In announcing the much-anticipated new chair and director appointments to the Future Fund Board of Guardians on Monday, Treasurer Jim Chalmers said he welcomed “fresh leadership” for the $212 billion sovereign fund.
But what might feel fresh for the Future Fund are likely very familiar faces to those working in industry super funds.
Former Industry Super Australia chair and federal Labor minister Greg Combet will take the reins at the fund from Peter Costello, who has led the fund’s board for 14 years and was largely responsible for its establishment when he served as treasurer in the Liberal Howard government.
Chalmers said Combet would bring “deep, diverse experience” to the powerful role.
“[Combet] has a distinguished career and extensive experience in investment and superannuation, government and the climate and energy transformation,” the Treasurer said in a media statement on Monday morning.
Meanwhile, Rosemary Vilgan, a former chief executive of Australian Retirement Trust predecessor fund QSuper, was also appointed to the board.
The appointments symbolise an expansion of the APRA-regulated super industry’s influence over the sovereign wealth fund, particular the profit-for-member industry funds movement. Combet not only chaired now-defunct lobby group ISA – which merged with AIST to form the Super Members Council of Australia – but also chaired industry fund-owned asset manager IFM Investors and was a trustee of mega fund AustralianSuper.
It also arguably boosts the partisan Labor links for the Future Fund, which has been led for so long by staunch Liberal heavyweight Costello and is sometimes seen as being more supported by the conservative side of politics (notwithstanding a recent suggestion by right-leaning think-tank Centre for Independent Studies that said the fund should be wound up).
Vilgan is well known in the industry as a longtime ASFA director and board director of the Kiwi sovereign fund NZSuper. She chairs Commonwealth Bank Group Super, which – despite being the corporate fund of a company that owns just under half of retail fund Colonial First State – is now technically an industry fund as a subsidiary of ART.
Chalmers also appointed Nicola Wakefield-Evans, a director of Macquarie and former King & Wood Mallesons lawyer, to the board for five years.
Despite the naming of two women to the board to replace outgoing directors John Fraser and John Poynton, Combet’s appointment will surprise many in industry and political circles who expected the next chair to be female.
In fact, it was also the internal expectation among executives within the fund itself. When asked who he thought the next chair might be at the Investment Magazine Fiduciary Investors Symposium in November, Future Fund chief investment officer Ben Samild said he would be “shocked” if the appointment was a man.
Former Macquarie CEO Mary Reemst, who joined the Future Fund board in October and was widely seen as a possible successor to Costello, has been appointed acting chair until Combet steps into the role.
‘Fossil free future’
As a former minister for climate change and energy efficiency in the Rudd and Gillard governments, and current chair of the Albanese government’s Net Zero Economy Authority, Combet’s new job has sparked hopes from some that the sovereign fund may become an ESG investing powerhouse under his tenure.
“Congrats to Greg Combet for new gig chairing the Future Fund. Will he do the right thing by future generations and invest Australian’s sovereign wealth in a fossil free future?” said Greens senator Barbara Pocock on X (formerly Twitter).
The Greens have long been public critics of the Future Fund, which they argue should have an explicit mandate to aid decarbonisation and divest fossil fuels.
But Costello regularly dismissed the calls and urged his successor to do the same, telling the AFR that whomever Chalmers appointed should “resist government intervention”.
Future Fund CEO Raphael Arndt echoed the sentiment, saying in a media briefing after the fund’s recent portfolio update that he thinks “it’s really important the Future Fund mandate stays pure”.
The fund is already one of the largest investors in renewable energy and take investment stewardship into serious consideration, he said.
“All that is happening within the Future Fund portfolio without any need for the government to reduce, or to complicate the mandate,” he said.
“Because one of the things that happens – and we’ve seen other funds around the world that have their mandates changed for this sort of reason – is that you are then getting some trade-offs about what’s more important: returns or investing in this particular area.”