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The corporate assassin

Date

Malcolm Turnbull calls him a "rich bully". But millionaire businessman Geoff Cousins is an eco-warrior with a difference. Greg Bearup reports

Geoff Cousins ... "Here is the Devil arrived in a silken cloak."

Geoff Cousins ... "Here is the Devil arrived in a silken cloak." Photo: Joe Wigdahl

Geoff Cousins is a ferocious consumer of words and in June 2007 he was tucked up in the loft of his Sydney house reading a long, angry article by the author Richard Flanagan in The Monthly. It was about the destruction of Tasmania's native forests and the takeover of the state by the timber company Gunns.

At the time, Gunns was a darling of the share market and by far the largest company in Tasmania. It owned great swathes of land and had interests in an array of businesses, from pubs and hardware stores to wineries and sawmills. Its chairman, John Gay, was the most powerful man on the island and enjoyed a cosy relationship with the premier, Paul Lennon - so cosy that a building company owned by Gunns was renovating Lennon's historic house.

I remember I was sitting in a car, about to go and have dinner with my family, and he was shouting down the phone, 'I am going to use raw political power to make you do what I want' 

It appeared inevitable that Gunns would get the approvals and finance to build the controversial billion-dollar pulp mill in the Tamar Valley in the state's north. For those who opposed the development, it seemed all hope was lost.

Outraged

Cousins was outraged by what he read. He spoke to his wife, author Darleen Bungey, and said, "You've gotta read this. I think I am going to do something about it. But I'll need your support because I will probably get into trouble." He's often in trouble of some sort. She read it and told him to go for it.

Cousins was familiar with Flanagan, having read his novels, but had never met him, so sought out an email address and sent a letter offering his services. "I have a deep love for the rainforests of Tasmania," he wrote.

"I'm not a religious person in the traditional sense, but they are truly beautiful places, holy places. Who am I and how might I help? I come from a business and semi-political background that on the face of it might seem to make me an unlikely fellow traveller. I've either run big businesses or been on boards all my life - from Optus to PBL to Telstra. And I was a consultant to prime minister John Howard for 10 years. Good grief, you say. Here is the Devil arrived in a silken cloak."

"We are all devils," Flanagan replied, "whatever coloured motley we display ourselves to the world in."

The two men met a few days later. Flanagan put Cousins in contact with the Greens leader, Bob Brown. They met for a cup of tea and Brown told Cousins they were having great difficultly making the pulp mill a national issue. "I think I can help," the old ad man told the senator.

Within a few months every Australian who owned a television knew about Gunns' plans for a pulp mill in Tasmania. Cousins had labelled the then opposition environment spokesman, Peter Garrett, "the shadow minister who doesn't cast a shadow". He purposely set out to provoke the environment minister, Malcolm Turnbull - "the minister against the environment". Turnbull took the bait, the line, the rod and a bucket of berley and angrily called Cousins "a rich bully". The issue played out in the media for weeks. "It was manna from heaven," Cousins says.

Pulped

He presented 20,000 signatures from ANZ customers to the bank's executives to persuade them not to fund the mill. He put pressure on the Gunns board that would eventually lead to the resignation of John Gay. Gay is now facing the prospect of up to five years in jail, should he be found guilty of insider trading charges. Shares in Gunns, which were worth $3.32 in 2007, have slumped to 16 cents.

The pulp mill, Richard Flanagan says, "is now as good as dead". Earlier this month, plans for a major investor to buy into Gunns fell through. The efforts of tens of thousands of people should be celebrated, he says, and it could not have happened without such widespread support. But, Flanagan insists, it's also true to say, "Geoff Cousins stopped the Gunns pulp mill."

And now, John Howard's old mate has turned his attention to the Kimberley in Western Australia and plans by Woodside to build a massive gas hub at James Price Point. "The biggest non-government industrial project in the history of Australia," Cousins says. "But we'll see."

Like a corporate hit man, he bumped off John Gay, whose reputation, as a result of the charges against him, lies somewhere at the bottom of the Derwent River, cast in cement boots. And now Cousins has his sights set on the don of corporate Australia, the big daddy of them all: Michael Chaney, chairman of Woodside Petroleum and National Australia Bank.

Cousins greets me at the door of his house in Wolseley Road, Point Piper - Sydney's most exclusive harbourside address. The 69-year-old is tanned and dressed in a crisp white linen shirt and boat shoes without socks. He possesses a beautiful, deep voice that's somehow cultured and ocker at the same time - as though he grew up in Broken Hill and was then sent to finishing school. His wife says when she first heard his voice at a party, on a ferry in Manhattan, it rang out through the night air "like crackling gum leaves".

