Building social justice through shareholder advocacy

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Concerned citizens build a 'voting bloc' out of the shares of wealthy companies. Cartoon by Chris Johnston

As I noted earlier this year, wealth inequality in Australia is flourishing. The top one per cent of household wealth in Australia is moving toward being 20 per cent of total wealth, and the country is a preferred destination for millionaires.

With a government that prefers to impoverish and vilify the disadvantaged and spend big on coal mines while locking up refugees, this does not look likely to shift any time soon.

But there are always other paths to social justice, and in Australia one may be through the millionaires — or at least the companies on which their fortunes are built.

Shareholder activism, the practice of using (including deliberately buying) shares in a company in order to have a voice in decisions the company makes, has been growing in Australia for some years. And it has had an increasing influence on matters of serious consequence, such as Indigenous land rights, the human rights of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, and the protection of the environment.

Shareholder activism is not a new practice in Australia. In late 1998 for example, opponents of the Jabiluka uranium mine led by the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation successfully protected the land rights of the Indigenous Mirrar people in the Northern Territory.

Shareholder activism was a concerted part of this movement. A group of opponents bought shares in mining company North Ltd and used their ensuing voting bloc to put pressure on North, who eventually pulled out of the project, which was abandoned by the company who inherited it, Rio Tinto, in 2003.

More recently, in 2014 the Canberra-based Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR) led a shareholder campaign to force the Big Four banks (Commonwealth Bank of Australia, National Australia Bank, NAZ and Westpac) to tell shareholders how much carbon they finance.

In the words of the ACCR, 'faced with having to distribute carbon-related resolutions to millions of shareholders, all of the big four banks have improved their carbon disclosure'.

 

"This kind of pressure, directly applied in the boardrooms of the corporate partners of Australia's abusive immigration detention practices, has created a situation where corporations cannot enter into such partnerships without considerable reputational and financial risk."

 

In 2015 the activist group No Business In Abuse formed to place direct pressure on shareholders in Transfield Services, now known as Broadspectrum, by revealing their profitable relationship with the Australian government as the contractors that run the immigration detention centers on Manus Island and Nauru. As Chloe Hooper noted in the Monthly, an associate of NBIA bought the minimum number of Transfield shares needed to vote at Transfield's Annual General Meeting, and sent two proxies to the meeting to question the directors and inform the shareholders. One of the proxies was Mohammad Ali Baqiri, a young Afghan Hazara man who was detained in the Nauru centre as a child, who questioned the company about its complicity in his abuse and that of so many other refugees through its contracts with the Australian Government.

Alongside this campaigning carried out 'inside the tent'of corporations, independent activist and union organising targeted other companies involved in immigration detention such as Wilson Security, and had a major win that same year when community services superannuation fund HESTA divested its shares in Transfield in the name of ethical investment.

This kind of pressure, directly applied in the boardrooms of the corporate partners of Australia's abusive immigration detention practices, has created a situation where corporations cannot enter into such partnerships without considerable reputational and financial risk. Spanish infrastructure giant Ferrovial, who took over Transfield Services following their re-brand as Broadspectrum, announced last month that it will not work on the camps on Nauru and Manus Island beyond the end of its current contract set to expire in October. Amnesty International subsequently advised that any company taking over 'management' of the camps will be unambiguously complicit in human rights abuse.

As the ACCR puts it, we are all stakeholders in corporate Australia. This is particularly the case in the time of contracted-out government, policy-making, and mass services. It's worth remembering that we can exercise power as consumers and shareholders in such a scenario — after all, the millionaires' millions have to come from somewhere.

 


Ann DeslandesAnn Deslandes is a freelance writer and researcher from Sydney. Read her other writing at xterrafirma.net and tweet her @Ann_dLandes.

Topic tags: Ann Deslandes, coal mining, refugees


 

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Existing comments

Power is where the money is. It has been attempted by the less radical left to recognise this basic principle and move some of the power away from the elites. For too long the left operated on the idea that if you have nothing they can’t take it away from you. Compulsory superannuation and home ownership are the means for the left to eke back some of that power. A family with no assets is hardly strong enough to stand against billionaires. If we think common people are losing this battle look at history. A little over a hundred years ago the vast majority of workers lived in houses owned by their employers, had no pension to look forward to and definitely had no such thing as superannuation. These areas are the social and moral battleground of the future. Rapidly advancing technology is smashing the workers main strength, their labour. The two left to them are their economic power as owners of assets and their might as consumers. The ideas of the past are exactly that in a modern world, anachronisms
Bruce | 28 May 2017


It takes money to have an impact on money-makers. That being said, it's a laudable goal to hold corporate Australia to account for their decisions. Philanthropy is alive and well in this country (at times) and the corporate sector can, and should, do much more ethical thinking.
Pam | 29 May 2017


Should not our superannuation funds also be asked to base their voting at AGMs based on the best attitudes of their investors? They should send annual surveys to their customers whose money they invest to determine the companies they want to be invested in and how to vote on issues like director wages based on median wages etc.
Ravi Samson | 29 May 2017


Transfield Services contracts with our government are commercially acceptable, legal documents. The writer is in error claiming that companies performing duties in accordance with contracts "are complicit in abuse". Our government is democratically elected and carries out policies in accordance with the platform presented.
Peter | 01 June 2017


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