gives some historical context to the ports chief's axing.
By John Mikkelsen
Gladstone Ports Corporation seems to be battling a sea of controversy including last week’s announcement that CEO Leo Zussino’s employment contract would end in August, against his wishes to remain at the helm.
The announcement by board chairman Mark Brodie, backed by Premier Campbell Newman, sent shock waves through the rapidly expanding industrial city. But many considered Mr Zussino was on borrowed time under the new LNP regime following the axing of former chairman Mr Ian Brusasco and several other board members including a former mayor and strong supporter, Peter Corones, last year.
Headlines involving the ports corporation did not end with Mr Zussino’s impending departure. Days later a national newspaper broke the news of a new federal investigation into claims it had breached environmental audit conditions surrounding the highly controversial Western Basin Dredging and Disposal project. This came hot on the heels of other media reports involving claims by an independent scientist that two varieties of seagrass in the inner harbour were in danger of becoming extinct, and local speculation over the make-up of a new science panel to monitor water quality in the harbour.
The biggest talking point however, has been Mr Zussino’s looming departure. Despite praise by both Mr Brodie and Mr Newman of his dedicated service to the GPC over 21 years, the first nine years as board chairman, then as CEO, he was told it was time for a change and the introduction of new blood.
But the truth is, his long time at the tiller guiding the GPC through a period of undeniably rapid growth in sometimes troubled waters, was almost brought to an early end when the machinations of politics first threatened his visionary plans .
Gladstone residents with long memories will recall the now little known fact that following the ousting of long term Labor premier Wayne Goss in 1996, the new coalition premier Rob Borbidge, attempted a customary political hatchet job on ports chiefs, including Mr Zussino. (Borbidge became premier in a hung parliament with the backing of Gladstone Independent, Liz Cunningham).
But the Nationals leader apparently backed off in the face of what he was convinced was a strong show of support for Mr Zussino from various community and local government figureheads. This even included the Catholic Parish Priest of the day a Fr John Begg, who went to bat for the Gladstone ports chairman publicly as well as within his Star of the Sea congregation.
Ironically, Mr Zussino held his job a lot longer than Mr Borbidge who was defeated just two years later by Peter Beattie.
Those decrying such political manoeuvrings then and now, could also be reminded that a former Gladstone Port Authority chairman, Graham Fenton had been unceremoniously and abruptly dumped from his position not long after Wayne Goss first came to power as Labor premier back in December 1989. He was replaced then by Mr Zussino, a strong Labor supporter. Later Zussino made the transition to CEO following the retirement of his former mentor and long serving chief executive, the late Reg Tanna.
And so the rudder turns, but on the surface now, there is no bitterness shown by either party. Mr Zussino has told media that he had offered to stay on to guide the next stages of Gladstone Harbour’s major growth. On one TV news bulletin he said he had no intention of “going off and growing roses” and would probably seek a position in private enterprise.
Mr Zussino has also said he had not been told there were political motivations behind the decision to drop him, and that he had always kept his political beliefs separate from his working life.
"It was decided that there was an issue in succession planning (for GPC) and a new CEO had to come in some time. I am devoted to the port. I would have been happy to stay. But there comes a time when there needs to be change and the chairman and the board decided that (this) is the time.
He said he had offered to complete the transition required to accommodate the 60mtpa of new trade resulting from the LNG industry, the Wiggins Island Coal Terminal and increased coal exports from existing terminals.
However, in the interest of leadership succession planning, it was decided that there was benefit in the new CEO being fully immersed in the significant transformation process to accommodate the expansion in an orderly manner.
Mr Brodie said Mr Zussino’s passion and determination towards his role was well known and he had placed the GPC in a strong position.
It plans to have an interim CEO in place by June so the new chief executive could work alongside Mr Zussino until the end of August to help ensure a smooth transition.
Mr Newman gave a similar tribute to Mr Zussino’s service at a media conference but when asked, “Was he pushed?”,he replied:
“His contract wasn’t renewed. That’s the point. I mean he hasn’t been, his contract was up for renewal and the Ports Corporation Board have chosen not to renew it”.
Meanwhile some major environmental groups have been scathing in their criticism. Save the Reef claimed that during Mr Zussino’s term as CEO “an environmental disaster” had unfolded in Gladstone Harbour.
“The World Heritage Area, dugong sanctuary and turtle haven was turned into a massive oil, gas and coal hub which had led to a UNESCO mission visit, following an expression of extreme concern about the LNG developments ,” according to spokesman Dr Andrew Jeremijenko.
Co-ordinator of Australians for Animals, Ms Sue Arnold said it was “ gratifying to know that Leo Zussino will not have his contract renewed”.
“Mr Zussino’s role as CEO of Gladstone Ports Corporation was summed up by Campbell Newman last year in a letter to me over a highly misleading press release disseminated by GPC.
“Premier Newman wrote: ‘The past attitude of GPC on environmental matters has been a source of alarm to my government."