Columnists Australia

Business/Robbery etc

17 January 2015

9:00 AM

17 January 2015

9:00 AM

The Australian National University’s ‘ethical’ dumping of $16 million in Australian resource stocks last October has progressed from ‘stupid’ (as described at the time by Prime Minister Tony Abbott) to both farcical and damaging. The ANU’s Chancellor (accident-prone former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans) has had to write a letter of apology expressing deep regret at ‘any embarrassment suffered by Santos over the decision to divest interests in the gas producer’ and giving an assurance that ‘We are aware of the many positive contributions that your company, and some others from which we are divesting, have made to Australian society’. In a predictable attempt at justification, Evans added that while Santos was a contributor to social harm caused by CO2 emissions, ANU accepted that ‘the energy produced by Santos powers needed utilities and industries – contributing to the social good’.

Another of the seven companies ‘named and shamed’ as ‘not socially responsible’ and causing ‘social harm’ is taking legal action and all have been demonstrated to be among the most socially responsible in corporate Australia; exactly the opposite to what ANU said it had been told by its ‘ethical’ consultant.

It now emerges that ANU had acted not on specially commissioned advice but had bought an ‘off-the-shelf’ rating system that used something like 150 different criteria, none of which were referred to the seven companies for clarification before they were publicly blackguarded. And suggestions that ANU’s action had been precipitated by overwhelming pressure from students and staff to divest its CO2-pollution companies are demolished by the fact that five of the seven are not involved in fossil fuels at all, being miners of mineral sands, gold, nickel and copper. ANU vice-chancellor Ian Young has yet to apologise to any of the seven for his arrogant, ill-informed and financially damaging October statement, which he proudly reported had resulted in his being inundated with emails of support and Facebook praise. And he remains unrepentant, judging by his Fairfax op-ed piece ‘Time to move to a post-carbon world’ where he dismissed as ‘extraordinary’ the uproar over his divestment announcement.

And we’ve heard no withdrawal from the usual suspects who rushed to condemn Abbott and other critics like Martin Ferguson of the ANU’s ‘stupid’ decision, such as under-achieving former PM Malcolm Fraser and failed aspiring PM John Hewson – and of course those economic innocents, the Greens.

If that experience defines ‘ethical investing’ in Australia, let’s make 2015 the year for ‘unethical’ investing. The end-of-2014 slump in so many shares in all those ‘unethical’ companies on which Australia’s prosperity depends, provides plenty of opportunities. Let’s start with ANU’s seven deadly sinners, Iluka resources, Independence Group, Newcrest Mining, Sandfire Resources, Oil Search, Santos and Sirius Resources, all of which are enhanced by ANU’s incompetence, especially if it was a factor in the severity of the late 2014 price falls suffered by five of them. Having let the side down by only holding one of these ‘naughty corner’ shares (in Oil Search, which is closely involved with the PNG government in operating social and community programs, particularly in public health) I’m looking to extend my unethical involvement; there are also many candidates among those companies whose shares ANU curiously decided not to divest despite their alleged breaching of ‘ethical’ criteria, such as BHP-Billiton and Rio Tinto in coal and Woodside Petroleum. And if a sanctimonious, socially concerned, ‘ethical’ ANU can live with a big holding of Woolworths with its 537 liquor outlets, 323 pubs, pokies and other gambling and petrol or with Westfarmers, with its Coles Liquorland, Vintage Cellars and First Choice, and also as a miner producing multi-millions of tonnes of coal a year, much of it steaming coal to be burned locally, as well as making fertiliser and cyanide, then we all can. If digging up record volumes of coal and drilling for oil and gas, including coal-seam, don’t satisfy you, there’s good old anti-social gambling through Tabcorp, Crown and Echo, beer and spirits through Coca-Cola Amatil and the odd listed loan-shark. Who needs ‘ethics’ when there’s money to be made?

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