July 2013


The many careers of Twiggy Forrest

By Ramon Glazov
Frances Andrijich / Headpress
Frances Andrijich / Headpress
What is the mining mogul’s higher calling?

Three years ago, Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest was prepared to share a podium with fellow mining magnate Gina Rinehart. On a chilly June morning, more than a thousand Perthians assembled in Langley Park, an exposed strip of lawn next to the Swan River foreshore, for what became an infamous exercise in billionaire activism. Behind them, yachts tore through the choppy estuary water. Placards, printed in bulk, read: “RUDD’S MINING TAX HURTS YOUR SUPER” and “RUDD’S MINING TAX HURTS US ALL”.

This might have been an awkward time for Forrest to mention his friendship with Kevin Rudd. Yet amid the day’s sabre-rattling, on the back of a truck doubling as a folksy stage, Forrest turned his access to the prime minister into a point of pride: “I will have the joy of speaking to Prime Minister Rudd within the next 24 hours. What particular message should I give him?”

“Axe the tax! Axe the tax!” the gathering shouted back.

The rally lasted only 30 minutes. The media the protesters hoped to court gently ridiculed them. A few snapshots quickly became iconic: of a bellowing Rinehart in pearls, of Forrest clad in high-visibility workwear, beaming at supporters, embracing Julie Bishop, the deputy leader of the Opposition. Yet their demands prevailed. A scant two weeks later, Rudd was toppled as prime minister, with the miners’ revolt against his and treasurer Wayne Swan’s tax having played a crucial role.

With Julia Gillard as PM immediately striking a compromise on the mining tax, it receded as a focal point for the anti-Labor crowd. The Right needed a newer, wilder apocalypse, and found it in the carbon tax. The rhetoric crept further towards the fringe, with Clive Palmer joining the fray, and the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies (AMEC), which had organised the rally at Langley Park, inviting Christopher Monckton, the climate-change conspiracy theorist, to speak at its next annual convention. By now Forrest was firmly ensconced in the east-coast public imagination with Rinehart and Palmer as mining magnates greedily meddling in politics, an image Swan was keen to exploit via his March 2012 attack on “vested interests” in this magazine, ‘The 0.01 Per Cent’.

Some tycoons – the kind who seem to relish their role as Mr Burns types – find suspicion, and even abhorrence, perfectly survivable. Being unlovable people who have succeeded can earn them an unlikely public sympathy. Libertarianism (in the US sense) thrives on antiheroics, real or imagined; West Australians who admire Gina Rinehart don’t exactly do so because she’s charitable, but because they dislike her detractors for having succumbed to the “politics of envy”.

Andrew Forrest isn’t that sort of magnate. Call him a hero or call him a villain, but don’t call him an antihero. He may have been against a tax on his “super profits”. He may have spoken at the same convention as Monckton, and his company’s AMEC membership dues may have helped to fund Monckton’s tour. But the last thing Forrest wants to be seen as is Rinehart’s twin.

After Rudd’s ousting, Forrest was at pains to explain that he had played no role in it. He’d wanted to improve the tax, not axe it, and had been negotiating with Rudd to that end. A revised, fairer mining tax was virtually complete. Twiggy – the good magnate, the dark-horse outsider, the “new force” in iron ore – could’ve fixed it all. His real grievance was that he had lost his man in Canberra. “It would be a great shame if the finalised outcome of any negotiations between the Gillard government and the mining industry were anything less than what was achieved while Rudd was prime minister,” he stated days after Gillard’s ascension. “Otherwise his departure will be recognised as futile.”

Gillard and Swan instead struck a compromise deal with the Big Three mining companies. On Alan Jones’s Sydney radio show the following year, Forrest blamed Rio Tinto, BHP and Xstrata for the overthrow, suggesting that Gillard had received “the nod” from “at least one of the Big Three” and that “Swan most likely had a compromise deal worked out” ahead of Rudd’s removal. Alas, the Big Three had kept him out of their plans. He’d “sensed something was happening”, he’d later tell the Australian, but “had no idea Rudd was about to be removed as Prime Minister”. Swan, in the meantime, “refused to acknowledge” him, while Gillard hadn’t answered his latest letter. “I thought just a polite note back would’ve been reasonable,” he told Jones.

