Fortescue Metals Group chairman Andrew Forrest appears increasingly isolated in his campaign for a parliamentary inquiry into the iron ore market, with even West Australian Premier Colin Barnett, an outspoken critic of BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, rejecting the proposal.
In a major blow to the billionaire, Tony Abbott yesterday backed away from his previous support for an inquiry to investigate allegations that the Fortescue Metals Group chairman’s main rivals, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, have driven down the iron ore price and tried to push smaller players out of business by threatening to flood the market with iron ore.
Mr Forrest last night hit out at the major miners’ efforts to derail the inquiry push. “You’d have to say the reaction from BHP and Rio to an inquiry is nothing short of hysterical,” Mr Forrest told The Australian.
“I’ve never seen two sensible, conservative companies work so hard to be less transparent.” The Prime Minister distanced himself from the inquiry calls, four days after he warned of “predator behaviour” that needed examining. Mr Abbott said the government hadn’t made any decision on the inquiry, which had met resistance from Resources Minister Ian Macfarlane and Trade Minister Andrew Robb.
“The last thing we would want is a one-sided inquiry which degenerates into a witch hunt against some of our best companies,” Mr Abbott said. “And the last thing this government would ever want to do is interfere with a free market like the iron ore market.”
Mr Forrest’s push also lacks the backing of Mr Barnett and the state’s resources industry lobby group, of which Fortescue is a key member. Mr Barnett revealed Joe Hockey had telephoned him last week about the prospect of an inquiry into the iron ore industry. The Premier told the federal Treasurer he “didn’t think it was a good idea”.
Mr Barnett said evidence of anti-competitive activity should be examined by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission rather than federal parliament. “I’ve said right from the outset that I believe the approach taken by the big iron ore miners … was a flawed business strategy — I still believe that — but I equally have said that I don’t think any good can come out of a federal parliamentary inquiry,” Mr Barnett said yesterday.
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