Why are fund managers reluctant to discuss Voice referendum?

4 October 2023
| By Rhea Nath |
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With 10 days to go until a referendum on whether to enshrine an Indigenous Voice to Parliament in the constitution, growing public sentiment has seen Australia’s corporate world venture into the conversation; however, many fund managers are reluctant to reveal a stance.

This is in sharp contrast to the superannuation sector, which has seen a number of industry funds speak up in support of the Voice.

Two of the country’s largest super funds, $300 billion AustralianSuper and $260 billion AustralianRetirement Trust, have both heralded the Voice as an important step towards reconciliation.

Other advocates include UniSuper, HESTA, Rest, Aware, CareSuper, and industry bodies like Industry Super Australia and Women in Super.

“When AustralianSuper became a signatory to the Uluru Statement of the Heart in 2017, we did so to show our commitment to helping First Nations members to achieve a better financial position in retirement,” Australia’s largest super fund, which has over 3.2 million members, stated.

“That’s why we support the Voice – because we believe it will help deliver better retirement outcomes for members and is an important step towards truth-telling and Treaty.”

However, vocal supporters have been harder to find heading into the funds management side of financial services.

A number of prominent funds in Australia, including Fidelity International, Janus Henderson, Maple-Brown Abbott, Nanuk Asset Management and Schroders, declined to comment on the Voice when contacted by Money Management.

All five have been identified as responsible investment (RI) leaders by the Responsible Investment Association Australasia (RIAA) in its 2023 Responsible Investment Benchmark Report. 

Simon O’Connor, chief executive at RIAA, explained these leaders comprise a diverse group of domestic and international fund managers that are assessed as able to demonstrate leading practices and approaches to RI across their organisation.

“The group of 54 RI leaders this year represent fund managers operating in our market, and many of these are international fund managers who are domiciled in other countries. Approximately half are international managers. 

“For internationally based managers, it’s likely to be seen by them to not be appropriate to comment on domestic referendums,” he told Money Management.

Closer to home, he noted many domestic fund managers have made public commitments of support or are encouraging their own employees and clients to inform themselves on the Voice, including First Sentier Investors (FSI) and Australian Ethical.

Reflecting on this “important constitutional amendment”, FSI said it recognises it has an active role in supporting reconciliation: “We support a First Nations Voice to Parliament and believe that a successful ‘Yes’ vote is a welcome step forward on the road to reconciliation and to building a more equitable and fair Australia in partnership with First Nations peoples.”

Similarly, Australian Ethical Investment, an ethical investor since 1986, has backed the cause as a decision to enable First Nations peoples to “have a say in policy and legal decisions that impact their lives.”

While Vanguard stopped short of an official statement, a spokesperson told Money Management: “We have not taken a public stance, however, as we approach this important decision, we are focused on providing educational opportunities for our team through our Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) working group to gain an informed view.”

Martin Currie told the publication it has implemented a “strong policy of engagement”.

In its recent analysis of the ASX reporting season, it noted: “We acknowledge that many Australian companies have operations that impact First Nations people and their lands. Often, these outcomes are also at odds with the community’s cultural values, specifically the community’s intent to ensure the use of their land minimises any detrimental impact on their cultural and traditional connections to that land.”

Perpetual, in outlining its community commitments to First Nations peoples on its website, said it supports the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.

Unpacking the reluctance

RIAA’s O’Connor noted that, while the organisation has not assessed the number who have publicly supported the Voice, in many cases those who have been able to speak out publicly in support are those who have established programs of work to progress their own reconciliation journeys through Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs).

For example, Martin Currie said it began work this year to record the status and effectiveness of RAPs of the companies it invests in and committed to engage with them to build awareness.

“We have worked with our members to promote the uptake of RAPs as a framework for building an organisational commitment to supporting First Nations people and reconciliation,” he said.

“What we do know, however, is there are still many financial services organisations who don’t have in place RAPs, and often this is the first step to being a stronger advocate for supporting First Nations people’s rights to self-determination.”

He added that many of these leaders work across a broad variety of clients and could have determined it is the role of their clients, as opposed to their own role, to take a strong stand in support of the Voice to Parliament.

