Senator Mehreen Faruqi – Estimates questions to the ANU regarding investments in weapons companies, and actions relating to Gaza solidarity student encampment

photo of Senator Mehreen Faruqi
June 6, 2024

My question, specifically, is: you have investment in these companies that produce weapons that have killed 36,000 Palestinians; does that meet the threshold of social injury?

Senator FARUQI: Good evening, everyone. Professor Bell, the ANU has a policy titled ‘Socially responsible investment,’ which aims to ensure that the ANU avoids investment opportunities considered to be likely to cause substantial social injury. Am I correct?

Prof. Bell : Yes.

Senator FARUQI: Yet the ANU has investments in companies that manufacture weapons, the weapons that have killed more than 36,000 Palestinians, companies that are profiting from this genocide. Surely the threshold of substantial social injury has been met?

Prof. Bell : As I mentioned to Senator Henderson, one of the things about the university is that we have a lot of policies. The socially responsible investment policy is one that we first created 10 years ago, and we have not revisited it since then, so we haven’t changed the multiple categories in it that have guided our investment. Part of what we will be doing in our forthcoming council meeting at the end of next week is reviewing that policy. But I am also happy to ask the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of research and innovation to talk a little bit about that too, if you would like to, Lachlan.

Prof. Blackhall : Certainly.

Senator FARUQI: My question, specifically, is: you have investment in these companies that produce weapons that have killed 36,000 Palestinians; does that meet the threshold of social injury?

Prof. Blackhall : Following what the Vice-Chancellor said, yes, we do hold a small number of investments in our long-term investment plan and, as Genevieve mentioned, the socially responsible investment policy will be reviewed next Friday at our council meeting. Ultimately, that will be consideration for council.

Senator FARUQI: According to freedom of information disclosures, ANU held 6,758 shares in BAE Systems, worth approximately $143,000 at the end of October 2023. By the end of November—and this is the time that the genocide is occurring—this had increased to 8,517 shares at an approximate value of $171,000. That is not a small amount. BAE Systems is involved with supplying fighter jets to Israel. How does the ANU justify investing more in BAE Systems since the beginning of this genocide?

Prof. Blackhall : Under the socially responsible investment policy, ANU itself doesn’t choose the individual stocks that are selected. They are selected by an external investment manager who is required to meet the conditions.

Senator FARUQI: You can’t abrogate your responsibility on that.

Prof. Blackhall : Respectfully, that is how the policy is implemented at the moment, and, as I’ve said, it will be revisited for discussion at council next Friday. In terms of the numbers you have quoted, we don’t have those numbers to hand, so I am happy to take on notice to confirm that those are the correct numbers.

Senator FARUQI: Sure. So does ANU have plans to divest shares? Is that what the idea of this meeting is—to divest shares from companies where you do not meet the social responsibilities?

Prof. Bell : I will take this one for Lachlan. Part of what we have on 14 June, next Friday, is our council meeting. The council that has oversight for the university meets once every six to eight weeks, and 14 June is our next meeting. At that meeting we will be reviewing our socially responsible investment policy and asking whether that policy accurately reflects the community sentiment and state that we should be in in terms of what our investments are. A revision of that policy—or at least imagining a revising of that policy—allows us to think differently about how we choose to invest, and that feels like a timely thing.

Senator FARUQI: When the Russian offensive in Ukraine began, Professor Bell, it took ANU only 10 days to announce that it was cutting all ties with Russia. It has been eight months of genocide in Gaza. Why haven’t any similar steps been taken to cut ties with Israel?

Prof. Bell : I’m not sure that these are identical circumstances, and the choices made by my predecessor are not mine to comment on.

Senator FARUQI: So eight months of genocide, ANU investing in weapons companies which are part of that genocide, and you have not done anything. Now, next Friday, you are going to discuss the socially responsible investment policy, but are you going to discuss divesting from holdings in institutions that support what the International Court of Justice has classed as a plausible genocide?

Prof. Bell : I can’t speculate about what will happen in a meeting next week with my council.

Senator FARUQI: Will you advocate for divestment from weapons companies?

Prof. Bell : I will be part of a conversation about how we revisit a policy that ought to be revisited, and we will discuss the consequences of revisiting that policy.