He and Darleen bought this place in 2007 for $10 million and then spent millions more renovating it. Inside, a stylish wooden staircase winds its way up through the building. On a wall adjacent to the stairs is a vast display of Tracey Moffatt photographs. From the living area, through a quarter acre of glass, you peek over trees and bobbing yachts and Shark Island appears as if in the next room.

Cousins leads me downstairs to his office. It looks out to the garden and at one end there is an enormous shelf with thousands of books. At the other, behind his desk, hangs a bold Arthur Boyd.

We sit down at a coffee table and pick our way through aspects of his privileged life: a happy childhood, school at Sydney's exclusive Shore, the University of Sydney, an executive at 23, his marriage to a model, his "retirement" from advertising agency George Patterson at 49 with a fortune, stoushes with Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch, his years advising John Howard, charity work, the importance of ethics in business, a couple of lovely kids, a house in Sydney's north at Whale Beach and another in the city, a farm at Bowral in the NSW southern highlands, a fabulous art and sculpture collection. Geoff Cousins had it all.

Blessed

"I remember Gayle [his first wife] and I would sit down at dinner and say to each other how blessed we were," he tells me. "We never seemed to have any problems. Nothing ever went wrong in our lives." But within the space of a few years both his parents would die, his wife would be diagnosed with cancer and die, his daughter and her family would be involved in a horrific car accident and Cousins himself would be diagnosed with bowel cancer.

In the mid-'90s, Cousins was the ceo of Optus Vision. He had just come through a bitter fight with News Limited over the control of television rights for top-flight rugby league. Rupert Murdoch, he said, had come "like a thief in the night to steal the people's game". Ken Arthurson, the Australian Rugby League chairman, said at the time: "If you were in the ditch at Gallipoli, Geoffrey Cousins is the man you would want beside you." But he quit all this to care full-time for Gayle during the last four years of her life.

"Mum and Dad had such a beautiful, loving relationship," Cousins's daughter, Sarah Fielke, tells me. "It was embarrassing when we were kids as we'd find them kissing in the pantry." They were a very close family and Cousins was known to get up in the middle of important business meetings and say, "Sorry, I've got to read to the kids before they go to sleep."

Always winning

Her father, she says, was used to fixing problems, to getting his own way, to always winning. But the one thing he wanted most in life, to save his wife, he had no control over. He watched helplessly as the cancer slowly overcame her. He took her in a wheelchair to see Cathy Freeman win gold at the Sydney Olympics and then he wheeled her home to their farm at Bowral to die.

"Dad was lost without her," Fielke tells me. "He just locked himself away on the farm and wouldn't see anyone and wouldn't come back to Sydney. He'd go for walks with his dog, Blackie, for hours and hours. I would have to go down there and make sure he had food in the fridge and to help him pay the bills and do his tax. He was in a very dark place for a very long time."

The darkness continued for two years until, one afternoon, he went for a walk with Blackie at Whale Beach and chanced upon an old family friend, Darleen Bungey - the sister of novelist Geraldine Brooks. Bungey had recently returned to Australia from London to lick her wounds after divorcing her husband of 27 years, advertising executive Michael Bungey. Both Darleen and Geoff had thought they were destined for a life of solitude. "We were two pretty sad people who were old friends," Bungey says. "I remember thinking before we got together, 'I hope that if he meets someone she'll allow us to still be friends.' "

The children were thrilled when he told them of the relationship. "Dad was just so sad," says Fielke. "Then he met Darleen and he wasn't."

'She saved my life'

When I ask Cousins what the relationship with Bungey meant to him, he pauses, holding back his emotions, and finally says: "She saved my life ... I don't think I was much good being on my own."

"It's almost as if he's had two lives," his daughter says. "He had his life with Mum, then he started a new life with Darleen." Not long after it began, he had to deal with his daughter's car accident and his own diagnosis with cancer, which he overcame with treatment.

"I have a sense that these events led him to another place," says Richard Flanagan, who's become a friend, "that he wanted to do more with his life." He watched Cousins marching in Hobart one day at a protest. He was at the front of a rally of 10,000 to 15,000 people, chanting to stop the mill. "I got the sense that he felt he was part of something much larger, something greater than himself."

Fielke agrees. "He's always been someone who has strived to do the right thing and has always had a love of nature, but I get the sense that with the latter part of his life he really wants to do something that is worthwhile, something that is meaningful and lasting."

Cousins's son, David, says his father would always emphasise to "not ever waste the opportunities of privilege".

