ALEX McKIN­NON

While An­drew For­rest cam­paigns to save Aus­tralians from smok­ing-re­lated can­cers or the world from slav­ery, his com­pany’s prac­tices tell a less benev­o­lent story. Alex McKin­non re­ports.

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It’s been a busy few months for An­drew “Twiggy” For­rest. The min­ing bil­lion­aire has been ev­ery­where, of­fer­ing his ser­vices on such a wide and eclec­tic range of is­sues it’s easy to for­get his main pas­time is sell­ing iron ore.

Last Sun­day, his Elim­i­nate Can­cer Ini­tia­tive an­nounced a lob­by­ing cam­paign to raise the le­gal smok­ing age to 21. Ear­lier that week, he flagged his in­tent to sue multi­na­tional tobacco com­pa­nies for the costs of smok­ing-re­lated ill­nesses as part of his cru­sade to elim­i­nate can­cer in a gen­er­a­tion – or, in his typ­i­cally baroque phras­ing, “bring this dev­as­tat­ing dis­ease to its knees”.

The pre­vi­ous Tues­day, he pre­sented a re­search pa­per on mod­ern-day slav­ery to the United Na­tions Gen­eral Assem­bly, com­piled by his Walk Free Foun­da­tion. Walk Free’s re­search, in con­junc­tion with the In­ter­na­tional Labour Or­gan­i­sa­tion, found that at least 40 mil­lion peo­ple are cur­rently en­slaved world­wide. The re­port made in­ter­na­tional head­lines and prompted com­mit­ments for greater ac­tion on the is­sue from Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May and Ivanka Trump, daugh­ter of the United States pres­i­dent.

A few weeks be­fore that, For­rest de­clared he would bankroll a stand­alone Asia-Pa­cific rugby union com­pe­ti­tion to guar­an­tee the fu­ture of axed Aus­tralian Su­per Rugby team the Western Force. In Au­gust, he was in Can­berra urg­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to roll out the cash­less wel­fare card sys­tem cham­pi­oned by the Min­deroo Foun­da­tion, his pri­vate net­work of char­i­ties.

Aus­tralia is some­what used to sway­ing in the breeze of min­ing bil­lion­aires. When For­rest gets bullish about sav­ing West Aus­tralian rugby, it’s hard not to re­mem­ber Nathan Tin­kler’s dis­as­trous takeover of New­cas­tle’s sport­ing fran­chises, or Clive Palmer’s short-lived Football Aus­tralia or­gan­i­sa­tion, af­ter his equally for­get­table stew­ard­ship of Gold Coast United.

But For­rest’s high-pow­ered phi­lan­thropy is unique in its scope and am­bi­tion. If the Min­deroo Foun­da­tion’s web­site is to be be­lieved, the bil­lion­aire is on the way to end­ing “the dis­par­ity be­tween In­dige­nous and non-In­dige­nous Aus­tralians”, world slav­ery and can­cer. He re­sem­bles his fel­low Aus­tralian min­ing mag­nates less than he does the new crop of Sil­i­con Val­ley bil­lion­airee­van­ge­lists, con­vinced the tech­ni­cal bril­liance and busi­ness nous that made them rich can also solve the world’s most in­tractable prob­lems.

It’s hard to deny the earnest­ness of For­rest’s in­ten­tions. De­spite his rep­u­ta­tion as a very pri­vate per­son, he fre­quently re­veals deeply per­sonal rea­sons for choos­ing the causes he cham­pi­ons. One of his mo­ti­va­tions for tar­get­ing smok­ing is be­cause can­cer “has caused the mis­ery of ev­ery sin­gle gen­er­a­tion of For­rests since the pre­ma­ture death of Lord John

For­rest in 1918”. In the pref­ace to the “For­rest Re­view”, his 2014 re­port on In­dige­nous dis­ad­van­tage, For­rest wrote of his child­hood grow­ing up in a re­mote West Aus­tralian com­mu­nity, and his In­dige­nous boy­hood friends who have since died of al­co­holism, drug abuse and sui­cide. In an in­ter­view with News Corp about the im­pe­tus be­hind Walk Free, For­rest tear­fully de­scribed meet­ing a trau­ma­tised 12-year-old survivor of sex­ual slav­ery at an or­phan­age in Kath­mandu.

