PERHAPS it could be considered a case of misleading labelling. Health Super describes itself as "the industry fund for the people who care", yet it invests members' contributions in corporations that endanger public health. As reported in The Saturday Age, three multinational tobacco companies are among the top 10 international investments by the superannuation fund set up for workers in health and community services.
It is hard to overstate the inappropriateness of this. While doctors and nurses work indefatigably to treat those suffering smoking-related diseases and to relieve the suffering of patients dying from lung cancer and heart disease, their hard-earned money is endorsing those whose products cause these maladies.
Like many of its competitors, Health Super does offer a "socially responsible investment option", but this too comes with a caveat: "If a company is materially involved in certain negative activities, it may be excluded from SRI options, depending on each individual investment manager's approach" which would appear to make the choice fairly meaningless.
Surely the passage of legislation mandating plain packaging for cigarettes is indication enough that the government recognises the costs to personal and economic health of these products, yet superannuation funds are not alone in taking a counterproductive approach.
In the last Senate sitting week of the year, Greens senator Richard Di Natale presented his second reading speech on the Government Investment Funds Amendment (Ethical Investments) Bill 2011. He argued that the Future Fund and other nation building funds including the Health and Hospitals Fund be required to make their investments according to ethical investment guidelines. As well as providing growth, he said, it is important that the investments should not be counter to the interests of the broader Australian community. Yet the Future Fund has invested $36.5 million in Philip Morris and $46.4 million in British American Tobacco.
Thanks to reforms by the Keating government, every Australian who has been part of the workforce since the early 1990s has superannuation. But it is fair to assume most are detached investors, knowing neither how much they have squirrelled away nor how that money is invested. The situation with Health Super should remind all investors of the importance of doing their own research and putting pressure on their fund managers not to invest in industries they deem unworthy of their support.