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Aussie super fund accused of ‘weapons grade virtue signalling’ over protection of indigenous sites

HESTA called out for backing parliamentary recommendations on heritage sites, after opposing votes at Aussie giants BHP and Origin

Australian super fund HESTA has been accused of “virtue-signalling” after publicly backing a recommendation from a parliamentary committee looking into the treatment of indigenous people and their land by miner Rio Tinto, having opposed shareholder proposals on the issue at rival miner BHP and energy firm Origin earlier this year.

The A$52bn (€32bn) health-sector fund was quoted in the Australian press last week as “strongly” supporting the committee’s recommendation that companies halt operations on existing Section 18 permits [those that permit activities to impact heritage sites] unless it could be verified that they had obtained the free, prior and informed consent of traditional owners.

‘Statements to [the] media are one thing. Funds should be judged on material actions like share voting’ – Brynn O’Brien, ACCR

But Brynn O’Brien, Executive Director at the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR), the non-profit behind the proposals at BHP and Origin, responded on Twitter: “This is some weapons grade virtue-signalling by @HESTASuper, who had the opportunity to vote their shares for a moratorium on mining without Traditional Owners’ consent, and didn’t take it, at @bhp”.

She described HESTA’s decision not to support the proposal at Origin, which called for a review of the energy firm’s consent arrangement with indigneous communities at fracking sites in the Beetaloo Basin, as an “even more ridiculous example”. 

“Statements to [the] media are one thing. Funds should be judged on material actions like share voting,” she concluded.  

The vote at BHP did not actually take place following an eleventh hour agreement struck between the chairman of the miner and Aboriginal leaders, but HESTA, which publicly discloses its intentions, had already revealed that it planned to vote against the proposal, as it did at Origin

Just 12% of shareholders supported the proposal at Origin in October, which took place not longer after Rio Tinto was widely condemned for the destruction of the 46,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage site in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

Last week, the Northern Australia Parliamentary Committee tabled its interim report on the destruction of the heritage sites at Juukan Gorge and made its recommendations, which also included a Western Australia-wide freeze on all new government approvals to disturb or destroy culturally significant sites until the state's laws were strengthened.  

HESTA’s Head of Impact, Mary Delahunty, told RI that the fund has been “actively engaging with 14 Australian mining and energy companies” since it released its expectation statement on Indigenous communities and the protection of traditional land in August

Following direct engagement with Origin ahead of the vote, HESTA was “satisfied that the company’s approach to Traditional Owners is appropriate and goes further than simply meeting basic legal compliance,” she said, adding that the issue raised in the resolution was “more an issue of how the Northern Land Council engaged with Native Title holders”.

Delahunty also said that since the “Juukan Gorge incident”, BHP has “taken substantive action”, including introducing “its own moratorium on 40 sites at South Flank and establishing a Heritage Advisory Council with Banjima elders”. 

“We are committed to engaging with companies to understand how they are managing these issues, and we will consider using our voting rights where we identify the need for improved practices and disclosure,” she added.