Iron ore billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest is one of Wayne Swan’s least favourite people. But we’re sure the feeling is mutual.
After all, the World’s Best Treasurer has accused Australia’s second-richest resident of working against the national interest, not paying his fair share of tax and endangering our peace and prosperity. It’s a surprise he hasn’t yet suggested the mining magnate should be charged.
Before Forrest was outed as one of Swan’s three most evil Australians (along with fellow billionaires Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart), he was best known as a fierce critic of the mining tax. Last year the former stockbroker jumped on the back of a flatbed truck in Perth with Rinehart to lead a chant of “axe the tax”. And shortly afterwards, he noisily proclaimed the big multinationals won’t have to pay the levy, so an army of Aussie battlers will bear the brunt.
Twiggy has also been a vocal opponent of the Gillard government’s carbon tax — due to start in July — which he has rubbished as “embarrassing” and “ineffective”.
For these heinous crimes, Forrest is accused of “undermining equality”, “threatening democracy” and belonging to “a wildly irresponsible few” whose “excessive greed” is “undermining” Australia’s market system.
If he were guilty as charged, Forrest would have to rank No. 1 on our list of Rich Crusaders. But the Minerals Council of Australia, Clubs NSW, the trade unions and Labor’s factional bosses have blocked far more government policy than Twiggy ever will. And we reckon Wayne needs to stop whingeing about loud-mouthed billionaires and stand up to them instead.
Nevertheless, there’s no doubting the super salesman is a force to be reckoned with. And he’s certainly a crusader.
In 2008, he established the Australian Employment Covenant, which aims to provide 50,000 jobs for indigenous Australians and claims to have already exceeded that target with 61,765 pledges. Two years later, he set up Generation One, with support from James Packer, Kerry Stokes and Lindsay Fox, whose aim is to end indigenous disadvantage in one generation.
He and his wife Nicola have also given $130 million to at least 20 different charities in the past five years — or so it is claimed — with the bulk of the money channelled through the Australian Childrens Trust, which played a key role in rebuilding Marysville after the Victorian bushfires.
Locals say Forrest visited the town half-a-dozen times, inspired the locals, and played a huge part in making it happen. “Forrest is one of the people who have hung in there,” says Doug Walter, ex-chair of the Marysville redevelopment committee. “I could give you a catalogue of people who turned up to get their photo in the paper, made extravagant promises and then disappeared, but he’s certainly not one of them.”
Despite this beneficence, plenty of people still say Forrest is not to be trusted, and claim his barrage of giving is part of a PR drive to win favour with Aboriginal people, so he can strike a better deal on mining rights.
“That’s certainly not my experience,” says Graeme Brown, who also helped put Marysville back together. “I’d speak very highly of him.”
Nor is it the view of ex-ALP national secretary and top Kevin Rudd adviser Tim Gartrell, who now runs Forrest’s Generation One. “I guess everyone has their motives questioned,” he says, “but from my direct experience working with Andrew on his indigenous philanthropy, from hours of conversations and meetings, I can say his passion and commitment to ending the disparity is genuine.”
Certainly, no one could fault Forrest’s nerve and energy, best demonstrated by building a huge mining operation in the Pilbara in less than a decade. Forrest set up Fortescue Metals in 2003 and has made himself a $6 billion fortune along the way, but, more significantly, has created the fourth-largest iron ore miner in the world, complete with its own 260-kilometre private railway, from scratch.
“I guess he’s the classic entrepreneur. He has this relentless enthusiasm and self-belief,” Gartrell tells The Power Index. “He says, ‘we’re going to do this’, and everyone else says, ‘but, but, but’, and he just goes along and does it.”