For super funds and their advisers

Funds and WIS flex their muscles over indigenous rights

Mark Delaney

Rio Tinto, a global resources company which has both an Australian lineage and an Australian supply base, has started a war, perhaps unintentionally, with big super funds and a large proportion of the broader community following the company’s destruction of an ancient Aboriginal heritage site – the oldest known in Australia, dating back about 46,000 years – in Western Australia. They blew it up. Mark Delaney, of AustralianSuper, said: “It was the wrong thing to do”.

Women in Super has endorsed the recent movement by the ‘First Nations Foundation’ to enhance the goal for people of aboriginal origin to retire with dignity, especially indigenous women who have been disadvantaged by the Australian super system. That’s pretty much all indigenous women and a majority of women of all races, even whites. The various moves by big super funds, such as those which support WIS, have been fired up by Rio Tinto’s desecration in the Pilbara.

Of indigenous women’s positions generally, Women in Super (WIS), an influential organisation established by the late Mavis Robertson, which last week held its annual ‘Summit’ in a virtual event, said recently: “The gap between men and women’s super balances at retirement is large, but for indigenous people, it’s even greater.”

WIS endorsed the educational site which was made by indigenous people for indigenous people. It aims to improve retirement dignity for members of the community who have been disadvantaged by the super system. “A fantastic resource – well done First Nations Foundation!”, WIS said in a prepared statement. The “yawning gap” in terms of access to super, according to stats provided to WIS, are presented here:

Even before the Pilbara destruction, Rio Tinto was under the gun from super funds over its poor governance. The ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ reported in April 2018 that: “Super funds Cbus, VicSuper and Hesta have thrown their support behind a call for more transparency from Rio Tinto about its business lobby group memberships, saying they will vote in favour of a resolution on the issue at the mining giant’s AGM in Melbourne … Advisory firm Regnan, which guides institutional investors on responsible investment and ESG issues, is also understood to have recommended in favour of the shareholder motion, which asks Rio Tinto to review and reveal details about its membership of the Minerals Council of Australia and other groups that advocate on climate change and energy issues. VicSuper said the resolution – lodged by industry fund Local Government Super, the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility and two other institutions – was “important”.”

More recently, Australian Super said, this June, said that it had put Rio Tinto “on notice” over the destruction of the heritage site – through an exploration blast which was, apparently, not illegal – but was reviewing whether it would withdraw all its money from the mining company. Mark Delaney, Aussie Super CIO, was reported in ‘New Daily’ as saying that the action was “the wrong thing to do”. Under a quirk in WA State laws, it was apparently not illegal, notwithstanding the site’s “protection”. Delaney said Aussie Super had had discussions with Rio Tinto to express its views.

But just last week, on August 25, Aussie Super met with Rio Tinto to seek tougher penalties for the blasting of the ancient Juukan Gorge rock shelters, saying the bonus cuts announced earlier this week fall significantly short of appropriate accountability. Ian Silk, chief executive, Aussie Super’s chief executive, is quoted as saying the fund had made its view clear to Rio chairman, Simon Thompson, that the proposed penalties were an inadequate punishment for destruction of the two 46,000-year-old rock shelters, considered to be among the most significant cultural heritage sites in Australia.

Silk said he had requested tougher penalties than the reduction of a combined $7 million in bonuses for chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques, iron ore boss Chris Salisbury and corporate affairs boss Simone Niven, according to the Fairfax website ‘Brisbane Times’. “The proposed penalties fall significantly short of appropriate accountability for those responsible,” he said.

Unisuper and HESTA raised immediate concerns that the proposed consequences failed to deliver on meaningful accountability, last week’s report said. HESTA said the Juukan Gorge disaster was a “wake-up call” to the investment community and had driven a heightened focus around how companies engaged with First Nations communities. Debby Blakey, HESTA chief executive, was reported as saying: “The fund had developed a new set of expectations on how companies managed the risks associated with indigenous heritage protection issues and sent them to 14 major Australian mining and energy companies including BHP, Fortescue, South32, Santos and Woodside Petroleum.”

– G.B.

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