Article Categories: Portfolio Media Releases, Personal
Topics: Andrew Robb’s career in agriculture and business.
Andrew Robb, he’s on the phone. G’day mate.
G’day Michael, how are you?
Not bad. You grew up on a farm.
I did – a dairy farm. It was, well dairying has always been a bit tough I think. It was an interesting time. I got very interested in agriculture at the time and I think if I had the money, I would’ve been a farmer at some stage.
Well you’ve got eight brothers and sisters, haven’t you?
That’s right. That’s what made it probably more difficult.
Who inherited the farm? Or did your family sell it?
No, well what happened I think, when we got to about number seven and my parents were very keen on education and we only had a small dairy farm, I think they could see they weren’t going to make enough from that. So we sold that up and went to the suburbs in Melbourne.
My father worked in a factory, twelve hour night shifts one week and twelve day shifts the next, for the next fifteen years. But they put all their kids through education and I think all nine have got a tertiary qualification.
Well what are yours? What are your tertiary quals mate?
I did a diploma of agricultural science to start with and then worked as a stock inspector. And then I did economics at night and ended up with a first class honours degree in economics.
From La Trobe in Melbourne.
From La Trobe yes.
And the agriculture from Dookie.
Dookie Agricultural College, that’s right.
How good’s that!?
How good’s that? Dookie, it’s a lovely little spot.
It was the best… it was great… I can’t say the best three years of my life because my wife gets a bit uptight about it! It was a great three years. I was brought up with the nuns and brothers, you know, we’d had a sort of strict Catholic.
And here I was 17, you know, a few hours away from home, with 120 guys, near Shepparton, a fairly big city. It was, you know, you learnt to take responsibility for your own life there.
You’re a man of the world, Andrew Robb.
Hmm. I don’t know about that! I worked as a waiter there three nights a week in Shepparton, and that was an insight too, to a lot of peoples, I’ve got to say.
You went on though, you worked for the Department of Agriculture, and then you were an economist for the National Farmers Federation, and then you became the Executive Director of the Cattle Council, and then Executive Director later on of the National Farmers Federation.
That’s right. Well actually with the Cattle Council, I spent a lot of time in Queensland and across the north, the Kimberley, because I knew, I’d been a stock inspector for the first stage of my life, and it had a lot to do with cattle, and I worked a lot on farms on holidays when I was a kid, so I knew the southern industry very well.
But it’s chalk and cheese. I mean, it’s like two different cattle industries really. You get up there with the Brahmans and you get above Rocky, it’s a different world. So if I was going to represent Australian cattlemen, I had to know the north. So I spent a fantastic time up there, I really got to, you know, it’s mystical, some of that country.
It was great. But I really learnt about properties that are 100 square miles and all the rest of it. It’s a bit different.
The purpose of me having a yarn is to let our listeners know about Andrew Robb, the bloke, because I have been most impressed in reading about your economic credentials. You went on then, and you worked for a while for Packer, for Publishing and Broadcasting Limited.
Yeah, I ran the National Farmers Federation, and we were involved. That was in the ’80s when we had all the big Mudginberri, a lot of big industrial dispute. The Mudginberri Abattoir and the wide combs’ dispute. That was a time when all the heavily regulated part of Australia was all changing.
The world was going global and you just had to have a lot more flexibility in every market, if you like. And we got especially involved in industrial areas because the 80s was when the unions were running amok and we went in at the Mudginberri Abattoir in the Northern Territory and fought to get the opportunity for the owner to negotiate with the abattoir workers.
That was a big battle. Then the wide combs’ dispute, when they were trying to stop a wider shearing comb being used.
I remember that. How were Hawke and Keating to deal with?
Well a lot of that, in both those disputes, Hawke, because he was the former ACTU Secretary and all the rest, he took the role and he just couldn’t come to grips with the fact that we weren’t going to sit down and find some middle ground.
Ian McLachlan, you might recall, was the President, and I was the Executive Director. Ian would stick the jaw out, as tough as old boots, and uncompromising, because it wasn’t a question of compromise.
