catch up on the action highlights of ags2022

The two-day event covered a wide range of issues, including controversial topics such as ASIC’s decision not to prosecute former Crown Resorts directors, Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, whether decarbonisation targets for 2050 are sufficient, Australia’s lack of appetite for nuclear power and reports of culture problems at Rio Tinto, including sexual harassment.

Each session contained powerful insights that members could take back to their boards. Ken MacKenzie FAICD, chair of Australia’s largest public company, BHP, and Cameron Adams, founder of Australia’s largest private company CANVA, both voiced strong messages on ESG and climate change action being central to creating long-term value.

ASIC chair Joe Longo urged greater cyber resilience amid heightened global tensions. We also heard sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins GAICD call on boards to do more immediately to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

Many speakers, from the chair of ANZ, John McFarlane, to the managing director of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, stressed the importance of scenario planning to navigate a chaotic world.

ASIC CHAIR JOE LONGO

In one of the headline sessions of #AGS2022, ASIC chair Joe Longo defended the decision taken by ASIC not to prosecute former Crown Resorts directors after investigating them for potential breaches of their legal duties.

“I think we made the right call on Crown,” he told the summit. “The evidence, the age of the matter, the knowledge of the directors at the time and in all the circumstances (meant) there wasn’t an actionable case against the directors.”

“That was our call, and it falls to me to talk about it as much as I can ... but there’s definitely a difference between what a royal commission or inquiry comes up with and what is actionable.”

Multiple royal commissions have criticised Crown's misconduct. AUSTRAC has also sued Crown in the Federal Court on for breaches of anti-money laundering rules. “From a community perspective, it is entirely understandable that there’s a lot of adverse findings that have been made around the performance of successive boards and the effectiveness of that governance, I accept that,” said Longo.

“That’s far and away though from whether ASIC had enough evidence in circumstances where a lot of the issues ... occurred nearly eight or nine years ago. When we look at whether a director has done the right thing or not, an objective dispassionate person does that based on what he or she knew at the time, not with the benefit of hindsight.”

Mr Longo also declared that “greenwashing is very much in our sights”.

“We are conducting a review to establish whether the practice and promotion of managed investments and superannuation funds that offer ESG or green products are actually aligned,” he said.

“We live in an age where we celebrate green products. We live in an age that celebrates ESG investing. What we’re worried about is consumers being misled by people saying ‘buy this, it’s green’.”

CLIMATE CHANGE

In an important session at the AGS on climate change, Cameron Adams, founder of Australia’s largest private company CANVA, outlined how the company had decarbonised its footprint, making it a hugely popular place to work. He said the company on the past few months had 240,000 people apply for 1,300 jobs.

The company, which has 75 million users worldwide, set its climate goals two years ago – to have full power from renewable energy within five years and reach net zero emissions by 2030. The Sydney office hit its renewable energy goal last year, partly by signing a power purchase agreement with a solar farm in NSW.

Through a combination of using offsets for processes and emissions collecting the right data in-house, plus removing the use of data-emitting technology and using cloud services such as the Amazon Web Services calculator tool, the company was advanced in its goal.

“A fantastic amount of people at Canva care deeply about the environment and want to work there,” said Adams.

At the same session Business Council of Australia President Tim Reed GAICD called for transparency around energy companies’ efforts to reach net zero by 2050.  He said turning off the use of oil and gas in the near term would be disastrous.

He said there has been a “massive shift” by companies on the issue in the last two to three years which had surprised the business council. Business believes Australia can reduce carbon emissions to 50 per cent by 2030 and this is a more ambitious target than has been adopted by either political party.

But the next phase past 2030 will be much harder. “Boards need to be transparent upfront about what they can control.”

Dr Sarah Ryan MAICD, Director of ASX-listed Woodside Petroleum, said her board takes decarbonisation “extremely seriously” at board level and is top of mind at every meeting.

It had committed to net zero emissions by 2050 and to other targets by 2030.

Woodside is looking at new products and services under its new decarbonisation energy plan and sees climate risk as a business challenge, she said. These include a hydrogen refuelling station for trucks and a green hydrogen business.

THE DARK ARTS

One of the sectors most devastated by the pandemic was the arts industry. A panel of directors discussed how philanthropy and reaching new audiences has helped their boards to change business models towards online delivery, which has helped their organisations to stay afloat.

Jane Hansen AO MAICD, Chair of the Melbourne Theatre Company, said that over the course of two years, her organisation had lost $20 million in revenue and the subscriber base had shrunk from 21,000 to more than 14,000. Eleven out of 12 shows were cancelled in 2020. However, costs had also been reduced in 2020 and tremendous loyalty to the theatre brand from donors and ticketholders had helped the arts organisation to survive.

“Philanthropy is very important to the arts, whether for education programs, touring or the main stage. There is a very real interest and every arts company absolutely relies on that. In philanthropy, you have to spend money to make money and boards have to be committed to that.”

Now in 2022, attendances are down to 40 to 50 per cent of capacity as audiences fear Omicron infection. “We have all survived narrowly but used up all our reserves,” Hansen told the AGS.

Penny Fowler GAICD, Chair, National Portrait Gallery, said the gallery had staged online openings, virtual public programs and art classes online. Social media and video views had risen by around 50 per cent. On its YouTube channel, there had been 115,000 views of some content. “It has been a good way to re-engage existing audiences but also get new ones.”

Sophie Galaise GAICD, MD, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, said that streaming music online had been a success and was here to stay for the orchestra. "People around Australia or around the world will come and watch concerts online. It’s been an interesting model to build from scratch".

She said the orchestra had found itself in the world’s longest lockdown. “We found our business model was based on earned revenues and we lost 80 per cent of our revenue.”

There had been many big decisions for the board but the whole organisation was aligned that the orchestra was about its people.

Cyber Security

Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) head Abigail Bradshaw CSC told attendees at the AGS panel on Cyber Risk that while there was no intelligence indicating a specific cyber threat against Australia, media reports suggest cyber targeting is already breaching the borders of numerous jurisdictions adjacent to Ukraine.

Closer to home, Indo-Pacific power struggles and competitive cyber espionage have already led to calls for a hybrid regional threat strategy. In February, foreign ministers from the US, Australia, Japan and India — the “Quad” — met in Melbourne to announce a deepened “cooperation” to ensure the Indo-Pacific region’s freedom from coercion, cyberthreats and counter-terrorism.

Australia is no stranger to foreign cyber disruption, but Bradshaw emphasised the global connectedness of business, individuals and government has “opened up the threat environment”.

There were 67,500 reports of cyber incidents in the past financial year, with a 15 per cent jump in ransomware attacks in 2021, according to the ACSC.