The Dollar versus Aboriginal Culture and the Environment

Maverick Cousins shifts sights from Gunns to Woodside
Andrew Burrell The Australian May 07, 2011

Geoff Cousins
Geoff Cousins is confident his heavyweight industrial and government opponents can be defeated

Geoff Cousins - Telstra director, former advertising whiz and one-time confidant of John Howard - has made plenty of powerful enemies in his colourful career.

Now he can add Woodside Petroleum's heavyweight chairman, Michael Chaney, and its outspoken American chief executive, Don Voelte, to a list of famous foes that has included Rupert Murdoch, Kerry Packer and Malcolm Turnbull.

Cousins met Chaney and Voelte recently to tell them about his next big mission in life: to mastermind the campaign against Woodside's planned $30 billion liquefied natural gas plant near the tourist town of Broome in Western Australia's Kimberley region.

The former chief executive of advertising agency George Patterson is devising a strategy to pressure Woodside shareholders, joint-venture partners, financiers and gas customers to stay away from the Kimberley.

"The law and song cycles of Walmadany (James Price Point) are not ancient dreamtime history. This law has been kept alive through my grandfather Paddy Roe and now through me. If the threatened development goes ahead our Country is gone for good. Our Country holds our heritage including burial sites, and most importantly the Song Cycle that runs through this country from the north of the Dampier Peninsula from Burringbarr (Swan Point) to Wabbina (Bidyadanga) Your voice can help draw attention to this great plight and help protect our ancient and sacred song cycles – Bugarigaara (Dreamtime)"
Joseph Rowe, Goolarabooloo Law Keeper and Custodian

It's a fight that places the pin-striped warrior firmly in the camp of Greens leader Bob Brown, activist group Get Up and other "progressive" types rather than the more traditionalist circles in which he has mixed for decades.

The 68-year-old Sydneysider - labelled "egotistical", "erratic", "tenacious" and "extremely smart" in equal measure by those who know him - says he came away from the Woodside meeting unimpressed with the men who run Australia's biggest oil and gas company.

"I've got to say that when I met Michael Chaney and Don Voelte, there was a lot of corporate hubris, a lot of arrogance," Cousins tells The Weekend Australian.

"They said you don't know what you're talking about and you're not going to get anywhere - that sort of stuff."

Woodside declined to comment on the meeting.

Another option -- which sounds more far-fetched -- is to try to change the Woodside board and its chairman.

"Once you begin to make a board feel that things are getting out of control, things can change incredibly quickly," Cousins says.

"To change the chairman of a public company takes five minutes -- there's no notice of meeting required. The directors simply get together and say we think we'll have a new chairman.

"That's what happened with Gunns _ there you had a chairman (John Gay) who had been there forever, he looked like he could never go. We just kept putting pressure on and finally shareholders said enough and the board said we've got to do something."

Even if the Browse project wins all environmental clearances and the backing of all the joint-venture partners and financiers, the fight will go on, Cousins says.

"This is not a short-term operation," he says.

"Gunns had every approval you could ever get -- they told shareholders 4 1/2 years ago they were about to start. Not a pick has ever been put in the ground."

Cousins has never shied away from a dust-up. In 1998, while he was a director of the Packer family's Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd, he resigned from the board of property developer Hudson Conway, which owned Melbourne's Crown casino and was run by Packer confidant Lloyd Williams.

Cousins resigned from the PBL board the following year. It was clear the rift with the Packers had not healed when he launched Paul Barry's unauthorised biography of James Packer in 2009 and took the opportunity to attack the mogul's investment in the "horrible business" of gambling.

In the 1990s, while chief executive at Optus Vision, Cousins took on another media baron -- Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation, publisher of The Weekend Australian -- over the Super League saga.

And during the lead-up to the 2007 federal election, he famously mounted a virtual one-man campaign against then environment minister Malcolm Turnbull over the Gunns pulp mill debate.

Yet whatever the result of Cousins' latest stoush, it's clear he will never take a backward step.

Don't be surprised one day to see him chained to machinery at the front line.

"If this is still going in 10 years -- and if I'm still alive in 10 years -- I will be in there boots and all," he says. "This is the biggest environmental issue in Australia."

Billion dollar battle

Billion Dollar Battle Video

Australian Broadcasting Corporation 7.30 Report
Broadcast: 19/04/2011   Reporter: Greg Hoy

A $34 billion gas project in Western Australia is in peril after a bitter rearguard action has been mounted on the east coast and now the investment investors are getting nervous.

Transcript

LEIGH SALES: There's a $34 billion battle raging in Western Australia, and it's making investors in one of Australia's largest resource projects very nervous.

The huge Browse Basin gas project on the Kimberley Coast is bigger than the north-west shelf, with 14 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves.

Everything about the project had seemed on track until a bitter rearguard action commenced on the east coast involving some very familiar faces.

Greg Hoy reports.

