EARLY ONE FRIDAY in December 2013, Julien Vincent was standing on a balcony at the Melbourne Convention Centre, with one eye carefully on the time and the other on the large foyer below. Standing next to him was Felix Riebl, lead singer of the Cat Empire and a long-time advocate of action on climate. Hundreds of shareholders were arriving for Westpac’s annual general meeting. Meanwhile, another dozen or so climate activists dressed in smart corporate suits were taking their places at strategic points around the venue. All watches were synchronised.
At precisely 10.15 a.m., when unsuspecting shareholders were enjoying tea and coffee, two massive banners unfurled from balconies above their heads. Hundreds of astonished faces looked up to read the enormous message asking Westpac’s CEO, Gail Kelly to DIVEST by 1) banning all loans to new fossil-fuel projects and infrastructure, and 2) ending any investments in fossil-fuel companies. As security guards scrambled up the escalators towards the activists holding the banners, Julien and Felix calmly slipped down some side stairs.
Meanwhile, security guards were surrounding a third activist, trying to prevent her from entering the meeting. This activist was easily identifiable because she had earlier been holding one of the banners. However, she knew her rights better than the guards did. ‘Gentlemen’, she said pulling out her mobile phone, ‘by blocking me from entering, you are in breach of the law and I’m going to call the police.’ She explained that she had been given a ‘proxy vote’ by a Westpac shareholder to ask an important question of the board.
Questions of value
When question time arrived, the activists joined a small queue of people wanting to question Westpac’s board of directors. Julien had scripted their questions so as to inform shareholders in the audience of the financial risks associated with Westpac’s high exposure to fossil fuels. A key message was that many countries are trying to avoid high-carbon investments, which means these investments will lose value. In other words, whether or not you care that fossil fuels are frying the planet, sooner than expected you could be left holding carbon-heavy shares that no one will buy. Nobody present at the meeting could have misunderstood the warning.
As usual, Julien had carefully considered how every moment of the raid on Westpac’s shareholders should best unfold – including contingency plans – and had thoroughly briefed all activists involved. Having spent six years in a professional role with Greenpeace, Julien is a strategic and methodical planner.
Julien is the Lead Campaigner at marketforces.org.au