Senator FARUQI: I am totally flabbergasted, Professor Bell, that you are obfuscating from a very direct question asking you if there is an intention to divest from weapons companies that are involved in genocide. Have you seen what is happening in Gaza? You say they are very different circumstances to Russia and Ukraine—much worse. The videos of tents where displaced Palestinians are seeking refuge going up in flames, the deliberately starved children, the amputees, the maimed corpses, the parents carrying their dead children—story after story of children having to have their limbs amputated, with just Panadol for pain relief, 15,000 children massacred. Surely you can make a commitment here to say, yes, you will take a proposal to the council to divest from companies who are causing this, and that it is not socially responsible to have shares in those companies.

Prof. Bell : At the 14 June council meeting, we will discuss our socially responsible investment policy and make the determinations about how we want to invest as a result of that.

Senator FARUQI: Okay. I want to move on to the encampments as well. How many student protesters participating in the ANU Gaza solidarity encampment have been asked to no longer reside in the encampment since it began on 19 April?

CHAIR: Before Professor Bell answers, Senator Faruqi, I will just give an indication that you have another four minutes. I do not want to break into your questions, since you are going into another line of questioning.

Senator FARUQI: You might have to break in, but that is all right; we can come back. I’ll keep going for four minutes if that is all right.

Prof. Bell : Would you mind repeating the question, Senator Faruqi?

Senator FARUQI: How many student protesters participating in the ANU Gaza solidarity encampment have been asked to no longer reside in the encampment since it began on 29 April?

Prof. Bell : I will ask Professor Venville to answer that question.

Prof. Venville : Thank you for the question. Again, we can’t talk about individual situations—

Senator FARUQI: I’m not asking you about individual situations. I’m asking you the number of students who have been asked to leave the encampment.

Prof. Venville : Eight.

Senator FARUQI: Eight students have been asked. How many of these students were provided with clear reasons as to why they can no longer reside at the encampment?

Prof. Venville : Eight.

Senator FARUQI: They were all provided with reasons. What were these reasons?

Prof. Venville: The reasons were quite detailed. I met with the students, and they were related to student safety—their own safety and wellbeing, the rest of our community’s safety and wellbeing, and the nature of the campus.

Senator FARUQI: And they were the same set of reasons for all eight of them?

Prof. Venville: Yes. In that situation, yes.

Senator FARUQI: How did ANU come to identify these students and their names?

Prof. Venville: The students were quite—they are in the middle of campus, they are very visible, and they were quite vocal also in social media and the media.

Senator FARUQI: Has the ANU engaged in surveillance of students participating in encampments?

Prof. Venville: We have our security there 24/7 to protect the encampment, and it has been very clear that has been necessary. So we are there with them, our security, and we have security cameras as well. That is very visible, and it is very clear. They are labelled, and it is very obvious that we have security cameras as well.

Senator FARUQI: And do you know the names of all the students that are at the encampment?

Prof. Venville: We know names of some of them but not all of them.

Senator FARUQI: So the surveillance is surveilling how many students?

Prof. Venville: I don’t understand what you mean by that question.

Senator FARUQI: How many students are being surveilled?

Prof. Bell: Senator, the precinct that we are talking about—the Kambri precinct—is in the middle of our campus. We opened it about four years ago now. When we opened that precinct, because it is a public thoroughfare, and our campus is an open campus, so can come straight down—

Senator FARUQI: I have been there.

Prof. Bell: You come straight down University Avenue. That space there has a dormitory, residential hall, a series of eating establishments, a book shop—there are many things there—and we have had CCTV in that space since we opened it. It is signed on every access point into that there is CCTV there, so anyone who comes through that space at any point of the day or night would be captured through that footage, including, I imagine, you and I.

Senator FARUQI: And is this extra surveillance, though, because of the encampment? You said there was 24-hour security there. So that is an extra added surveillance?

Prof. Venville: Absolutely. We have added extra security in the area for the protection of the encampment participants primarily, but for everybody, yes.

Prof. Bell: So I think we would probably reject the characterisation that it was surveillance, Senator Faruqi, and that we would say that it was about broader safety.

Senator FARUQI: I might stop there, Chair, and come back to this.

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