the Institute of Company Directors that he was no class warrior, just the son of a simple Lebanese man who’d packed up his family to come and live all together ”in a single bedroom” in a house in outer Melbourne.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, trotted out for the ACTU congress in Sydney the tale, yet again, of her modest upbringing in Adelaide, the child of migrants who taught her to ”always, always, always carry your union membership card”.

And the newly-elected secretary of the ACTU, Dave Oliver, describing himself as a ”humble lift mechanic”, confessed astonishment that someone who’d started his working life as a 15-year-old apprentice, skateboarding to his first job, should have risen to the top of the union movement.

”Frankly, I’m amazed to be here today,” he told delegates to the triennial ACTU congress in Sydney – though, in fact, there was no surprise at all in the carefully-orchestrated elevation of Oliver, whose formidable campaigning skills are precisely why he has been put in the job.

The real point to all this faux-humility was the key players trying to stake out moral high ground as the industrial relations debate skidded off into talk of class warfare this week.

The Employment Minister, Bill Shorten, declared that ”we mustn’t let ourselves get fitted up – that somehow we are the class warriors. It has never been un-Australian to back-in the interests of the Australian working people”.

The head of the Transport Workers Union, Tony Sheldon, told union delegates Alan Joyce’s grounding of Qantas last year was a fine example of class warfare and that Nasser’s speech on Wednesday was evidence of ”that war being declared again”.

Nasser, in turn, told his audience of company directors that it was ”personally disappointing to me that part of this debate has become one based on class divisions”.

But he didn’t hold back in spelling out the mining conglomerate’s belief that the ”pendulum” had swung too far the unions’ way with Labor’s Fair Work Act, brought in by Gillard to replace John Howard’s reviled Work Choices.

Management had the right to ”run the business without the constant threat of a [union] veto over operational decision making”, he said, and the government’s current review of the Fair Work Act would be ”an opportunity to move the pendulum back to a more appropriate balance”.

If that didn’t happen, the company had the luxury of choice in deciding the ”geography” of where it might invest – a comment later interpreted by Sheldon as the threat of a ”capital strike”. Repudiating Nasser’s warnings, coalminers in Queensland are now positioning to launch mass strikes against the company.

BHP is not alone in its complaints. Major employer groupings such as the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Industry Group have lodged extensive submissions with the Fair Work Act review team, outlining dozens of areas where they say union powers are too great.

Top of AiGroup’s concerns is the scope it says unions now have to bring issues into the bargaining process that were never part of it before.

”Prior to the Fair Work Act, there was a tighter test of what you could put into agreements,” says the group’s national industrial relations director, Steve Smith. ”[Now] the unions want to be able to bargain over absolutely everything.”

He denies rising employer agitation against the Fair Work Act is ideologically driven and says his grouping just wants it ”sensibly” amended rather than thrown out.

However, Oliver says employers are ”sniffing the political wind” and responding with increasing militancy. ”We are up for a discussion on productivity – always have been, always will be,” he told the Herald. ”But we will give as good as we get.”

The union movement, he says, will not back away from its declared intention this week to campaign strongly against the growing phenomenon of what it calls ”insecure work” – that is, casual work, workers on contract and workers living day-to-day on calls from labour hire firms.

Former Labor deputy prime minister Brian Howe told the union congress there was a growing gulf between those in the ”core” workforce and those on its ”periphery”.

Releasing a report commissioned by the ACTU, he said he’d found ”countless casual workers in low-paying industries like security, contract cleaning, call centres and childcare”, who had unstable hours and ”pay so low that many of them have to hold down two or three jobs to make ends meet”.

Insecure work affected up to 40 per cent of the workforce, he claimed – a figure disputed by employer groups, who say Howe’s estimates include more than 1 million independent contractors with zero desire to become employees.

It’s a battle that will ramp up in coming months, as the ACTU pledges to extend the campaign into the community, backed by Oliver’s determination to set up what he calls a ”permanent campaigning capacity” inside the union body.

Indeed, he made a candid admission this week that the union movement had made a strategic error in pulling back after the success of its anti-Work Choices campaign in 2007.

