Lack of ethics in super investments

I once invited a unit from the New Zealand army to address a school assembly. They had risked their lives many times over helping clear anti-personnel mines from areas of Africa and South East Asia in the wake of war.

Their visit was part of an international campaign against anti-personnel mines.

The soldiers made a dramatic entrance into the assembly from the back, dressed in full bomb protection gear and swinging their metal detectors from side to side across the floor in front of them. The detectors made dramatic bleeps as they responded to the rows of nails holding the floorboards in place.

The soldiers explained to the students the logic behind the mines. They were designed to maim, not to kill. If they killed then that took just one person off the battlefield but if they blasted off a foot that took at least three off the field as two were required to help get the maimed soldier to medical help. A vicious, cynical weapon which today still causes mayhem across Africa and Asia, leaving thousands of kids on crutches facing difficult lives.

Like the students that day, politicians and people around the world decried these mines and demanded action to stop their production. In the 1990s Princess Di was the most high profile campaigner.
It is barely believable then to learn that until August last year the New Zealand Superannuation Fund had investments in four companies (Singapore Technologies Engineering Ltd, Alliant Techsystems Inc., General Dynamic Corp. and Textron Systems Corp) involved in the production of these anti-personnel mines.

Is this the level of responsibility we want for taxpayer investments? Is it that the government opposes these humanitarian abominations only until they can make a profit from them? And what about the New Zealanders risking their lives to clear these mines?

The same questions apply to super fund investments in a company processing whale meat. These shares in Maruha Group Inc. were sold just last July. So while environment minister Chris Carter has been so speaking passionately against Japanese whalers in the Antarctic, behind his back the government has turned a quiet profit from the slaughter.

The Green Party highlighted these morally-bankrupt investments in a report last week which identified a further $64 million of taxpayer funding currently invested in 12 companies involved variously in manufacturing nuclear weapons and cluster bombs, massive environmental destruction, appalling employment conditions and human rights violations.

Where are the ethics in all this?

The government instructions to the fund managers are that they must administer the fund in a manner consistent with “avoiding prejudice to New Zealand’s reputation as a responsible member of the world community”.

Presumably the ethically-challenged fund managers think they have met this obligation. It is clear there are no effective ethical guidelines for the fund and the government is at best ambivalent.

Helen Clark has indicated her distaste for investments in the tobacco industry but is unwilling to take stronger action. Labour MP Marian Street has a private members bill in the ballot which aims to ensure ethical investment is to the fore when investments decisions are made by the New Zealand Superannuation Fund.

But this is a spineless sidestep. If the government is opposed to the use of anti-personnel mines, whale meat processing, worker exploitation and environmental destruction then how did the superannuation fund get involved in the first place?

And what about the investments in nuclear weapons? Don’t we have an anti-nuclear policy championed by Helen Clark? Isn’t this hypocrisy or have I missed something? Why is the government not leading the charge with legislation which matches its mouthings?

The Fund itself should never have been established. New Zealand can and should apply “pay-as-you-go” to superannuation funding. Even when the fund is earning at full capacity it will have only enough income to pay some 15% to our total superannuation bill.

The money should instead be invested in New Zealand rather than in helping the economies of our competitors. And the fund is inevitably a gamble. There are plenty of predictions around that international investments will not respond well to issues of peak oil and climate change.

Back in New Zealand this money would make a huge difference where major investment is needed now. Eliminating child poverty, improved transport infrastructure, relieving the fee burden from students, quality healthcare and abandoning school fees are a few of our urgent needs. Looking after the emerging generation is the best way of ensuring we can pay for superannuation for older New Zealanders into the future.

Surely a better option than investing in nuclear weapons or blasting limbs from children.