Health workers across Australia have withdrawn their savings from a major Aussie super fund in a mass protest.
Health workers have withdrawn their savings en masse from a major Aussie super fund with the aim of sending a powerful message.
A group of over 130 doctors and nurses divested their money from industry fund HESTA on Friday in direct response to the company’s investment in fossil fuels.
According to the climate advocacy group behind the move, Market Forces, HESTA has around $2 billion invested in fossil fuel companies including oil and gas giants Woodside and Santos.
Paediatric anaesthetist Dr Richard Barnes said he was particularly concerned about the health impacts of the climate crisis.
“I’ve been a member of HESTA for a long time and I’m very conscious now they continue to have significant holdings of a number of companies that are primarily involved in fossil fuels,” he said.
“I’ve decided to move my retirement money elsewhere I can be sure it won’t be supporting fossil fuel companies.”
All up the savings of those involved in the action is estimated to see $11.7 million drained from HESTA.
Across its more than 930,000 members, HESTA has roughly $68 billion in managed funds.
It is believed to be the single biggest, single-climate divestment day targeting a superannuation fund in Australia’s history.
“Clearly, the amount of money we’re going to move out of HESTA is a tiny fraction of their total super pool, but I hope our action will send a message,” Dr Barnes said.
Former nurse and chief executive at the Mental Health co-ordinating Council, Jenna Bateman, said with many members in the health and welfare sector, HESTA should be a leader in tackling climate change, which will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable.
“It’s kind of past planning time; it’s time to do it now. They have to divest from fossil fuels and I think taking your money out or at least raising the issue is just putting that pressure on them,” she said.
HESTA chief investment officer Sonya Sawtell-Rickson said immediate divestment from fossil fuels was not necessarily the best way to affect positive change from companies.
“Simply selling shares in these companies, without first attempting to change their behaviour, does not contribute to reducing emissions or reduce systemic risk,” she said.
“As a shareholder, HESTA can directly engage with companies exposed to transition risk to push for greater climate action.”
According to Ms Sawtell-Rickson, HESTA has used shareholder meetings to vote against plans by Woodside and Santos which did not align with the Paris agreement.
She added where companies were not responsive or failed to improve their practices, divestment was one option it could take “where it’s in the best financial interest of members”.
HESTA is not alone in struggling to balance divesting from fossil fuels with broader economic concerns and impact on its investment portfolios.
Smaller fund, NGS Super, has a more ambitious target of making its $12 billion worth of holdings carbon neutral by 2030, with an interim target of a 35 per cent reduction in carbon by 2025.
“If we wanted to decarbonise the portfolio tomorrow, we could, but it would come at a significant cost to our members’ investment performance and the retirement savings of our members,” NGS chief investment officer Ben Squires said.
“We have committed to making no new investments in assets that in our view cannot transition to the low-carbon economy.”
Ms Bateman said she is yet to choose a better alternative super fund, as she is struggling to discern genuine sustainability claims from “greenwashing”.
“It should be really transparent; I shouldn’t have to, as a punter, wade through a whole lot of information and words that aren’t actually telling me what I need to know. In fact, they’re kind of hiding the truth from me,” she said.
Ms Bateman added that immediate divestment from all fossil fuels was not a deal-breaker, but institutions needed to demonstrate clear and concrete timeframes if they were to extend the process over several years.
“If I can see a clear exit plan, then I am more likely to stay with an institution – but it needs to be very clear and very real,” she said.
“I don’t want ‘we will consider in five years that we may divest’. I want to know that in five years they will.”
Dr Bateman said he had selected two funds as alternatives which have no holdings in fossil fuel funds whatsoever.
He explained the process of changing funds was surprisingly easy and could be done by approaching the new fund with the details of your current super fund and “basically they do the work for you”.
Originally published as Reason health workers are ditching a major Aussie super fund