But how far do good in­ten­tions take you? While Walk Free has made a gen­uine im­pact in its field, For­rest’s ef­forts closer to home have high­lighted the flaws of con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism’s big-money saviour com­plex.

The Aus­tralian’s chief West Aus­tralian re­porter, An­drew Bur­rell, who wrote the 2013 unau­tho­rised bi­og­ra­phy Twiggy, says For­rest’s grandiose style and ad­mit­tedly laud­able am­bi­tions of­ten have trou­ble gelling with the unglam­orous re­al­ity of the com­plex prob­lems he’s try­ing to solve.

“He likes big chal­lenges, he’s not the kind of per­son­al­ity who’ll go for the lowhang­ing fruit,” Bur­rell says. “That’s what he’s al­ways done, in busi­ness and now in phi­lan­thropy. But he’s not a de­tails man. That’s not his strength.”

That weak­ness is show­ing in his lat­est whirl­wind of do-good­ing. While the Aus­tralian Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion and the Can­cer Coun­cil have ap­plauded his call to raise the le­gal smok­ing age, health and med­i­cal bod­ies of­ten sup­port such mea­sures be­cause they dove­tail with their larger aim of out­law­ing smok­ing al­to­gether. Whether or not do­ing so would ac­tu­ally work is less clear-cut. As For­rest him­self ad­mits, “nearly 90 per cent of adult smok­ers start as chil­dren”. How rais­ing the le­gal smok­ing age would de­ter un­der­age smok­ers if that’s the case has never been ad­e­quately ex­plained.

The brush­ing aside of in­con­ve­nient facts has the po­ten­tial to do much greater harm in For­rest’s ap­proach to In­dige­nous ad­vance­ment. In­come man­age­ment, which For­rest has been ar­dently rec­om­mend­ing for years, has been tried sev­eral times in Aus­tralia’s re­cent pol­icy his­tory with dis­as­trous re­sults. A 2014 Univer­sity of New South Wales eval­u­a­tion of the Ba­sic­sCard, rolled out in 2009 as part of the North­ern Ter­ri­tory “in­ter­ven­tion”, found there was no ev­i­dence in­come man­age­ment had “any con­sis­tent pos­i­tive im­pacts on prob­lem­atic be­hav­iours re­lated to al­co­hol, drugs, gam­bling and fi­nan­cial ha­rass­ment”. The re­port grimly con­cluded that “al­co­hol-re­lated harm has not been re­duced since the in­tro­duc­tion of in­come man­age­ment – if any­thing, it has wors­ened”.

There’s a grow­ing body of ev­i­dence that Aus­tralia’s in­fat­u­a­tion with cash­less wel­fare is hav­ing sim­i­lar re­sults this time round. For­rest, the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment and The Aus­tralian have pointed to a gov­ern­ment-com­mis­sioned re­port by Orima Re­search re­leased in Au­gust as proof that re­mote trial com­mu­ni­ties in Western and South Aus­tralia are thriv­ing un­der the cash­less wel­fare sys­tem, but the fine print of that same re­port tells a dif­fer­ent story.

Orima found the card did not have “a ma­te­rial im­pact” on chronic hous­ing short­ages, that re­cip­i­ents re­ported em­bar­rass­ment af­ter be­ing un­able to make small cash trans­ac­tions at school can­teens and swim­ming pools, and that par­tic­i­pants were more likely to re­port that the card had made life worse. There are also se­ri­ous prob­lems with the re­port it­self. Re­spon­dents were not able to keep their iden­ti­ties con­fi­den­tial, and were of­fered cash in­duce­ments by ques­tion­ers. Orima re­peat­edly em­pha­sised that sam­ple sizes were too small to draw many con­crete con­clu­sions from, let alone to build na­tional pol­icy on.

Just don’t air any of those in­con­ve­nient de­tails in front of For­rest. Dur­ing his barn­storm­ing Can­berra visit in Au­gust, he played MPs a short film de­pict­ing graphic vi­o­lence caught on CCTV footage in sev­eral WA towns. He claimed cash­less wel­fare “might just give these chil­dren some pro­tec­tion from adults who are so drunk, so high on drugs, that they at­tack their own chil­dren”.

