Robbo departs super… not with a whimper, but a bang

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(Pictured: Ian Robertson)

Ian Robertson, the secretary of the depa trade union and former chair of AIST, has resigned his long-standing position on the board of NSW’s Local Government Super, where he was also chair of its investment committee. The union has nominated Joanna Davison, former funds manager, as his replacement. This is how he announced his retirement from the industry last week.

In a note to funds managers and other service providers, Robertson explained his decision and reflected, in characteristic fashion, on his years in super – that is: humorous, blunt and definitely not politically correct. This text is unedited:

“Comrades, colleagues and friends, 

“I have just submitted my resignation as a director on the LGS Board.
As most of you will know, I was involved in the negotiations with the NSW Government in 1995 and 1996 which led to the separation of Local Government Super from State Super and First State Super. I was involved in the interim organisation and, from 1 July 1997 was appointed as a director. I have spent most of those 16 years as a member of the Investment Committee and, for the last five years or so, as Chair of that committee.

“I love the concept of investing money where, at the same time that you can provide a good financial return for members, you can do good things for the planet and society generally and choose not to do bad things. I have always been committed to the importance of active ownership and have been more of a political activist as a director than most.

“In fact, I have historically been critical of union-appointed directors on other funds for being complacent, indolent, do-nothing seat warmers. I’ve never understood why people who for a living will close down a construction site, will pull members out on strike, will generally be bold and ballsy, when they come to sit as a member of a superannuation board, become little more than obsequious, complacent yes people. Leave your activism at the door, please.

“This view hasn’t endeared me to everyone. I spent eight years on the Board of AIST, the final three years before my resignation in 2010 as Chair. I would joke that it was a courageous move to challenge the ideas behind the setting up of superannuation in Melbourne (the traditional owners of superannuation in Australia) but I was able to use my role in AIST to push the organisation, very reluctantly on their part, towards a relationship with the Climate Institute which, in 2007, saw the first ever Asset Owners Disclosure Project as a joint collaboration by the Climate Institute and AIST.

“When Fiona Reynolds as CEO and I recommended this initiative, I could not get a seconder at the Board meeting – so conservative were these people and so concerned about the reputations of their own funds if they were forced to disclose things that they didn’t want to disclose, that it wasn’t until version 15 of the survey that we were able to drag enough of the Board into line and have them support it.

“I was surprised at the opposition to the development of the AODP because it didn’t seem that anyone was doing anything about carbon. At the time I thought the Investor Group on Climate Change no longer existed and I know that people who I would have thought would be supportive of improved disclosure on things like carbon exposure, like (the late) Michael O’Sullivan and Amanda McCluskey, for example, did everything they could to make sure that this AIST initiative didn’t proceed.

Shame on them.

“Gee, my skin still crawls a bit when I think about those uncomfortable meetings of the AIST Board, being stared down by the grim-faced grumpy old women when I seemed disrespectful of the tedium and minutiae of superannuation or when I pushed a little bit too hard. When Deputy Chair at the time, Angela Emslie, told me that AIST was not “an activist organisation” she didn’t mean that AIST was prevented from being an activist but the Board preferred not to be active. Unless it was the safe stuff. As time has passed Fiona fled to London to UNPRI to do some activism and AIST is now famous for sacking a mum by not providing suitable part-time work.

“So, while I have decided I’ve had enough, no-one can say I didn’t try.

“As I leave LGS I’m proud of my report to the Board in 2000 that led to the decision to never own tobacco again and to develop a broader approach to responsible investment across the fund. Everything that followed, everything that has nurtured and developed our reputation and values, started with this first step. This was a time when other funds were doing nothing.

“Our 2000 commitment resulted in our overlay on Australian equities in 2004, which has provided a positive return over nine years and now this operates on our international equities as well. Our sustainability initiatives in our property portfolio are second to none and recognised by the industry as well as Government and the property sector. We have sustainable bonds, we are the most active, combative and engaged active owner, we would like to see Belinda Hutchinson in a chain gang for denying the science of climate change (she could join Meredith Hellicar there) have an unchallenged reputation and branding as the most sustainable/responsible investor and my activism has resulted in our top 10 placing in the AODP in 2007 (when there was no rating) and our number one position in 2008 and 2009.

“Our AAA top-rated institutional investor in the world in the international AODP in 2011 is our greatest achievement.

“Next Wednesday will be the final time I chair a meeting of the Investment Committee. At midday I will no longer be a director and depa will continue to be represented on the Board by Joanna Davison. You will all know Joanna, a respected professional from your own industry who always wanted to do a bit more. Now she can. It’s also a great move by the union to not hand it as some sinecure to a clapped out retired official or to someone who saw it only as an income stream.

 “I have known you for varying (but mostly long) periods of time. I’ve bagged you all for growing rich on the retirement income of workers (you knew that was a joke, or probably thought it was, or maybe thought it was a pretty accurate assessment), enjoyed your company and hospitality and intend to continue doing so because most of you are cemented into the union’s Xmas party invitation list anyway. My life has been enhanced and enriched by my involvement with the industry – particularly because it gave me the love of my life Elizabeth and now with Elizabeth, my wonderful son.

“I can leave you now saying that I’m doing so, amongst other reasons, so that I can spend more time with the family, and mean it.

“It will be nice to be a full-time union official again. After all, I love the class struggle.”

– Ian Robertson

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