“What is clear is that many individuals in this sector have been speaking up in support, such as through the Directors for the Voice,” he said.

Co-organised by Diversity Council Australia chair and IFM Investors board member Ming Long, the Directors for the Voice campaign has looked to vocalise support for the referendum from directors and business leaders across a range of organisations across Australia. As at the end of September, the campaign has garnered over 1,900 signatures.

One such signatory is Sarah Penn, founder and chief executive of Mayflower Consulting, who observes “very slow progress” has been made so far towards better outcomes for Australia’s First Nations peoples.

“With [the Voice], it’s hard to see what difference it will make next year, but it will make a bigger difference in the long term, and really, when you talk about constitutional change, you’re talking about a very long time. 

“[The referendum] is towards putting the building blocks in place,” she said.

Reflecting on the seeming silence of the funds management sector, she told Money Management: “These funds managers have a broad client base and they don’t want to upset anyone who might have a lot of money invested in them, which I understand, as it’s a big step to stick your neck out and say things publicly.”

For the super funds that have spoken out, she pointed out many are industry super funds that have often backed social issues publicly as part of their history with the unions.

“[They] have mostly come from a collective, union approach of ‘if we all work together, we can get a better outcome for everyone’ so it makes sense. They’ve often been at the forefront of gender equality, LGBT issues, environmental issues,” she said.

“Also, big super funds like that tend to reflect the overall Australian population, which is, they have a lot more younger people who, as we know, are far more likely to vote positive for societal change.

“With funds management, last time I checked, the average age of someone seeking advice for the first time is 43 years old. It’s older people, traditionally more conservative, with more money, so it’s a more mixed client base and a bit harder to stick your neck out.”

Taking an optimistic approach, Penn highlighted how significant progress has been made for individuals working in the corporate space.

“Twenty years ago, companies didn’t really let directors publicise their own opinion. So, while it’s disappointing that we don’t have a lot of companies taking a leadership position, it’s still a vast improvement that companies are not just more than willing, but encouraging their people to put their own ideas forward,” Penn pointed out.

 

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Submitted by Peter Mitchell on Wed, 2023-10-04 08:57

The referendum is a personal choice and not something that corporate Australia can force on others. Come and talk to my aboriginal friends and neighbours and get their thoughts on it. Differs greatly from the inner city elites and those already on the gravy train. I bet most fund managers and those from Australian Super have not been to country and seen the issues nor live in areas where there are aboriginals and aboriginal communities. Stick to your knitting

Submitted by riley young on Wed, 2023-10-04 08:58

what the hell does fund managers stance have to do with the voice-nobody needs to know their opinion- you only want to know so you can bash them in the media if they say no

Submitted by John Smith on Wed, 2023-10-04 09:08

Perhaps their job is to manage other people's money with complete focus. It's not their job to be social or political commentators unless it results directly in better investment outcomes for their clients. Industry super has commented because they are politically controlled entities. The objective of this article is missing - what is it looking to achieve?

Submitted by Nick Gerr on Wed, 2023-10-04 09:35

It is a "NO" for me.

Submitted by Paul M on Wed, 2023-10-04 10:00

It’s because all those super funds mentioned are industry super funds who do what they’re told by the federal Labor government. End of story.

Submitted by Cam on Wed, 2023-10-04 11:19

Same answer as everyone else.
Our democracy is in a sad state where pressure is applied to every business and industry association, sporting club, union, church, etc to take time out of generating jobs and wealth for the country to investigate and take a position on this referendum. If any conclude No is the answer they will likely be pilloried. So we end up with these organisations all coming to a different conclusion than the majority of their employees, customers and owners.
The left is dividing our country, while achieving very little if anything for the First Nations people who really need help. As we head towards being like the US, remember who pushed us there.

Submitted by George57 on Wed, 2023-10-04 11:56

Quite frankly who cares. It is jot the job of large corporates or fund man avers to lecture us on their political views. And why would anyone want to come out and say, like most Australians, they are against dividing Australia by race? Nobody needs that avusr

Submitted by Mr S Milgram on Wed, 2023-10-04 12:49

Patently obvious - because the "In-Voice" is a highly political attempt @ hijacking the constitution as a race based wedge. The greater % (that is the majority) have seen it for what it is.
Moreover - no amount of fan boy cheering and cajoling and bullying from the left side of the political activists will take accountability when it attempt to hijack the constitution -properly fails. On a personal level - I would hope my fund manager has retained enough critical thinking skills to read between the lines - and if they didn't - they wouldn't be a fund manager. its the old adage - what makes a good social activist? - one that is able to continually demonstrate - the abscence of critical thinking (reasoning) and accountatbility.