Cousins says there was no conscious decision to steer his life towards environmental issues - it just sort of happened. "I'm not that kind of person, you know; the river runs along, takes bends, and you run with it to some degree. I'm not somebody who's ever had a great plan in life."

His river has flowed to a place where Cousins now spends much of his time trying to save some of the last great remaining wilderness areas from "rampant capitalist greed".

Cousins is an unusual businessman, says Alex Hamil, who worked with him for decades at George Patterson. "He is absolutely ruthless and truly believes that he should be number one in everything, but at the same time he is fair, and ethical considerations underpin everything he does. Many businessmen of his ilk are not like that."

Super tough

The media buyer Harold Mitchell says that when he first started his company - which was a threat to a monopoly enjoyed by advertising agencies at that time - Cousins did everything he could to run him out of business. "But he was never unethical," says Mitchell, "just super tough. Unbelievably competitive."

Hamil tells me a story from the mid-'80s. The executives at the agency knew there had been a takeover bid from the international agency Saatchi & Saatchi. Cousins, Hamil says, was entitled to a large parcel of shares from which he stood to make a fortune.

"It was a lot of money and Geoff felt very uncomfortable about it." Cousins offered a large percentage of his own shares to staff and anyone in the company who wanted some was able to take them up. "Geoffrey knew he was giving them a huge windfall at his own expense," Hamil says.

Ethics and taking a stand are things that have long concerned him. He was the first businessman of note to speak out against Pauline Hanson. Not long after her maiden speech in 1996, he told a breakfast gathering that her views were "evil and we need to attack them" and that her "ignorance of the facts" about Aboriginal mortality was "frightening and sobering". He spoke of the great contribution that Asian immigrants had made to Australia.

Quit board

In 1997 he quit the board of Hudson Conway over "corporate governance concerns" surrounding the management of Crown Casino. He put himself offside with some of Australia's most powerful businessmen, including the Packers. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission later cleared the company of any wrongdoing, but Cousins still claims he did the right thing and that he took an important ethical stand. He is unable, he says, to reveal the details.

"It very, very seriously affected me," he says. "Even to this day, some of those people will try to interfere with my life in any way that they can." He won't go into specifics, but says certain people have stopped him getting jobs and doing "other things" he would liked to have done. "They are very, very consistent and persistent," he tells me.

Not everyone who has had dealings with Geoff Cousins sees him as tough but fair. One senior Telstra figure, who was regularly present in the Telstra boardroom, tells me: "I would count my fingers every time I shook hands with him ... he chooses his time very carefully to then misbehave for maximum effect."

'Extraordinary exercise in bullying'

Malcolm Turnbull agrees. "It was really an extraordinary exercise in bullying," says Turnbull of his bruising encounter with Cousins. "I remember I was sitting in a car, about to go and have dinner with my family, and he was shouting down the phone, 'I am going to use raw political power to make you do what I want.'

"A person of decency and courtesy would have sat down with me or John Howard - and he's supposed to be one of Howard's great friends! - and we would have had some civil interaction, but he just went ballistic from the jump."

This seems to be one of the main concerns the rich and powerful have with Cousins - that he is not prepared to play by the accepted rules. That he tells tales outside the club. For this he's had invitations withdrawn, he's lost friendships and he's had job offers scuttled. His daughter tells me - though Cousins denies it - that he even had his membership to the local sailing club blocked for many years. "If you take an ethical stand," Cousins says, "it always comes with consequences."

In 2009 he gave the Vincent Fairfax Oration in Sydney, where he spoke of the need for ethics in business. He quoted the American social worker Jane Addams, who said, "Action indeed is the sole medium of expression for ethics." In his opinion, to say nothing is to act unethically.

Some of this has hurt him, but you get the feeling that he loves the fight and is often amused by the reaction. During his campaign against Gunns, a wealthy woman from Sydney's eastern suburbs approached Bungey. "She said, 'The very least he should have done was to tell us!' Like, you know, I am a traitor to my class and I should have informed her of this beforehand."

But, occasionally, it does have its rewards. Not long after he spoke out against Hanson, the then deputy lord mayor of Sydney, Henry Tsang, invited him to Town Hall for a cup of coffee. When he arrived he was ushered into a great hall where there were two chairs and a group of people on the stage. He was invited to sit in one of the chairs. A young woman addressed him: "Mr Cousins, we are the choir from Guandong province in China and we will sing for you because you have defended us."

Most moving experience

Cousins says it was one of the most moving experiences of his life. At the end he turned to Henry Tsang and thanked him, but said it was out of proportion for the one speech he delivered about Hanson. "That's right," Tsang replied. "That's all you did, but it was one speech more than anyone else."

