Sam Walsh took on the reins as chairman of the Australia Council on July 1, the same week that his former employee, Stern Hu, was released from a Chinese jail after serving nine years for stealing commercial secrets and receiving bribes when he was a chief iron ore negotiator based in Shanghai for Rio Tinto during the mining boom.
Stern was quickly fired by Rio and according to the ABC, the company “conducted an internal audit but did not find any wrongdoing by the company itself”.
And, as has been pointed out to Daily Review, as the company’s CEO during this period, Sam Walsh “has not been accused of anything, no allegations have been levelled against him, nor has he been charged with anything (regarding the events referred to)”.
Sam Walsh was announced as the chair of the Australia Council in April by the Federal Arts Minister Senator Mitch Fifield citing his involvement in “arts, charity and business organisations in Australia and the UK for many years”. (Walsh joined the Australia Council as a board member in 2016 and is now chair of the Art Gallery of WA and has been a chair of Black Swan State Theatre in Perth, the WA Chamber of Arts and Culture, and the chair of the Australian Business Arts Foundation.)
Walsh’s appointment as the 13th OzCo chair in its 50 year of existence is not surprising. For many years, the unpaid role had gone to people who were described as “public intellectuals”. Their number included Nugget Coombs, Geoffrey Blainey, Rodney Hall, Donald Horne, Hilary McPhee and Margaret Seares.
In the 2000s that changed when businessman Terry Cutler (who resigned after a few months) was replaced by another businessman, David Gonski. Their appointments reflected a more political approach to the government appointment – or the fact that there were either no public intellectuals left, or those that were would take on the increasingly politicised environment in which arts funding was no longer a given.
However, the most recent chair was philanthropist Rupert Myer who served two, esteemed three-year terms overseeing major internal inquiries and enduring the government’s attack on the funding body via the bumptious interventions of previous arts minister George Brandis. That attempt to cripple OzCo’s autonomy was the most significant crisis in its history.
How Walsh would deal with an episode such as a Brandis-led LNP attack is an unknown, as are his plans, if any, for changing the organisation.
In any case, it’s worth reading about Rio Tinto during Walsh’s time. He joined the company in 1991 and was chief executive of its Iron Ore group from 2004 to 2013 when he was then promoted to CEO until his resignation in 2016.