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A strong commitment to human rights

On the opening night of the 2015 Human Rights Arts & Film Festival, a powerful film about gender violence called ‘I Will Not Be Silenced’, featuring Charlotte Campbell-Stephen (pictured), was shown.
Published 11 May 2015   |   4 min read

Below is a transcript of a speech delivered by Australian Ethical Managing Director Phil Vernon at the Opening Night of the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival.

Australian Ethical has been a proud sponsor of the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival for over five years, and we have huge admiration for its work in raising awareness and being a focus for the discussion of human rights and social justice issues.

The recognition, development, and the codification of human rights has come such a long way over the past centuries, and yet we still see so much poverty, oppression, and social injustice.

As we head further into the 21st century we have particular challenges in protecting and enforcing basic human rights.

The world has evolved and continues to evolve in a way that it was never designed for. The dominant forces of influence in the world today are the corporate and investment sectors, sectors driven by mechanisms of self-interest. The sheer weight of global capital far outweighs the size of many nation states weakening democratic principles. And, as we all know, the concepts of democracy and human rights are inextricably linked.

So, what do we do?

Firstly, money itself is not the problem. Money and free flowing markets have done, and continue to do, good in the world, raising living standards, and alleviating poverty. And the issue is not going away. Global capital will continue to be the dominant force on the planet.

What we need to do is to civilise it and inject it with a soul.

We need to ensure that it recognises its important stewardship role in preserving and protecting the future of the planet and the societies which occupy it. We need to ensure that it behaves ethically and responsibly.

A new model for business and investment is needed that embraces capital as a force for good in the world and embeds ethics intrinsically into its daily behaviors.

At Australian Ethical, this is our Mission.

We operate according to following principles:

Principle 1: We want a world in which every decision is made with empathy and compassion for the planet and all those that inhabit it.

We want a world in which every decision is made with empathy and compassion for the planet and all those that inhabit it.

Principle 2: Environmental and social concerns need to be given equal weight to financial outcomes. To pay tribute to, and borrow from, Christine Milne, we are a society, not just an economy.

Caring for the planet and society does NOT need to come at the expense of economic outcomes. Equally though, damage to the planet and society cannot be tolerated in order to pursue an economic outcome. There is no need to compromise one for the other.

This philosophy differs to other concepts such as ESG and CSR. These concepts use Social and Environmental factors to inform financial outcomes but do not give them equal weight.

Principle 3: We believe in the normative and transformative power of global capital. I have used two words here.

Normative – too often the investment and corporate markets sit back and say that it is not their role to play a deterministic role in “fixing” what are quite obviously problems and injustices. That that is the role of government. They see themselves as reactors not influencers, as subjects not objects. We disagree. Given its dominant influence in the world Global Capital no longer has that luxury.

Transformative – as such a large force in the world the potential influence of global capital is massive. Properly harnessed, it has the power to not just incremently shift but to transform.

Principle 4: Proof. We believe in leading by example, just getting on and doing it and proving that it can be done.

We have a social and environmental charter embedded in our constitution and all of our governing documents. Five of these specifically relate to human rights. We avoid any company which contributes to the inhibition of human rights, exploits people through low wages or poor working conditions or discriminates in any way. We also seek out companies which contribute to human happiness, dignity and education and the alleviation of poverty.

And our results?

Last year we topped the tables in investment returns, our share price has more than doubled in 12 months and our new business inflows beat new records each month way above industry averages.

It can be done. We’re proving it. It’s not theory. It’s a fact. And people want it!

Principle 5: We believe in the power of the individual. Individuals – you – can effect change on global capital by exercising choice as consumers, individual shareholders, and investors to shift their capital and align their consumption with their values. This relies critically on transparency. Conscious decisions can’t be made unless you know the facts. On this score we are leaders by disclosing 100% of our investments a level of disclosure that is rare in financial services.

Through this collective action of many individuals acting on their values we can keep the power in the hands of individuals, ensure that global capital behaves and achieve that goal of a truly empathetic, compassionate, and just society.

As a final note I’d like to just comment on the upcoming film and Charlotte’s story. The pursuit of human rights has always been the story of the tenacity and inspiration of individuals against seemingly impossible odds, and from what I’ve read of the film, tonight’s story is one such story. I’m looking forward to the film, as I’m sure you all are, and hearing her story.

Australian Ethical acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the country on which we work, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and recognise and celebrate their continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and thank them for protecting Country since time immemorial.

See our Reconciliation Action Plan