His stance on Hanson, curiously, led him to work for John Howard. He first met Howard when he worked on the Liberal Party's 1990 federal election campaign, led by Andrew Peacock. Not long after his public comments about Hanson he got a phone call from Howard, asking if he would be an adviser.

He told Howard there were probably many issues on which they would disagree. "I've got plenty of people around me who'll agree with everything I say," Howard replied. "It would be good to have a few who'll tell me things I don't want to hear."

And so for the next 10 years the pair would talk regularly, mainly over the phone, about Howard's policies and his public perception. Neither man will reveal exactly what they spoke of, but Howard tells me, "He would always give me direct and uncomplicated advice, which is what I wanted. I always enjoyed talking to him."

"I think he's a very impressive politician and a fine man," Cousins says. "I didn't like most of his social policies and I think he was just too narrow. But I didn't see that as any impediment to acting as a consultant for him. Indeed, I thought it was a great honour to be asked."

When I ask Howard about Cousins's environmental crusades, he says, flatly, "That's a matter for Geoffrey. I am not going to get into that."

Cousins was no longer advising Howard at the time of the 2007 federal election, when he was campaigning hard against Turnbull in the seat of Wentworth, but the prime minister phoned him. "Howard is a much more intelligent and disciplined politician than Malcolm Turnbull could ever be," Cousins says. "He asked me if I was against all pulp mills, or just this pulp mill. I told him it was this particular mill and outlined the reasons." Howard listened, thanked him and accepted that was his position. He didn't ask him to back off Turnbull.

Howard and Cousins don't see much of each other these days, but both say when they do it is always on friendly terms. In 2003, the prominent kimberley pastoralist Susan Bradley got a phone call from her old friend Geoff Cousins. "Geoffrey said he'd met this wonderful new woman and he wanted to show her the most beautiful part of Australia," Bradley says. "So I organised a little trip."

Cousins and Bungey camped in remote coastal locations, visited some of the world's great rock-art galleries and saw the appalling living conditions of Aboriginal people at Kalumburu, Western Australia's most northerly settlement. "Geoffrey has always had a great love of the Kimberley," Bradley says, "and Darleen fell in love with it, too."

Cause

It wasn't difficult for Bradley, and others, to rope Cousins into their cause when Woodside came knocking, wanting to build a massive gas-processing plant at James Price Point, north of Broome.

He's now an important player. "Geoff brings a gravitas to these causes," says Bob Brown. "He's a man from the Big End of Town and the players - the media, the politicians, the corporations - can't ignore him."

And he's fearless. "With the pulp mill he walked straight on to the battlefield," Brown says, "and the bullets were flying in all directions. He strode right into the middle and said, 'I am on their side.' We are seeing a repeat performance of that in the Kimberley. He is extraordinarily brave."

Cousins insists he is not opposed to Woodside and its partners extracting gas from Browse Basin off the coast north of Broome - he just has a problem with it being processed in what he says is one of the world's last great wilderness areas. His preference is for the gas to be piped to the Pilbara, an area already ravaged by mining, or processed offshore - as Shell is doing.

"This part of the Kimberley is an amazing area, the last remaining pristine savannah region left on earth, and you have a company wanting to build the largest non-government industrial project ever built in Australia."

What Cousins brings to the fight is his knowledge of the corporate world and his access to the key players. In October 2010 he met the Woodside chairman, Michael Chaney, and the company's then-CEO, Don Voelte, at an office in Sydney.

According to Cousins, Voelte began the meeting by speaking at length about all the benefits that will flow to the Aboriginal people of the area. For a long time, Chaney didn't speak. Finally, claims Cousins, Chaney told him: "You are acting unethically. You are trying to deny the Aborigines in the Kimberley the benefits we will bring to them. We will improve educational standards. We will bring health care. And by opposing this you are denying them these things." (At the time of writing, a spokeswoman for Woodside, Laura Lunt, said Chaney was travelling and unavailable for comment on Cousins's claims.)

Livid

Chaney's statement made Geoff Cousins livid. "It is absolutely outrageous," he says to me. "Why should the Aboriginal people of the Kimberley not have the same health and education facilities as the rest of us? Why should it be tied to the building of this monstrosity on their land?"

Cousins says the West Australian Premier, Colin Barnett, made a similar statement - that unless the gas hub was built at James Price Point, the benefits would not flow to the Aboriginal people there. But, he argues, they have no problem spending royalties from other regions on new hospitals in Perth. "Can you imagine the outrage if this was said about a white community - that they'd be denied schooling or health services if they opposed a chemical plant in the neighbourhood?"

