Frank Lowy’s not on Wayne Swan’s billionaire hit list. Yet when it comes to foreign policy, this shopping king has more sway than the rest of Australia’s mega-rich combined.
He is also one of the most powerful men in Australia. As founder of Westfield, he has had a huge impact on the way we live and shop; as chairman of Football Federation Australia, he runs soccer in this country; and with a fortune of around $5 billion, he has long been one of the nation’s richest businessmen.
The 81-year old has also served on the board of the Reserve Bank for a decade, from 1995-2005, and has received a sympathetic hearing from almost every top politician in Australia over the last 30 years. This may have something to do with the fact Westfield has given massive amounts of money to both sides of politics. Or our leaders may just think he’s a wonderful man and a great immigrant success story.
Frank’s friends in high places include the last four prime ministers — Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard and Kevin Rudd — and Australia’s new foreign minister, Bob Carr, who (as NSW premier) became enmeshed in the controversial demise of Liverpool’s Orange Grove shopping centre (a rival to Westfield) in 2004.
The powerful businessman also makes it onto our Rich Crusaders list partly because of his big donations to charity over the years, which have earned him his own “Australian Legend” postage stamp, but more because he stumped up $30 million in 2003 to establish the Lowy Institute for International Policy, one of Australia’s most highly-regarded and oft-quoted think tanks. However, whether this actually amounts to crusading is open to debate.
Lowy was born in Czechoslovakia in 1930 to Jewish parents, and was a child in Budapest during World War ll. When the Nazis occupied the city in March 1944, his father went to the train station to buy tickets to get the family out. Only 50 years later did Frank discover he had been captured by the Nazis and beaten to death in Auschwitz.
After the war was over, 15-year old Frank jumped ship to Palestine, where he was intercepted by the British and sent to a detainee camp. Before long, he was fighting for the Haganah and Golani Brigade in a dirty and brutal struggle for a Jewish homeland.
He came to Sydney in 1952 to join his family, who had already started a smallgoods business, and teamed up with fellow Hungarian immigrant John Saunders to develop a shopping centre in Blacktown. In 1960, they launched Westfield on the ASX.
It’s no surprise Lowy is a passionate supporter of Israel, telling the NSW parliamentary inquiry into the Orange Grove affair in 2004 that: “The state of Israel, to which I am fully committed, is more important for me than to do a job.”
The shopping centre magnate was explaining to parliament why he had spent one of his two meetings with Carr talking to the NSW premier about Middle East politics, and drawing his attention to a paper dealing with Israel, rather than talking about his business rivals.
Despite his passion for the Promised Land, few would accuse Lowy of being a rabid Zionist. He does not barrack for illegal Jewish West Bank settlers, as Joe Gutnick regularly does. And his Lowy Institute, which is run by a 12-person board that includes him and his three sons, is generally regarded as moderate. It also studies plenty of things apart from Middle East politics.
Nevertheless, Frank founded and still chairs Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, which, according to journalist Antony Loewenstein, author of My Israel Question, “produces research that pushes a hardline, Zionist line on the Israel/Palestine conflict”.
According to Loewenstein, the INSS advocates “refusing to give up illegally-occupied territories in Palestine due to ‘security’ concerns,” and “warms to the idea of an Israeli military strike against Iran”. The INSS, Lowy Institute and (Lowy-linked) Brookings Institution in Washington also support an American role in the Middle East and advocate close ties with Washington, Loewenstein tells The Power Index.
So has Lowy used his money and power to shape the political debate? Almost certainly, yes.