Andrew Fraser, chair of the $280 billion Australian Retirement Trust, has warned his trustee board peers against waging campaigns in the press, suggesting anyone who thinks “the front page of the Fin is the most influential place in Australia” is going in the wrong direction.
Speaking at the Investment Magazine Chair Forum last week, Fraser, a former Labor treasurer and deputy premier in Queensland, said trustees should never take notoriety for influence when it comes to managing a fund’s public profile.
“My observation from both government days and in the commercial world [is that] the hardest place to get an outcome is if you’re conducting a debate or transaction on the front page of the paper,” he told delegates to the forum in Sorrento, Victoria.
“You are in an ethereal world where you don’t control all the things that you should be able to have in your purview.
“If you think being on the front page of the ‘Fin’ [the AFR] is the most influential place in Australia, then I don’t think you’ve actually got it right.”
The comments followed a very open campaign last year by rival mega-fund AustralianSuper against the proposed takeover of Origin Energy by a foreign bidding consortium led by Brookfield and EIG Partners.
In the three months leading up to the final shareholder vote in December 2023, AustralianSuper gradually increased its stake in the company to over 17 per cent and distributed at least eight media releases about its growing position.
ART, which is also an Origin Energy shareholder but was in favour of the deal, did not make its intention known publicly before the vote.
Social licence the key
Fraser said the fund – formed by the merger of Queensland funds QSuper and Sunsuper – is very selective on what it speaks out about.
“We always need to be judicious about when we speak because we have to be mindful of ultimately what our purpose is,” Fraser said.
However, one exception is when people who rely on the fund (such as its employees and members) are demanding an answer on certain organisational issues, he said, then it’s high time to consider taking a stance.
“I think you’d want to avoid being called out for not having said something when there’s an expectation, so that as ever is a judgment point.”
The exchange set up a debate among panelists about when it is appropriate for funds to speak out publicly on social or other issues, and how much licence members and the broader public give them to do so.
Mercer Super director Sue O’Connor said funds need to prioritise gaining trust and permissions from members by delivering core services in a satisfactory way, before considering things like taking a stance on social issues.
Then there’s also the issue of authenticity, she said, when funds need to demonstrate commitments to what they are advocating for.
“I’m a big believer in doing fewer things and doing them well than trying to do all things for all people,” O’Connor said.
Bridge too FAR?
Asked about the imminent commencement of the Financial Accountability Regime (FAR), Qantas Super chair John Atkin said the Hayne royal commission – which recommended the measure – had caused a fundamental change in thinking around corporate responsibility.
“[The] royal commission has cemented the trend from… traditional governance models – which are command, control, hierarchical, focused on shareholder returns – to contemporary governance models,” said Atkin, who also chairs the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
Under the regime, relevant executives need to be registered as “accountable persons” to regulators and will be obliged by law to act with honesty and integrity and apply “due skill, care and diligence” to their work.
They will also need to co-operate fully with APRA and ASIC and take reasonable steps to ensure their organisation complies with their licensing obligations.
ART’s Fraser said he’s confident funds all have preparation projects underway, and that there is now a shift in the process of mapping out executive accountability.
“We all might remember those times when in an organisation, in whatever form, someone wanted more power, more span, more responsibility,” he said.
“There’s just a different dynamic now in FAR where you can observe people who actually are very particular about who’s going to have that span of control.
“That’s just a consequence of the regulation, but I think ultimately, that’s no bad thing.”
O’Connor, however, was expecting some struggles in the early stages of FAR implementation.
“So much of what we talk about is collaboration, and what our leadership team is doing. How are we going to navigate having individual accountabilities and collective responsibilities?” she said.
“This has some similarities to a board, but I think that that’s going to be an interesting process. And like all things, there will be a lot of work that will need to be done for it.”