Leaders from the superannuation industry who find the courage to speak up can play an important role in making Australia a more socially inclusive nation, Michael Kirby said.

Superannuation is “a great Australian experiment” but making the dream come true requires active participation, “not just grumbling about things”, Kirby told delegates on Wednesday at the Conference of Major Superannuation Funds 2017, taking place on the Gold Coast, March 22-24. He gave the keynote address, titled “Are We Really a Socially Inclusive Nation?”.

“There is an important role for business – and that includes the super industry – in speaking up about discrimination,” he said.

Earlier this month, dozens of chief executives from some of Australia’s biggest corporations – including Qantas Airways, ANZ Bank, and Wesfarmers – signed an open letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, calling for him to get on with the job of legislating marriage equality.

Kirby praised the “captains of industry” for that stand.

“It is in the interests of businesses that people bring their whole selves to work,” he said.

Without calling him out by name, Kirby was scathing of Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton, for telling chief executives, particularly Qantas chief Alan Joyce, who is openly gay, to “stick to their knitting”.

“Telling CEOs to ‘stick to their knitting’ and singling out Alan Joyce in particular is anti-inclusiveness…and it is discriminatory,” Kirby said.

Many issues to face

Kirby, a retired chief justice of the High Court of Australia, “came out” in 1999 to publicly confirm his relationship with his same-sex partner, Johan van Vloten. The pair have now been together for 48 years.

Kirby concluded that while Australia is a far more socially inclusive society than it was 50 years, or even 20 years ago, it “still has a long way to go”. He cited racism, gender identity, the representation of women on boards, the social and economic exclusion of Indigenous Australians, and under-employment as important social justice issues industry leaders need to grapple with.

Kirby said the superannuation industry had an obligation to think not only about how it could better serve its members – who have a job and are collecting super – but also those members of society who are excluded from the super system because they can’t get a job.

That was critical to help fight rising “disaffection and anger”, he said.

Any attempt to make Australia more socially inclusive must acknowledge that we “have one of the most racist histories” of any country in the world, Kirby said.

Decades since the abolition of the White Australia Policy, we are a more racially inclusive nation, but a “great fear of the stranger” still “lingers in our national psyche”, he said.

Kirby was also scathing of the Turnbull Government’s failure to honour the spirit of the UN convention on refugees, to which Australia is a signatory, by outsourcing the processing of asylum seekers to other jurisdictions such as Naru, Manus Island and Cambodia.

Indigenous journey ‘far from over’

One of the groups most negatively affected by racism is not migrants but Indigenous Australians.

Kirby said one of the greatest achievements of the High Court of Australia had been the 1997 Mabo decision, which he said set many Indigenous communities on the path to securing better economic wellbeing for their people.

“But that journey is far from over, some may say it has not even started,” he said.

He highlighted higher rates of incarceration for Indigenous Australians as a key metric of a lack of social inclusion.

Kirby said it was “not good enough” to acknowledge traditional owners in the opening remarks of conferences and then not reflect on the ongoing economic disadvantages Indigenous Australians face.

Yugambeh Museum Language and Heritage Research Centre chief executive Rory O’Connor, who delivered the welcome to country at the conference, commended AIST for having a reconciliation action plan in place and taking it seriously.

O’Connor urged all super funds to develop their own reconciliation action plans.

To read all our coverage from Day One of CMSF, click here.