Christopher Niesche: China’s psychological war on Australian business

OPINION

Australia’s latest stoush with China is not so much a trade war as a psychological war waged by the Chinese against Australian businesses.

Many companies are ending up as collateral damage in the worsening diplomatic relationship between Canberra and Beijing.

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As China seeks to punish Australia by blocking our exports, businesses with an interest in China are becoming close observers of foreign relations.

Upset at Australia’s pushing back on its territorial ambitions for the Pacific, the Chinese government is upping up all sorts of barriers to many of our key exports – with the exception of iron ore, which China needs to continue its ongoing push to modernisation.

The Chinese government has asked importers to stop purchasing at least seven categories of Australian product – including coal, cotton, wine, education and seafood – according to reports.

The phrase “according to reports” is key, because the Chinese government has made no official comment.

The information has all come from Chinese media outlets, unlikely to run such stories without an OK from the government, and from second-hand reports from importers, who are telling their Australian suppliers they can no longer buy their goods.

The tactics look designed to inflict the maximum psychological damage on business and the government.

Exporters are left wondering what the status of their market is, having to second guess whether they should send a shipment off to China only to have it blocked at the port on spurious grounds – weeds in the barley or high levels of metal in the lobsters.
And importers don’t want to risk buying Australian goods and so are turning to other markets.

On Tuesday following unofficial reports of bans in Chinese media share prices of copper-exposed Sandfire Resources, followed by Treasury Wine Estates, barely exporter United Malt Group, A2 Milk, Oz Minerals, Iluka Resources and IDP Education all fell sharply.

Australian exporters are hoping the multilateral approach to foreign affairs of incoming US President Joe Biden, rather than Trump’s go it alone method will help restore relations with China and reopen the export channels.

Dud directors not moving on

Imagine a job that paid close to three hundred thousand dollars, was only part-time and which you could hold onto, even if you weren’t carrying out your duties very well.

For most of us, it sounds too good to be true, but for Australian company directors, that’s the reality.

Australia’s directors are drawn from a tight-knit circle and when company boards are looking for a new member, they prefer to seek out someone who already sits on a company board, according to a report by Ownership Matters, a research firm advising investors how to vote in board elections.

The report, titled “Many are called, few are chosen”, looked at the records of directors of Australia’s 300 largest companies and found that while the number of women has increased, overall there is been little increase in diversity beyond the pool of existing directors.

The boards of the worst-performing companies refresh themselves “only marginally” more than the boards of the best-performing.

In other words, there is little punishment for those directors who do a poor job of stewarding their companies and the investors’ monies wrapped up in them.
“If a high-performance culture does not exist in the board, investors should ask how one can prosper within the company’s workforce?” the paper asks.

There’s a lot at stake from directors doing their job property. “The appointment of high-quality, diverse and suitably skilled directors is fundamental to good governance. As stewards of $1.7 trillion of capital, high performing boards of listed companies are an important driver of the long-term health of the Australian economy and the retirement incomes of Australian savers,” the report states.

Investors deserve more for their money. The average annual fee for a director of one of Australia’s largest 300 companies is A$294,000 ($297,000) – not too bad for a part-time role.

This is not to denigrate Australia’s company directors.

Many of them work very hard and don’t treat their jobs like part-time sinecures. And a large number also devote a lot of time and money working on the boards of not-for-profits or charities, or to teach up and coming directors the principles of good governance.

But those who aren’t performing aren’t held accountable.

The average tenure of boards for a director with only one board seat is 71 months, while those with two board seats serve for an average of 16 months – just shy of a decade.
In Australia, directors face re-election only once every three years, so investors don’t have much chance to remove underperformers.

Ownership Matters founder and CEO Dean Paatsch believes directors should face shareholders for re-election much more often.

“The analysis makes a compelling case for the annual election of all public company directors in Australia. This will stop the shielding of dud directors and tighten the renewal cycle in the event of continued company underperformance,” he says.

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