The move prompted Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to write to regulators on Sunday, asking them to “urgently” establish whether they could investigate and rule if the funds were acting only in the best interests of members.
Mr Bowen accused Mr Frydenberg of “ideological warfare” and said he would defend the rights of industry funds to voice their concerns.
“Josh Frydenberg seems to think that industry funds should have less rights than other shareholders … that industry funds should be mute, have their hands tied behind their back,” he said.
“I am here to defend the rights of all Australians to invest in whichever superannuation system they want and for those industry funds to act as any other shareholder.”
Industry Super’s investment arm, IFM investors, which manages funds worth up to $81 billion, has accused companies of a zombie-like response to climate change and will begin shaming them through emissions reduction targets for its Australian assets.
Mr Bowen said acting on climate change was in the best interests of the planet.
“It’s incumbent on governments, businesses and individuals to do what we can,” he said. “Industry funds wouldn’t be the only people who think the company should be having a mind to climate change in their policies.”
In his letter to Australian Prudential Regulation Authority chief Wayne Byers, Mr Frydenberg said the ACTU’s demands that funds use their clout to save Australian seafarers was a “dangerous development” and that superannuation “was not a plaything for union bosses nor a platform for pushing their industrial relations agenda”.
Pushed on the ACTU’s attempt to protect Australian jobs through its superannuation influence, Mr Bowen reiterated all shareholders have the right to express views.
“Their management have to fulfil their duties under the law in the members’ best interest,” he said.
“But industry funds are shareholders with no lesser rights and should not have any less rights than other investors or shareholders.”
The comments come a day after former Reserve Bank board member and AustralianSuper chair Heather Ridout urged the government to keep superannuation out of politics and vowed to not get involved in industrial relations policy.
Sitting alongside her, one of the government’s most trusted corporate advisers, David Gonski, said industry funds had a right to attempt to influence commercial decisions.
Wollongong University regulation expert Andrew Schmulow said if industry funds did exert financial pressure it was likely to fall within the regulator’s powers to investigate, but warned the sector faced much more pressing issues following the banking royal commission.
“If they bow to Frydenberg’s pressure on this then this is the last nail in APRA’s coffin of credibility,” he said.
with Sarah Keoghan
Eryk Bagshaw is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.