Rio board closing in on JS Jacques

Rio has spent a month provoking the world’s escalating abhorrence with iterative, disingenuous, pedantic and qualified apologies (reports The Australian Financial Review).
26th June 2020
Resources Rising Stars

Rio has spent a month provoking the world’s escalating abhorrence with iterative, disingenuous, pedantic and qualified apologies (reports The Australian Financial Review).

Nearly a month since Rio Tinto detonated the Juukan Gorge caves over the protests of their traditional owners, the mining giant’s chairman, Simon Thompson, nailed his apology on the first attempt. “On behalf of the Rio Tinto board, I would like to apologise to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people,” Thompson said on Friday.

Rio Tinto’s management team spent the preceding four weeks provoking the world’s escalating abhorrence with iterative, disingenuous, pedantic and qualified apologies – offered mostly in the stark absence of Rio’s suddenly invisible chief executive, Jean-Sébastien Jacques.

“We are sorry for the distress we have caused,” iron ore boss Chris Salisbury first said, carefully. “We are sorry the recently expressed concerns of the PKKP did not arise through the engagements that have taken place over many years.”

The PKKP then made available a 2015 documentary (funded by Rio!) in which local elders expressly stated their staunch opposition to mining of the Juukan Caves, proving that the PKKP’s concerns were not “recently expressed” and that they had, indeed, arisen. Rio never even paused to correct these egregious falsehoods.

Then asked by a concerned Rio employee in an internal meeting on June 10 why the company had issued “an apology for the distress caused, not for doing the wrong thing”, Salisbury confirmed that “we haven't apologised for the event itself, per se, but apologised for the distress the event caused”.

After those remarks were revealed in this newspaper on June 15, Rio issued a new statement saying Rio “unreservedly apologises for what happened at Juukan Gorge”.

Jacques himself did not utter a word for nearly three weeks, until June 12, by which time hundreds of protesters had descended on Rio’s Perth offices and Reconciliation Australia had suspended the company from its programs. He’s been sitting in Sydney this whole time and still hasn’t fronted a camera or a microphone. It’s inconceivable.

The Financial Times reported on Monday that a number of Rio Tinto’s major shareholders have expressed their “serious cultural and leadership concerns” to the chairman, including over Jacques’ bizarre truancy. Since Thompson began conducting his emergency rounds of City institutions, rumours have been rife that he’s preparing to move on his eccentric chief executive.

Rio’s board finally stepped in on Friday, launching its review of the incident. Interestingly, it is being led by Michael L’Estrange, not the chair of the board’s sustainability committee Megan Clark. Rio’s only other Australia-based director, Simon McKeon, is meanwhile waxing lyrical on the fate of a stupid chairlift.

With the chairman absorbing investor disaffection and the board now actively scrutinising the management team’s surreal conduct, the future hardly looks rosy for Jacques, Salisbury or corporate relations head Simone Niven. Rio desperately needs a circuit breaker, and well before L’Estrange’s final report is due in October.

If they possess the requisite self-awareness (and that is highly disputable), Jacques and Niven may now be doubting the wisdom of humiliating their chairman last month by distancing Rio from his public statement on climate change action.

The pair were casually disparaging Thompson’s position on a carbon price and fossil fuel subsidies to Rio’s Australian stakeholders in the days following the AGM on May 7. Not the most prudent course of action if 2½ weeks later you’re going to decimate the company’s global reputation, then promptly go into hiding.

Outlandishly, Jacques carries on as if his chairman’s an underling. He may be about to learn an elementary – but memorable – lesson in hierarchy.

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