Joe Aston. Image: supplied.

Over 12 years helming The Australian Financial Review’s colourful gossip column Rear Window, now-independent writer Joe Aston made enemies of some of the nation’s most powerful business and political leaders.  

But compared to many of his former colleagues on that newspaper and in the mainstream press more broadly, Aston rarely voiced criticism of the superannuation sector. Though there were a few memorable run-ins with larger-than-life Hostplus CIO Sam Sicilia – whom Aston called a “glorified asset consultant” for his close relationship with JANA and preference for external managers – Aston says overall he was left with an overwhelmingly “positive” impression of the sector’s role and influence. 

“Industry super funds … tend to be the most engaged participants in the equity markets on corporate governance,” Aston tells Investment Magazine ahead of his appearance at the Fiduciary Investors Symposium in the NSW Blue Mountains next week.  

“Their investment teams are deeply engaged in the governance of major Australian companies, and that’s mostly what I wrote about.” 

The controversial journalist, who left the newspaper late last year to write a book about Alan Joyce’s tenure as Qantas CEO titled The Chairman’s Lounge, listed UniSuper chief investment officer John Pearce and AustralianSuper head of Australian equities Shaun Manuell as examples of “fierce advocates of proper conduct” by companies and boards. 

He also singled out the role played by AustralianSuper and UniSuper, alongside sovereign Future Fund, in holding mining giant Rio Tinto to account over its destruction of sacred Indigenous sites in the Jukkan Gorge of Western Australia’s Pilbara region.  

“[These funds] all played a really critical role in forcing change there,” he says. “There are many social issues that are fairly irrelevant for shareholders, but things like mining companies’ relationship with traditional owners have real financial implications for the bottom line. For Rio to mine Jukkan Gorge for another $130 million of iron ore, it ended up costing them $10 billion. These are real numbers.  

“There are seriously big financial costs to reputation. [And] there are shareholders that get it and shareholders that don’t.” 

Aston will give delegates to the symposium a behind-the-scenes insight into the mishandling of the Juukan Gorge disaster, alongside other case studies from recent corporate Australian history, including the mysterious departure of former Magellan chief investment officer Hamish Douglass from the ailing asset manager. 

The comments come despite super industry history and policy being a seemingly favourite topic of the AFR, with a stream of editorials, features and columns opining on the so-called “super wars”. 

Aston, who worked for former Liberal treasurer Joe Hockey and Qantas before joining the AFR, says the commercial ties between industry funds, trade unions and the federal Labor party – which occupy many column inches in the paper and its rival The Australian – are worthy of journalistic inquiry.  

“It is absolutely a relevant concern, but it is not something I lie awake at night worrying about,” he says. “I am much more concerned about the governance and performance of public companies to be honest.” 

Limited passes for eligible institutional asset owners are still available for the Fiduciary Investors Symposium NSW 

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