They were the highest paid meat workers in the country, they wanted to be able to you know work above the tally, kill more in a day, and get out of the Northern Territory. Kakadu, they were working, killing buffalo, and they wanted to get home to Queensland, to get an extra month, so they wanted to work seven days, if they could and do all the rest.
I tell you what, Andrew, let’s move on because those disputes resolved. You worked for Packer. You set up your own…
I worked with Kerry and James, yeah.
…your own direct marketing company, had that?
Yeah, I did a joint venture with a big US company for data and data technology, and I got to do the start up in Australia, and it is Australia wide now ....
And then you went on, you got involved with Chevron, is that right?
Yes, I started then, I wanted to, my objective then when I had finished running campaigns for the Liberal Party for a few years in between, I wanted to go get some more commercial experience and to make a bit of money to be honest.
So I went off and worked with the Packers and they had this big company which I stayed on as Chairman of, and then I started to give strategic and other advice to lots of companies, did a lot of deals into Asia, with miners, with entertainment companies, and others.
And then I, during some of that time, I had two years as part of the investment team with Chevron, looking at that big Gorgon gas field.
So you were involved with this development in Western Australia, off-shore Western Australia.
Yes, that’s right, the huge Gorgon gas field. Two years on the investment team. And it’s become highly relevant given the great big new tax on mining which is…
Well, let’s keep the politics out of it if we can.
Yes, that’s fine.
I know it’s a highly charged term, the great big new tax.
I feel very personal about it really because it I just think it’s doing, I’ll keep the politics out of it.
Righto mate. Good on you. In Chevron, Chevron’s much like Rio Tinto or BHP or Xstrata or these companies. You’ve got global teams, and they go around and they look at investments all around the place. Where does your biggest competition come from?
Well the biggest competition ironically was in the Chevron company itself. What I hadn’t realised but got to learn very acutely was that Chevron had, we were part of an investment team trying to see whether that project was going to be economic or not and whether it was a good investment to go ahead with billions of dollars of to develop it.
But I found that they had another 25 or maybe 30 investment teams around the world in Africa and South America and North America and Asia and Eastern Europe, all looking, most of them looking at other huge gas fields and the competition was absolutely intense, you know, if you didn’t get 15 per cent return on investment and then a whole lot of other things, you weren’t even in the race.
It was a real eye opener to me, because it told me that these big companies, I mean they’ve got options. If you make a venture here uneconomic in Australia they’ve got all these other options they can go to. We think we’re awash with gas and we are but we’ve only got 2 per cent of the world’s gas reserves, the world is awash with gas. So it’s very competitive, very competitive …
And BHP… Rio, BHP, Xstrata, companies like that would be the same; many, many teams.
Well I did some work with BHP, I did work with Shell, I did work with Rio Tinto, different projects. I did work with some second tier miners. One there in Queensland, Pan Australian, great little company, which has been developing in Laos, they’ve now got a big gold and copper mine in Laos and just killing it. But to see, you know I saw the big boys and I saw the little fellows, and saw the problems of raising finance especially for the smaller ones.
And you know how, again getting back to this tax, without being political, one of the big problems for the mid tier miners, is that they depend critically on overseas finance, and they’re not financed internally, like some of the bigger companies. So anything which worries the investors overseas about investing in Australia it can choke off that finance, you know, in a minute.
Like it’s done with Xstrata.
Well Xstrata’s you know, it’s a bigger company but like [inaudible]. At the moment because of the world financial crisis, you’ve got governments around the world with billions of dollars of debt, they’re out in the market trying to borrow for that debt.
So there’s no much left for businesses. So you’ve got to really look very attractive, especially as little old Australia, you know we’re down the bottom end, when it comes to finance, we’re down the list a bit.
Andrew, I wanted my listeners to hear about your story and about your background, because in the next couple of weeks we’re going to have a lot of a chats in trying to make informed judgements about the reality of this tax.
I’m indebted to you for giving us some time, so much time this afternoon, and it’s good of you to lay your credentials out. Thanks very much Andrew.
I appreciate the opportunity, thanks Michael.
Not at all. Andrew Robb, he’s the Shadow Minister for Finance and Debt Reduction; pretty impressive CV, quiet achiever sort of bloke in my assessment. Good fella too.
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