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Leading superannuation funds with “socially aware” or progressive options are investing millions of dollars of members’ retirement savings in poker machine and gambling companies, despite some funds starting to divest from gambling products.
HESTA, which invests the savings of people working in health and community services, and says it invests in “people who make our world better”, had more than $280 million invested in five major gambling-related companies through its main fund as of June 30.
Alex Mills, from West Footscray in Melbourne, was horrified to discover his super fund HESTA invests in gambling companies.Credit: Joe Armao
The country’s largest super fund, AustralianSuper, has a “socially aware” option that owns $17.6 million of shares in Aristocrat Leisure, the nation’s dominant poker-machine manufacturer. It also had $14 million invested in Endeavour Group, which runs thousands of pokies nationally, and $3 million in gambling giant Tabcorp.
In fact, by proportion, AustralianSuper’s socially aware portfolio invested more in Aristocrat (0.61 per cent of listed equity investments) and Endeavour (0.51 per cent) than its flagship “balanced” fund (0.54 per cent and 0.3 per cent respectively). That fund, worth $200 billion in total, has $1 billion invested in Aristocrat.
The sums are revealed in mandatory portfolio disclosures published by the super funds this week, and are current to June 30. Altogether, they show billions in retirement savings are invested in the nation’s gambling companies.
HESTA member Alex Mills, who has worked in community health and not-for-profits for 13 years, and helped people with gambling problems and their families, said he was reconsidering his super fund after learning it invested in poker-machine and gaming stocks.
“It’s pretty shocking,” Mills said. “Because of HESTA being the type of fund that it is, it’s not a question that would even cross your mind. There’s no way they’d do that, surely.”
HESTA declined to comment. Its June 2023 disclosure showed its main portfolio had $182 million invested with Aristocrat, $47.5 million with Endeavour, $36 million with Sportsbet owner Flutter, $10 million in Tabcorp, and $5 million in troubled casino operator Star Entertainment.
However, its “sustainable growth” fund did not invest in gambling companies.
In a statement, AustralianSuper said it did not exclude any industry except for tobacco. “Instead, we integrate ESG [environmental, social and corporate governance] considerations into our investment decision and ownership processes, as we believe organisations that manage these issues well deliver better long-term value to members,” it said.
AustralianSuper said it also engaged with relevant listed companies to understand what they were doing to promote responsible gaming.
Other funds appear to have dumped gambling stocks from their socially conscious portfolios. Rest’s “sustainable growth” fund reportedly held $400,000 worth of Endeavour stocks in June last year, but now does not. Aware Super’s “conscious” option did not invest in the five aforementioned gambling companies either.
A Rest spokesperson said the fund’s sustainable growth option excludes companies that generate more than 5 per cent of their revenue from ownership or operation of gambling facilities, or the provision of key gambling products and services.
Associate Professor Geoff Warren at the Australian National University said there was an ongoing debate about whether divestment made a positive difference.
“You’re no longer a shareholder, you’re no longer a voice, and you lose your shares to someone who doesn’t give a toss,” he said. “In my personal view, engagement is a better way of achieving change than exclusion because [by selling], you pass the problem onto somebody else.”
But Carol Bennett, chief executive of the Alliance for Gambling Reform lobby group, said funds which portrayed themselves as progressive but invested in gambling stocks were hypocritical.
“Some of these companies are marketing themselves as having some kind of social superiority and moral responsibility because they’re looking out for Australians and they’re concerned about ESG,” she said. “Surely, there needs to be some kind of accountability for that.”
Super funds are now required by law to report their portfolio holdings twice a year. But Bennett said this wasn’t good enough because the information published online – typically in Excel spreadsheets – was “not clear and simple for the average fund member”.
The federal government’s Future Fund – which is exempt from those disclosure rules – invests $200 million in the Sydney-based Aristocrat, according to figures obtained under freedom of information by Greens senator Barbara Pocock and published by News Corp in April. The fund also invested in the Lottery Corporation, Tabcorp, Star and others.
Mills, from West Footscray in Melbourne, said he had witnessed many forms of gambling harm in his career, but “pokies sits well at the top of the pile”.
Aristocrat was contacted for comment.
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