Cousins did some digging. If Chaney was correct, he reasoned, the health and educational outcomes for Aborigines in areas where Woodside had been operating for many years would be vastly improved. "Sadly, yet unsurprisingly, that is not the case," Cousins says. "In Karratha, the home of Woodside for decades, the health and employment outcomes for Aboriginal people are appalling." Chaney and Voelte, he says, are nothing more than well-dressed "snake-oil salesmen".

He tells me the campaign is gaining momentum and that some of Woodside's partners are now questioning the validity of the James Price Point site. "J. P. Morgan, not exactly a green organi-sation, published a report saying there were other viable sites," he says. "Merrill Lynch did as well. Shell is processing offshore."

Cousins says every report that is now published about the proposal refers to the "environmental issues" and "extreme activism". "That never happened before," he says, smiling.

"A lot of people would regard Michael Chaney as the doyen of Australian corporate life," Cousins says. "I regard him as somebody who is the chairman of Woodside and is seeking to do the wrong thing with this particular project."

Will you try to bump him off, in the same way you went after John Gay of Gunns?

"Absolutely. The history of corporate life these days is that if you disregard the interests of the local community and the environment and you proceed with hubris and sophistry your career tends to go away quite quickly."

Geoff Cousins has taken on the contract. Can he deliver the hit?

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8 comments

  • Thank god we have somebody like Geoff Cousins in this country.I watched with interest the way he handled the Gunns fiasco.I remember Colin Barnett making that staement re the Aboriginal people of the area and thinking"why don't they have access to facilities". Barnett seems to think that the wealth of commodities in Australia belong to the state alone, you only have to listen to his comments on the mining tax. Good on you Geoff Cousins. Give 'em hell!!

    Commenter
    PeterM
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    March 26, 2012, 5:23PM
    • What a good bloke. I wish more powerful, rich people had brains and a conscience, the world would be a better place for it.

      Commenter
      Janipun
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 26, 2012, 6:39PM
      • A grand outcome for the environmentalists - no comment regarding the impact on emplyment figures for Tasmania???

        Commenter
        Oblongpie
        Location
        Buderim
        Date and time
        March 26, 2012, 7:38PM
        • Geoff Cousins Vs Michael Chaney ? My money is on Geoff...This insanity must stop and Geoff is the warrior to do it...He won't accept bribes, is passionate about our environment & he has the intelligence & clout to facilitate his arguments & impede the progress of this abomination. He is the man to help bring this to the attention of the 'power brokers' and the Australian public. Kudos Geoff...You have restored my faith...That someone of your stature and high moral values CARES, goes such a long way to buoy the spirits of the disenfranchised who feel so powerless. Never let the bastards rest. Hands off country Woodside...Frack off

          Commenter
          GoFish
          Date and time
          March 26, 2012, 8:02PM
          • The boardrooms of this country are all care no responsibility. It is nice to see someone who is upstanding enough to buck the trend.

            While we have men in suits declaring their only loyalty is to the shareholder and couple that with 4% annual growth targets across the economy we will have ecology as the loser in the game. Until we have triple bottom line accounting that is.

            Who is the bright spark from the big end of town that will carry the torch for that one?

            Commenter
            Andrew
            Location
            Epping
            Date and time
            March 26, 2012, 10:01PM
            • Very Inspiring. Can we clone this guy?
              Sounds like he'd make a way better PM than any of the trash the major parties have got on offer.
              Geoff Cousins for PM?

              Commenter
              vote with $$$ in the new democracy
              Date and time
              March 28, 2012, 6:23PM
              • Having previously not heard of Geoff Cousins, I followed the way he conducted his campaign against Gunns, and thought at the time here is the type of leadership Australia needs. When James Price Point surfaced, Cousins' name came to mind. A good outcome for the environment and the uptake of this resource can be achieved with the help of the corporate nous and ethical stance of this man. Then he should take a look at knocking our political leaders into his ethical orbit for the sake of the future of this country... ironically, Cousins and Turnbull could be an awesome force for good working together for Australia, if they could constructively harness their egos. Imagine! What a legacy!

                Commenter
                Cass
                Location
                Australia
                Date and time
                March 29, 2012, 1:45AM
                • Cousins has an impressive resume, especially his activism. But what I most liked about him is his voice, classic rugged aussie drawl, and how he handles himself in interviews - and I am not gay.

                  Commenter
                  bozo
                  Location
                  MELB
                  Date and time
                  March 29, 2012, 1:55AM
                  Comments are now closed
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