You can tell this is a war when the public turns on a billionaire for doing business with the “enemy”.
Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest’s notorious self- and China promotion finally went too far yesterday at a disastrous press conference in Melbourne.
His efforts to be seen as a saviour and peacemaker ended with him being reviled on social media as treasonous and a traitor, and accused of trying to hijack government foreign policy.
It was meant to be a grovelling PR exercise with Health Minister Greg Hunt thanking Forrest and his Minderoo Foundation for purchasing 10 million coronavirus testing kits from China for the Australian government.
But Forrest decided to invite his mate — Chinese consul-general for Victoria Long Zhou — to the event, and then to the podium for a good bit of propaganda on China’s handling of the coronavirus.
“An ambush” was how furious government insiders described his actions, given he did not bother to warn Hunt or the government, despite the fact that morning the papers were full of a bitter diplomatic row between Canberra and Beijing.
Pro-Twiggy sources went into damage control, claiming he was only trying to repair relations but that was undermined by the fact he had done exactly the same thing to his own WA government minister three weeks earlier.
On April 1, Forrest was at press conference with state Health Minister Robin Cook to thank him for securing medical supplies for WA, when he decided to bring along the state consul Dong Zhi Hua.
He didn’t learn his lesson after the backlash then, and this week’s repeat performance was even worse given Canberra and Beijing were at the height of a furious feud over Australia’s calls for an inquiry into China’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Indeed Forrest was in the AFR that very morning with a bizarre intervention calling for any inquiry to be held off until after the US election.
The man who made $6 billion off the back of selling Australian iron ore to China has always been our most vocal business supporter of Beijing. He has also been increasingly using his charitable funds to make political points.
His Minderoo Foundation has donated some $270 million since it was established in 2001, but has recently been acting more like another arm of government.
The much-hyped 10 million COVID-19 testing kits, and the earlier $160 million in medical supplies to WA, are not actually being “donated” by the foundation but in fact will eventually be paid for by the taxpayers — at cost, as Forrest has indicated. The governments had outsourced theses crucial task to Forrest given his close ties to China.
There was his intervention in the bushfire crisis in January, where he didn’t just donate money to existing causes like his fellow citizens, and his $70 million came with some interesting caveats.
Ten million dollars was to be spent on setting up his own volunteer “army” of first responders to be deployed around the country. The bulk of the funds, some $50 million, was to be spent on a “national blueprint for fire and disaster resilience”.
Who needs a government white paper on crucial national issues — in fact, who needs a government at all — when Twiggy’s self-funded army is coming to the rescue?
Politicians do love standing by Twiggy as he announces his donations. In 2017, then-PM Turnbull was there for the glitzy announcement in Parliament House that the Forrests were donating $400 million to charity. There were real celebrities too including Russell Crowe and Jack Thompson.
Kevin Rudd was there for not one but two of the Forrests’ altruistic endeavours, including the Australian Employment Covenant, launched with much fanfare in 2008 with the aim to provide 50,000 jobs for indigenous workers.
A later version saw corporate mates like James Packer “pledge” jobs, but there has been criticism over the years of just how few tangible jobs ever eventuated.
An even bigger coup was signing up Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the grand Iman of Egypt to launch his global freedom network to end modern slavery. That launch in 2014 was at the Vatican, but no one was ambushed by Chinese officials that time apparently.
We all know it is uncharitable to criticise rich donors who have an undue influence on government. Australia has a long history of turning controversial business figures into “philanthropists”.
But then you can end up like Clive Palmer, whose efforts to help out during the coronavirus crisis by purchasing 30 million doses of malaria drugs just gets you ridiculed.
Then again, he’s not being accused of being a China stooge.
And let’s not forget that Scott Morrison appointed former Fortescue chief and Forrest confidante Nev Power to oversee the powerful National COVID-19 Coordination Commission to bring the economy back from the crisis.
The PM might want to recall the fate of his predecessor Kevin Rudd, who was brought down by the very mining tax which Forrest so virulently opposed.
But to be fair if Forrest had to pay more tax there would have been less for him to donate back to the taxpayers.