During the turbulence of Australia’s great waterfront dispute a little over a decade ago, the two men who appeared nightly on TV attacking each other over the competing claims of the unions and the stevedoring companies shared another little-known passion. By day, Chris Corrigan, the lanky head of stevedoring company Patrick, and John Coombs, the nuggety boss of the Maritime Union of Australia, gave it all they had. But on a number of evenings during the drawn-out dispute – which divided Australia and brought balaclavas, lock-outs and German shepherd dogs to the waterfront – the warriors would sit down and civilly discuss the future retirement plans of their charges.
Coombs and Corrigan – fierce representatives respectively of labour and capital – were both trustees of the waterfront superannuation scheme known as SERF (Stevedoring Employees Retirement Fund). SERF, now renamed Maritime Super after a merger with the Seafarers Retirement Fund, was the not-for-profit industry fund covering thousands of waterfront workers. The fund’s governing trustee board was, like that of most of the 100-plus industry, corporate and government not-for-profit superannuation funds in Australia, made up of equal numbers of representatives of workers and employers.
It’s called the representative trustee system and it now accounts for approximately $450 billion of funds under management held in trust for more than six million Australian workers. I’m the chair of one of those boards, Media Super. We’re relatively small fry: a fund approaching $3 billion; but one of its preceding funds, Just Super, was just $6 million when I first began to chair it 19 years ago. Media Super’s board contains equal numbers of representatives of employees through the printers’ union and the journalists and actors’ union and employers in the printing, publishing and entertainment industries.
The people involved, like Coombs and Corrigan, are highly engaged and committed to a single purpose. We are, by law, required to conduct our efforts solely to maximise the eventual retirement benefits of our 120,000 members. In all that time, there’s rarely been a vote on any issue, or a voice raised in anger: the watchword is ‘consensus’. The Cooper Review, proposed changing the structure of the notfor- profit fund boards to force a third of the board membership to be non-associated, or independent, directors. It’s not clear just what nut Mr Cooper was trying the crack with that particular sledgehammer. Detractors of the equal representation system of governance frequently refer to industry funds as being ‘unioncontrolled’.