Divestment: democracy in action

When it came to the debate and vote this week on the Dunedin City Council divesting shares in fossil fuel extraction companies (as well as tobacco, arms, gambling and pornography), both ''sides'' claimed the public was on their side.

While such claims are difficult to verify, the council's decision does represent democracy in action.

Both sides genuinely will be convinced of the extent of their support.

They were not simply making exaggerated claims to try to win the argument.

While people have always tended to mix with the like-minded, the social media age of ''friends'' and ''followers'' accentuates this tendency.

These days, we are insufficiently exposed to, and often less open to, differing views.

The councillors were elected by public ballot and voters had opportunities to gain a reasonable idea about the candidates where they might stand on key issues.

Strong environmental candidates like Jinty MacTavish and Aaron Hawkins were elected, as was Hilary Calvert, a former Act MP, and Andrew Whiley, who is proud of his pro-gas exploration stance for Dunedin.

It seems the people of Dunedin favoured a mixed bag, and that is what they got.

This is represented in the successful divestment vote. At 8 to 7, it could hardly have been closer.

While this illustrates the council is almost evenly divided, the slimmest of margins is all that is needed to win the day.

On one side, generally speaking, were councillors more likely to lean towards the left and more likely to be idealistic.

On the other side were several who are more individualistic and some might say more pragmatic or realistic.

It does appear, whatever the protestations about ''no difference'' in the performance of ethical funds, there will be costs to the decision.

As group chief financial officer Grant McKenzie noted, it was difficult to predict how an ethical investment policy might perform compared with not having one, but there would be an extra cost in administering the fund and a likely increase in volatility.

More diligence will be required to make sure companies are not involved in the various taboo activities, and in difficult times the so-called ''non-ethical'' stocks seem to hold their value better.

And while Anadarko or Shell, in their hunt for gas, will decide between Invercargill, Timaru or Dunedin as a base on economic grounds, vociferous opposition and the local council's stance on fossil fuel shares can hardly help Dunedin's case.

That could be relevant should economic considerations be closely balanced.

Naturally, for councillors strongly backing fossil fuel divest- ment, the decision was straight-forward.

Climate change is the issue of the age, an impending and real threat to human existence and everything possible must be done to keep oil, gas and coal in the ground rather than adding to CO2 concentrations and the cooking of the planet.

Mayor Dave Cull has also made the point the United Nations Framework Convention on climate change, to which New Zealand is a signatory, recently said it supported divestment.

One of the issues with ethical policies is where to draw the line.

Tobacco and pornography, in most people's eyes will be well over it.

Because everyone uses fossil fuel and its products, that is not so easy a call for many.

Gambling, as well, is not always clear. Dunedin welcomes its casino and then appears hypocritical through its investment policies.

Many a Dunedin organisation depends on grants from ''gaming'' trusts and support from Lotto.

What, too, about the racing industry?

It will be intriguing to see what head of steam builds up in coming years against ''unhealthy'' foods.

Should Dunedin, one day, divest in companies involved in their production and sales of these?

In any event, a majority of councillors have decided and the divestment will proceed over the next two years.

By then another local body election would have been held.

If the people of Dunedin are unhappy with the direction of certain councillors and certain policies, they will have the opportunity to chose others.

If they are pleased, they can vote on more councillors with similar attitudes.

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