It’s worth re­mem­ber­ing John Howard used a sim­i­lar ap­proach in

2007 to jus­tify the “in­ter­ven­tion”.

“What mat­ters more: the con­sti­tu­tional niceties, or the care and pro­tec­tion of young chil­dren?” Howard asked be­fore send­ing the army into re­mote In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties. But For­rest went fur­ther. Lash­ing out at those who have voiced con­cerns about cash­less wel­fare, he of­fered this: “I have to hold the Greens ac­count­able here. The Greens might as well be the party for pae­dophiles, the party for child sex abusers.”

Bur­rell says that kind of treat­ment to­wards any­one who con­tra­dicts or chal­lenges his vi­sion is typ­i­cal of For­rest. “If you ex­press scep­ti­cism or doubt about the ef­fec­tive­ness of his cho­sen course, you’ll be shouted down. If you work for him, you’ll be out the door. It’s his way or the high­way.”

For­rest’s com­mit­ment to In­dige­nous em­pow­er­ment stops abruptly where it po­ten­tially af­fects the prof­itabil­ity of his min­ing op­er­a­tions. For more than a decade, For­rest’s Fortes­cue Me­tals Group (FMG) has chal­lenged and un­der­mined a na­tive ti­tle claim by the Yind­jibarndi peo­ple over a vast area of the Pil­bara, where Fortes­cue’s Solomon Hub mine extracts bil­lions of dol­lars worth of iron ore each year. Fortes­cue re­jected the Yind­jibarndi Abo­rig­i­nal Cor­po­ra­tion’s re­quest of a 0.5 per cent roy­alty on the mine’s tak­ings, on the grounds that such an agree­ment would clash with the com­pany’s de­sire to “be the low­est-cost iron ore pro­ducer”. For­rest has dis­missed min­ing com­pen­sa­tion for tra­di­tional own­ers as “sit-down money”.

While Fortes­cue boasts a high In­dige­nous em­ploy­ment rate and makes much of its re­spect for Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture and her­itage, its hard­ball tac­tics with the YAC have saved it hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in roy­al­ties that would have oth­er­wise gone to In­dige­nous Pil­bara com­mu­ni­ties. In a land­mark Fed­eral Court judge­ment in July, Jus­tice Steven Rares granted the YAC ex­clu­sive rights over the ter­ri­tory on which the Solomon Hub mine sits. He found FMG had “or­ches­trated, to a con­sid­er­able de­gree, the con­ven­ing of a meet­ing of the Yind­jibarndi claim group and vot­ing pro­ce­dures”, to re­place the claim group with mem­bers of the ri­val Wirlu-murra Yind­jibarndi Abo­rig­i­nal Cor­po­ra­tion, which was es­tab­lished “with FMG’s fi­nan­cial sup­port”.

It is dif­fi­cult to rec­on­cile For­rest’s earnest procla­ma­tions about Aus­tralia’s need to em­power In­dige­nous peo­ple with such con­duct. It’s just as awk­ward squar­ing his ob­vi­ous de­sire to do good with his com­pany’s tax prac­tices. Fortes­cue paid just $13.2 mil­lion in tax on a

$208 mil­lion profit in the 2014-15 fi­nan­cial year, af­ter mak­ing more than $9 bil­lion in iron ore sales. His loud op­po­si­tion to the Rudd gov­ern­ment’s min­ing tax helped sink Kevin Rudd’s prime min­is­ter­ship in 2010. In 2011, For­rest ad­mit­ted Fortes­cue had never paid a cent in corporate tax. If Twiggy has all the char­i­ta­ble am­bi­tions of a new-econ­omy be­he­moth, he has the ac­coun­tants of one as well. He is gen­er­ous with money, but on his terms. Im­plicit in his phi­lan­thropy is a com­pany loath to pay the tax that would let gov­ern­ments man­age pub­lic health or In­dige­nous

• dis­ad­van­tage them­selves.

An­drew

For­rest and Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull at a meet­ing in Par­lia­ment House ear­lier this year.

ALEX McKIN­NON is Schwartz Me­dia’s morn­ing edi­tor, and a for­mer edi­tor of Jun­kee.

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