GREG HOY: In east coast financial hubs formidable forces are gathering for a $34 billion development battle over access to the Kimberley region of north-west Australia, now being assessed for national heritage listing. The Kimberley is a 420,000 square kilometre treasure trove of great beauty, traditional culture and resource riches. On top of five existing mines, there are now 15 resource development proposals on and offshore here.

DON HENRY, AUST. CONSERVATION FOUNDATION: Not only for LNG but also for coal, for bauxite mining, for uranium mining. We're seeing a rush on the Kimberley and I think most Australians would be alarmed.

GEOFF COUSINS, BUSINESSMAN: Anywhere in the world, it's recognised as a truly remarkable place.

GREG HOY: Inflaming passions is the State and Federal Government insistence backed by lead joint venture partner Woodside that the best and most expeditious location to build a multibillion dollar LNG processing plant for the vast untapped Browse Basin gas field located 400 kilometres offshore to the north, is right on the Kimberley coast's James Price Point above Broome, a site that's repeatedly been said would deliver the greatest share of revenues to traditional land owners.

COLIN BARNETT, W.A. PREMIER (April 30, 2009): Through this project we'll have opportunities, better opportunities through school, better health, land, better housing.

DON VOELTE, CEO WOODSIDE ('4 Corners' in June 2010): It's not about the dollars, the point is what are we doing to communicate, what are we doing with health care in the area, education in the area?

GEOFF COUSINS: What a lot of nonsense. If the Aboriginal communities deserve extra money for education, for housing or whatever it is for, then give it to them.

GREG HOY: He's the big businessman and now activist who helped depose the management of Gunns Limited, radically altering in the process its $2 billion pulp mill in Tasmania. Now Geoffrey Cousins has turned his tenacious attention to the Kimberley gas plant's biggest defender, West Australian Premier Colin Barnett.

GEOFF COUSINS: He is on the record as saying, and this is a direct quote from him, the Pilbara has supported Western Australia for the last 50 years, the Kimberley will support it for the next 50. In other words, he sees this as a place to industrialise.

DON HENRY: There hasn't been a full and proper consideration of the alternatives to industrialisation of the west Kimberley coast in our view and yet that's required under federal environmental law.

GREG HOY: Told of such criticisms, neither the West Australian Premier or Woodside would be interviewed. The Premier's Office insisting 43 sites had been considered before selecting the Kimberley three years ago.

COLIN BARNETT (April 30, 2009): There are different points of view and I understand and respect that there are people who don't want to see any development in the Kimberley at all. However, what I would say to them, what alternative do you have for raising, protecting and giving young children a life?

MARK GREENWOOD, HEAD OF ENERGY RESEARCH, CITIBANK: It was quite surprising the level of intervention that the Government's had in this project.

GREG HOY: Already amongst investment analysts there is growing concern about the proposed Kimberley gas development.

MARK GREENWOOD: The Government has basically mandated that the joint venture partners must pursue a project at James Price Point. Usually the joint venture partners will be given some time to evaluate a number of different development options and narrow it down to the best commercial option before moving forward.

DON HENRY: Odds are it won't go ahead despite what the State Government's saying, despite what Woodside is saying.

GREG HOY: Woodside's partners include multinationals Chevron, BHP Billiton, BP and Shell. All are equal partners with Woodside in the existing north-west shelf project on the Pilbara coast. But for the new Browse development Woodside has by far the biggest interest. Critics question if Woodside is keen to build a new plant it can control on the Kimberley's James Price Point rather than alternatives like using the existing north-west shelf processing plant further south that Woodside doesn't control or likewise processing gas offshore requiring more of its partners' expertise.

COLIN BARNETT (April 30, 2009): If the gas goes to the Pilbara there is no benefits package for the Kimberley.

MARK GREENWOOD: We're not sure that the joint venture partners are all aligned in pursuing a James Price Point development.

DON HENRY: BHP Billiton and BP and Shell have been on the public record saying there is a case for development of the gas processing down south in existing facilities.

GEOFF COUSINS: There are other locations and it's very important that the Federal Minister, Tony Burke, not close those off. At the moment what he's doing is saying well I am either going to approve James Price Point or I'm not. He isn't giving any attention to looking at alternatives. That's not the right approach.

GREG HOY: So we put that view to the Environment Minister Tony Burke who insists he won't be pressured by the Government's Department of Energy and re Resources an will take advice only from his own Department of Environment.

TONY BURKE, FEDERAL ENVIRONMENT MINISTER: A lot of people have been raising with me on my visits up to the area and have encouraged me to consider other sites. That's not the question that legally is going to be in front of me. The question in front of me will be for this site, is it appropriate or is it not?

GREG HOY: That makes this a $35 billion decision that will either trigger uproar or it's back to the drawing boards for the vast Browse Basin project and those promoting it.

LEIGH SALES: Greg Hoy with that report.