Which bishop is challenging the bank on fossil fuels?


Bishop George  Browning

The church and our financial system don’t really go together, or do they? We may find out when shareholders of the Commonwealth Bank hear Bishop George Browning at Wednesday’s CBA AGM. Presenting a resolution which has appeared on the CBA notice of meeting, the former bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn will be requesting more transparency about the bank’s fossil fuel investments. 

This resolution reflects a justifiable concern that investment in such fuels may drop in value because their ongoing use will take our global temperatures beyond a two degree increase, the UN-agreed limit for a habitable world. In a nutshell, some shareholders are worried their banks will be stranded with investments in ‘un-burnable carbon’. Bishop Browning also sees such a profligate abuse of our resources as a threat to the sacred balance of the whole of creation.

The media has already drawn our attention to the incredible profitability of our big four banks in Australia compared with other banks in the world, and to the apparent abuse of trust in some banks’ financial counselling operations. In addition, there has been an avalanche of divestment, including from the Rockefellers and the ANU, as they discern a lack of concern for environmental, social and governance issues.

Despite all this, putting a resolution at a company’s AGM has turned out to be more complicated than the ordinary citizen might expect. The Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR) was formed in 2012 because of this very challenge to our ‘corporate democracy’. It has taken considerable homework for the ACCR to gather the requisite 100 shareholders in order to put this resolution to the bank and, not taking any chances, it took care to express its resolution in several formats. 

It submitted not only an ‘ordinary resolution’, asking in a straightforward way for more transparency concerning fossil fuels involvement, but, because it knew that the bank might not agree to table the resolution in this form, it also phrased its request as a ‘special resolution’. This latter is not really suitable because it requires alterations to the corporation’s constitution and, understandably, shareholders would rather avoid such a cumbersome and time-consuming procedure. The ACCR only included the special resolution option because corporations have been known to argue that it is the only legal format open to shareholders seeking change. 

Naturally, it was a bitter disappointment for the ACCR that the CBA chose the special resolution option to circulate in their AGM papers, but, since then, a surprising development should give heart to supporters of corporate democracy. The CBA has now committed itself to make disclosures on the emissions of its fossil fuel investments in a considerable part of its activities!

However, this situation can be a bit like a game whose rules only become clear to its participants as they play it. Banks and other powerful organisations can still exploit any lack of clarity. They might agree to consider the concerns of the shareholder this time, but the option of consigning a resolution to the status of ‘special’ is still available to them. This is why the ACCR is a party to a pending legal case to test whether in fact it is legal for a corporation such as the CBA to insist that shareholders can only present their concerns in the form of the more cumbersome ‘special resolution’. 

It has been encouraging to discover that organisations elsewhere, for example, the Inter-faith Centre for Corporate Responsibility in the US (or ICCR), have fostered a healthy corporate democracy without such convoluted machinery. For example, groups of nuns who are ICCR members have drawn attention to the use of slave labour in South America and their efforts have eventually seen companies put steps in place to eliminate it as a practice in major production chains! It is disappointing that so little engagement of this sort has been evident in Australia although perhaps the recent divestment actions of the Uniting Church and the Anglican Church have been encouraging if symbolic developments.

Bishop George Browning has already been known for his leadership in the International Anglican Communion’s environmental action and in more local climate change initiatives. It is in the hopes that this social justice concern of the churches will blossom, that the ACCR has appointed him to present their resolution.

The Bishop takes his ‘stewardship’ responsibilities to future generations as his every-day and over-riding life consideration. Today he looks forward to bringing the disparate orbits of church and finance into a new alignment for consideration of matters which are of mutual concern.

In the light of this, it should not surprise the finance industry that Rev. Tim Costello has agreed to present a similar resolution to the AGM of the ANZ bank in December.

Jill SuttonJill Sutton convenes the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility.

Image: Clean Energy Fraternity.


Topic tags: Jill Sutton, CBA, Commonwealth Bank, Bishop George Browning, business ethics, corporate responsibility, fo


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Existing comments

An excellent article. Just for the record, George Browning is the former Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn. He retired a few years ago. It might be worthwhile amending any articles, press releases to reflect this.
Edward Fido | 12 November 2014

God bless him. I hope many other religious leaders join him.
Cat h WAllace. | 12 November 2014

One of the greatest ethical conundrums is to be able to identify where our money, pooled corporately, is invested. This corporate pooling may be in our pension fund, our superannuation fund or, in the case of the church, in the investment packaging of money such that the traces of its final destination are opaque. It is hard enough to be corporately responsible, but we do retain the right to be personally responsible. It behoves us to ask the questions. We are the institutions. We should not be disenfranchised by their apparent anonymity.
Graham Warren | 01 January 2015

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