People back then, he told the congress, ”knew what we stood for – but sadly, it didn’t last”.

”We didn’t keep faith with that campaign after the 2007 election. We thought because we’d defeated one enemy, that we had won all the battles we needed to,” he said.

It’s a mistake Oliver is determined the union movement won’t repeat. Shorten, meanwhile, will receive the report of the Fair Work Act review team at the end of this month. Advance reviews suggest it’s unlikely to give employer groups the overhaul they want. And with an eye on his future ambitions, Shorten won’t want to take apart a piece of legislation so closely associated with the Prime Minister.

The ACTU congress wrapped up on a jovial note on Thursday. Organisers brought the architects of Labor’s 1980s accord with the unions – Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and Bill Kelty – under the same roof for the conference dinner. Hawke belted out the union anthem Solidarity Forever. Delegates sang a ragged Happy Birthday for the outgoing ACTU secretary, Jeff Lawrence, who turned 60 on the congress’s final day.

But it was fighting words Oliver left delegates with at the end: ”No matter what they throw at us, no matter what the challenge, we never have and never will put up that white flag. Now it’s time to get back to work.”

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May 18, 2012

...BHP chairman Jac Nasser. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

BHP Billiton has one key goal in demanding reform of industrial relations law: it wants its managers to be free to manage the business as they see fit.

The issue is not primarily about wages, or productivity, but power. BHP wants to get the unions out of its decision making.

In the wake of BHP chairman Jac Nasser’s broadside on Wednesday against the Fair Work Act, the mining tax and Australia’s high-cost economy, Employment Minister Bill Shorten hit back, blaming BHP itself for its problems.

”If a company is struggling to persuade its long-standing workforce of the case for change, then perhaps the problem isn’t just the law, maybe it’s the way the case is being put, and the engagement of the workforce,” Mr Shorten said.

The ACTU Congress condemned ”BHP’s pursuit of safety deregulation, that would transfer vital safety roles from qualified workers on the job to management”. It declared support for the 3500 coalmine workers in Queensland’s Bowen Basin in their 18-month campaign of industrial action against the BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA).

BHP sees it differently. The list of complaints in its submission to the review of the Fair Work Act is mind-numbing in detail. Most relate to just one of its five key principles of industrial relations: ”management’s retention of the ultimate responsibility and right to run the business – with employee consultation not elevated to a right of veto over operational decision making”.

”BHP Billiton contends that the legitimate sphere of enterprise agreements is entitlements for employees in respect of their wages and conditions of employment,” it says. The Fair Work Act, it argues, goes beyond that, to allow ”interference with managerial decision making”.

The submission was lodged in February, two months before BMA took the drastic step of closing its Norwich Park coalmine, in part due to industrial action led by the Construction, Forestry and Mining Employees Union over a proposed enterprise bargaining agreement.

The agreement, which would cover the mines operated by the BMA in central Queensland, offers annual wage rises of 5 per cent for the next three years, plus a production bonus of $15,000 a year. It was rejected overwhelmingly by workers at meetings last October. But a postal ballot approved by Fair Work Australia is now under way to seek a second opinion from workers.

In its submission, BHP lists 18 union claims in the dispute that it calls ”beyond what is reasonable or necessary for the protection of employees”.

They include union demands that:

■Delegates be paid for time off to deal with member issues, attend union meetings, including preparation time for meeting conveners.

■Delegates be able to use mobile phones at all times, regardless of safety rules.

■Employees not be suspended during investigations into their conduct, or disciplined for breaching BHP’s code of conduct.

■Contractors and labour hire workers – now most of BHP’s workforce – be paid the same as the minority of employees.

The submission goes well beyond that. BHP wants to be free to conclude individual agreements with high-income employees (such as miners). It wants to tighten the rules on pattern bargaining, union officials’ right of entry, union representation and a dozen other issues.

The review, headed by Reserve Bank board member John Edwards – who 20 years ago was point man for then prime minister Paul Keating in the reforms to introduce enterprise bargaining – will hand its report to Mr Shorten by May 31.

Its terms of reference, however, aim to limit it to reporting whether the act is working as intended.

Tim Colebatch is economics editor.

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