Liberal Senator Matt O'Sullivan
Liberal Senator Matt O'Sullivan makes his maiden speech (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Nothing says influence quite like having your own member of parliament — in the case of Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest it is WA Liberal Senator Matt O’Sullivan, a Christian politician who appears to have already had an outsize influence on the federal government despite his brief time in Parliament.

O’Sullivan was elected to the senate in 2019 from number-three position on the Liberal ticket having spent the last ten years of his working life at Forrest’s charitable foundation Minderoo. 

Minderoo, of course, is about as far as you can get from a lamington-and-cake stall bumping along on the goodwill of volunteers. Forrest’s charity is flush with a total income of $579,192,641 according to its latest declaration to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission. Ninety percent of the total comes from donations from Forrest’s multibillion dollar Fortescue Metals profits.

O’Sullivan had an important role in Forrest’s universe. He was placed in charge of an Indigenous employment initiative branded “GenerationOne” — a joint undertaking with “partners” including the federal government. A key element of the GenerationOne effort is the Cashless Debit Card, long championed by Forrest as a means to decrease drug and alcohol use and cut gambling rates, which Minderoo says impact on the health and wellbeing of communities, families and children.

As the result of some effective lobbying by the newbie senator, it would appear, last week’s federal budget included a $30 million “job-ready” package for communities using said cashless debit card. 

The budget included other nods to Forrest’s Minderoo projects such as oceans and marine parks and fire and flood resilience. Early childhood education, promoted by Minderoo’s Thrive By Five campaign, was boosted by changes to the childcare subsidy scheme and a new national partnership on preschool for four-year-olds. These were only some of the Forrest-backed interests to gain budget support. Hydrogen energy was another notable winner in last week’s budget. 

Forrest’s man in Canberra has never hidden his gratitude towards his employer. In his first speech to the senate O’Sullivan thanked “Andrew and Nicola (Forrest)” and recalled the genesis of the GenerationOne idea as a training model which Fortescue Metals had been using in the Pilbara. 

“Those familiar with my background know I’m a big supporter of the cashless debit card,” he told the Senate. “I’m also a passionate advocate for early childhood development.”

But it is O’Sullivan’s faith which must surely make him a politician to watch in the modern Liberal party. O’Sullivan arrived at Minderoo after several years working in youth outreach for churches in Perth. He attends Nations Church in Perth, part of the Pentecostalist movement.

“My faith is an integral part of my life. I am a Christian, and I believe and affirm the Apostles’ Creed,” he told the Senate. O’Sullivan also revealed that he had “seriously considered studying theology and becoming a minister of religion” before realising that being a pastor “wasn’t the right path”. And that led to meeting iron ore billionaire Forrest, a fellow devout Christian with plans to make the world a better place.

Trained as an electrical technician at TAFE, O’Sullivan is blessed with the kind of face and bearing that might launch a thousand sausage sizzles. A relatively late convert to the political cause — his first party branch position was in 2017, just two years before being elected to the senate — he has already caught the eye of the prime minister.

Those listening closely to Scott Morrison’s April address to the Australian Christian Churches conference on the Gold Coast will have heard the prime minister’s call out to “brother Stewie” (Employment Minister Stuart Robert) and “Brother Matt”.

Judging by the ever-onward progress of Stuart Robert despite no obvious claim to merit O’Sullivan, the hitherto little-known WA senator with the big Christian connections, has a very bright future indeed.

The particular blend of evangelical religion, billionaire philanthropy and neoliberal politics makes it a good time to be Matt O’Sullivan. Or, as Scott Morrison might say, invoking the Bible’s exhortation, “for such a time as this”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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