Submitted by Anon on Wed, 2023-10-04 13:34

Umm NO. This is very biased article. As a Financial Adviser witnessing Government intervention and bad regulation, the last thing I need is more regulatory bodies and committees and advocacy groups in our lives. AML and TMD today and tomorrow it will be a First Nation Impact statement (FNIS). " I'm sorry Mr and Mrs Consumer but I just need you to sign off this FNIS along with these other documents to comply with the other 12-13 regulatory bodies I have to deal with. "

Submitted by Tonz on Wed, 2023-10-04 13:46

"Come on guys, everyone else is doing it!". Once this is over, and the No vote wins, can we please allow Australia to unite. Agree with Peter Mitchell, none of these people have visited or lived in these communities or understood the issues. Creating another bureaucratic layer is a pathetic attempt at virtue signaling not solutions.

Submitted by Peter Lucas on Wed, 2023-10-04 13:53

Their role is to manage money, generate decent returns. In case they weren't aware, they do not get a vote.

The patronising virtue signaling, the cynical appeasement of government for gain and the lack of any genuine explanation as to how enshrining two classes of people in our constitution will help genuinely disadvantaged indigenous people are reasons this referendum will fail.

Submitted by Aleycat on Wed, 2023-10-04 15:16

Why doesn't someone ask Woodside and Santos in joining the "woke" brigade by supporting the "Yes" campaign did much for the their company with one Indigenous woman who says she wasn't consulted about drilling for gas100km off the coast from the Tiwi island even though a number of Indigenous elders in the area were.
And those elitist left leaner's who want to vote "Yes" think this is OK.

And just give a thought to Qantas our National carrier who also support under-paying their workers, grabbing a taxpayer handout, promote their own self interest at the expense of the paying public and also a "woke" supporter of the "Yes" vote.
Is there anyone leaning to the "left of the political divide that has an ounce of common sense, or integrity ?

Submitted by Old Fella on Wed, 2023-10-04 19:44

Businesses, sporting bodies, super funds have no business telling individuals how to make personal decisions. We live in a democracy.

Submitted by Graeme on Wed, 2023-10-04 21:37

Upfront I am sceptical of the claimed benefits of the Voice. The costs are yet to be disclosed. For me this comes down to a trust me exercise by the Albanese government, one I have no reason to trust.

That being said the industry funds, being in an unhealthy co-dependent relationship with the ALP, promoting a Labor policy is no surprise. Why they or any fund managers think they are better placed than other voters to make a call on support is puzzling to me. Wesfarmers has done itself no favours by using shareholders' funds to promote the Yes vote. I would have no issue with well-paid company directors and executives using their own funds and expressing their own opinions but in an age when company donations to political parties are being downsized or proscribed I can see no justification for large donations to promote a position that probably the majority of their shareholders oppose. Particularly when the arguments in favour are so flabby. And woolly on top of that.

I struggle to see the upside in taking a position here. Why antagonise the strong believers in either camp? Stick to making your clients money. Industry fund managers may face less of a backlash with their members paying less attention to their doings than people actively managing their investments perhaps.

Submitted by B Real on Mon, 2023-10-09 13:22

Great comments. Nothing to do with fund managers at all. Even super funds should not have an opinion. It's a referendum to ask the people as individuals.

Submitted by Sheree H on Mon, 2023-10-09 13:47

I am angry with all the public listed companies and super funds that are spending shareholder and member funds to support a divisive referendum. Well done to the fund managers for respecting the rights of all Australians to think for themselves. It is especially infuriating when fly by night CEOs waltz into Australia on massive salaries and start pushing elite agendas. Attend one of the Freedom Rallies an you will see many Aboriginal groups arguing for a no vote. There is so much more to this referendum than meets the eye.

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