When talking to players in Australia’s superannuation industry, a common refrain in response to the recent Crikey debate about industry funds governance has been “the retail funds are worse”.

In a partisan world, it’s a shame that claims “the other is worse” are so often used as an argument against standalone reforms.

Campaign finance will never get fixed because Liberal and Labor have both been competitively up to no good for decades in the constant battle to stay better resourced than each other. Neither has an interest in the reform, so the media needs to do more.

Similarly, so much good transparency reform is not progressed because the media do not reward it but instead use the additional disclosures to beat up on the politicians or institutions in question.

For instance, the Herald Sun never thanks the City of Melbourne for the fact we approve every interstate or overseas councillor trip in open session with hands in the air, and then require every councillor to do a report back to another open council meeting afterwards.

Instead, it just gets covered under the general stereotype of “all politicians are rorting junketers”.

Errol Simper’s column in The Australian today was on topic about plummeting public trust and excessive cynicism, although he failed to point out that News Corp is the greatest source of this negativity.

Another example came when I put this motion last month calling for greater transparency in financial reporting at the City of Melbourne’s two major subsidiaries, Citywide and Queen Victoria Market. The Herald Sun used it as an opportunity to take yet another whack at Citywide and even linked it to a pedestrian bridge near the paper’s Southbank offices, which Citywide is accused of making “too loud”.

As the chief proponent of the transparency measure, I chose to bow, scrape and apologise to get the disclosure reform over the line, largely intact, but it was hindered by the Herald Sun’s negativity.

Is it any wonder the numbers aren’t yet there to have council disclose the free tickets councillors receive to events as part of the poorly paid job? Then you get other reforms that are clearly warranted but never get covered.

For instance, it is patently ridiculous that ASX-listed boards are allowed to run their own elections with absolutely no independent oversight.

This doesn’t matter when there is nothing controversial to be determined, but when a board contest is on, the challenged board should have to hand over some elements to an independent party, such as the ASX or the AEC.

No doubt the listed banks will point out that most industry funds don’t have any director elections at all, but my experience has been that banks are the worst when it comes to producing blatantly biased ballot papers.

These are the tactics that would never be allowed on political ballot papers:

  • Not determining the candidate order by lot but instead putting the challenger last;
  • Using different numbering so the incumbents are 3a/b/c and the challenger is resolution 4;
  • Advising in bold that the chairman will be voting undirected proxies against the challenger;
  • Putting “non-board endorsed” next to the challenger’s name on the ballot paper;
  • Separating the spacing of the voting boxes so shareholders can see there is something very different about the challenger; and
  • Advising shareholders it is invalid to vote in favour of all candidates (when the board has declared “no vacancy”) .

And here are the 10 worst examples of biased corporate ballot papers, with the finance industry responsible for seven of the top 10. No wonder public trust in banks remains low if they can’t even be fair when determining their own governance.

  • ANZ, 2013: challenger David Barrow was completely shafted with the blue highlighter;
  • Macquarie, 2015 (p26): the full range of tactics deployed;
  • AFIC, 2013 (p142): note the prominent column down the side with board directions;
  • Westpac, 2013: an example of separate numbering of the resolutions;
  • NAB, 2013: clearly no drawing of lots and an example of unfair insertion of chairman’s voting intention;
  • NAB, 2009: a thick black line separating from all the incumbent directors;
  • Cabcharge, 2014: big bold capitalised use of “ELECTION OF NON-BOARD ENDORSED CANDIDATE” directly next to the voting boxes;
  • Commonwealth Bank, 2014: unfair numbering, no ballot on position and a bold disendorsement right next to the “for” box;
  • Fairfax Media, 2014: no ballot on the draw and a bolded “non-board endorsed candidate” right next to challenger’s name; and
  • Ten Network Holdings, 2014: challenger at the top of the second column when should be one column.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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