Hooke ready to hand over the tiller

The Minerals Council boss has steered the organisation through some rough waters, writes Peter Ker.
By · 7 Dec 2013
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7 Dec 2013
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The Minerals Council boss has steered the organisation through some rough waters, writes Peter Ker.

Mitchell Harry Hooke reckons he's more of a boatbuilder than a sailor.

"That's just me to a tee ... I love to build things, I love to create, I hate administration. To me that's like crutching sheep," he says, in reference to the removal of wool-bearing skin from around the anus of sheep.

A trawl through the financial records of the Minerals Council of Australia over Hooke's 12 years in charge shows a boat that has sailed on a fast-rising tide.

From annual revenues of just over $6 million in 2001, the council has taken in more than $30 million in each of the past three years, with last year's $35.47 million the biggest ever. The vast majority of that comes from members such as BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Anglo American and the many more who set up the Minerals Council to promote all aspects of the industry.

While some of that rise undoubtedly correlates with the industry's ability to pay more because of the mining boom, a significant chunk has been put under Hooke's saddle to help him fight the many policy battles that have emerged in recent years.

The council's accounts from 2010 - the year that Kevin Rudd tried to introduce the Resource Super Profits Tax (RSPT), which then became Julia Gillard's Mineral Resource Rent Tax - show that $15.78 million was spent on "advertising and promotions". A further $8.9 million and $12.75 million was spent on advertising and promotions in the following two years.

Not all of that $37 million over three years was spent fighting the mining and carbon taxes; much of it was spent on apolitical campaigns that sought to improve public perceptions of mining and the sort of lifestyles it creates.

One board member said the council was far happier in that space than in daily hand-to-hand conflict with the government.

Hooke agrees, saying the fact he had to spend those millions campaigning against the government was "the lowlight" of his time in charge. "What a disgrace that we were forced into that space. That's your last shot in the locker when you do that stuff," he said.

"Public policy moved into realms of public spin and we had to be in that space, you couldn't not be part of it. Having said that, it's to my regret that that has become a feature of public policy development."

Hooke will leave the council with several million dollars in a fund to fight future battles.

But financial growth is not the only way Hooke has built a bigger boat at the MCA.

His tenure saw the MCA launch an accumulation spree, with numerous organisations on the fringe of the mining sector absorbed into a single, more powerful entity.

"When I was appointed to the MCA, one of the things the gang of four (then Rio Tinto boss Barry Cusack, Sons of Gwalia boss Peter Lalor, Bob Kirkby from BHP and former WMC boss Hugh Morgan) said to me was they thought the time was right for rationalising and amalgamating the plethora of industry organisations," he said.

State-based organisations were centralised, while commodity specific groups like the Gold Council, the Coal Association and the Uranium Association were also absorbed, reducing the duplication for big companies while centralising power and resources.

"There was an awful lot of littler organisations too, there was an environmental foundation and a whole suite of these things," he said.

Barely a month after the RSPT was launched, the council quietly changed its constitution to allow oil and gas producers to join its ranks.

Hooke says the change was not designed to poach members from the council's oil and gas equivalent, APPEA, but rather was related to one or two small individual companies in the Northern Territory.

But given the council's accumulation drive, would it also try to bring APPEA into its ever-expanding orbit?

APPEA dragged in about $15 million in revenue in each of the past two years, and membership has been growing strongly as the resources boom shifts focus to export gas projects.

The controversy surrounding coal seam gas is also undoubtedly driving some of APPEA's growth, with companies happy to fund a counter-campaign. Hooke stresses he is not calling for a merger to happen, and nor was one under way during his time in office, but he agrees the concept has merit.

"If you were starting with a blank piece of paper, yes, I think you would have a Resources Council," he said.

"Having national policy platform and consistency on national policy is the holy grail.

"Do I think it's possible? Yeah."
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