Rinehart might buy media influence and get photographed whispering into Tony Abbott’s ear at think-tank galas, but Forrest tries hard not to come across as a meddler. “I’m not a political person,” he told the ABC on 15 August 2010, a week before the federal election. “I’m not advising people which way to vote … I’ve always preferred to be politically agnostic.” He admitted to giving $35,000 to WA Labor, but “that only proves one thing – that I’m not Liberal or Labor; I’m only against this tax.” What Forrest means to be understood is that he doesn’t touch “politics”, only certain pressing issues that rise far above it.

Rinehart has an ideology called libertarianism. Forrest would claim to have nothing of the sort; he’s a philanthropist, guided only by his (very private) Christian faith. Rinehart hasn’t remarried after the death in 1990 of her last husband. Forrest has his wife Nicola to share his passion for do-gooding; together, the crusading pair have become Australia’s answer to Bill and Melinda Gates, not least through Walk Free, a project to end world slavery. Rinehart is right at home with Koch brothers–style think-tanks. The Forrests’ activism is more in the high-vis humanitarian-crisis mould of Kony 2012. Rinehart’s father Lang once called for the mass internment and sterilisation of half-caste Aborigines. Forrest, meanwhile, has tender recollections of his father’s half-caste employee, Scotty Black, who enriched young Andrew’s sheep-station upbringing.

The Forrests could readily claim to be more compassionate than Rinehart and her Hancock forebears, yet their pride also runs in the opposite direction. In their eyes, Rinehart, though embroiled in a frightful legal feud with her children, is soft and calamitously indulgent. As Nicola told Meet the Press in April: “Some say that inheriting a vast amount of wealth is another form of child abuse.” Man hands on misery to man; it deepens like a coastal shelf, ran Larkin’s famous poem, and that’s the House of Hancock for the Forrests. When Andrew Forrest announced this year that he would sign Warren Buffett’s “Giving Pledge” and give away more than half of his assets before he died, Nicola rubbed it in: “There are certain families in Western Australia alone where people are fighting over fortunes, which hasn’t caused a lot of happiness.” Nicola’s children, on the other hand, were “more than happy” to see all that money “used for other people”.

Against Rinehart’s mining inheritance, Forrest can cite his more austere childhood at Minderoo, the family’s careworn pastoral station. It was the property’s slow demise that pushed him towards his current self-made fortune. “I just loved the bush,” he said in an interview with the Centre for Social Impact, “but knew I had to cover my own future and if ever I was to return to the bush, I had to be successful in the city.”

His octogenarian father Don remembers it slightly differently, telling an interviewer in 2008 that of his three children, Andrew showed the least interest in staying on the land. Still, Andrew Forrest is sentimental enough about the 200,000-hectare property to have bought it back in 2009, 11 years after his father had sold it under heavy debt. It was “a welcoming, beautiful place”, he told the Centre. “There was also a sense of history.” Forrest’s pioneering forebears, with their “never-ever-give-up attitude”, had held Minderoo for over a century, developing “a real at-oneness with the land and the [Aboriginal] people”. Those ancestors continue to inspire him. Forrest’s sister Janie said in 2005: “He’s seriously got whatever it was that drove Alexander and John Forrest and David Forrest to go into the deserts in the middle of the country. It’s in the history, in the blood.”

Western Australia – like Queensland – has always run the risk of being defined by its political sideshows. The one that best exemplifies sandgroper crazy to the rest of the nation is still the great joke-cause of secessionism. Gina Rinehart’s father was a secessionist: Lang Hancock’s patronage launched the movement’s second wave. But Andrew Forrest can boast that he comes from a dynasty with federalist credentials. “My great-uncle actually led Western Australia into the Federation and the Constitution,” he said on Q&A in 2010, “so I’m hardly going to be one to lead us out of it.”

That great-uncle (really his great-grand-uncle) was Sir John Forrest – explorer, pastoralist and WA’s first premier. At the turn of the century there was a revolving door between grass castles and parliament, with the young state’s political elite overwhelmingly springing from well-heeled pastoral families – the resource magnates of their day.

By 1878, John and his brother Alexander were ready to join that pastoralist quasi-gentry. They bought Minderoo Station in the Pilbara (then simply part of “the North District”). The property had lain in neglect for eight years and came with a bloody history. A decade before the Forrests arrived, Minderoo’s first owner, ET Hooley, had written to the district magistrate, Robert Sholl, complaining of Aboriginal hostilities. Sholl sent an armed police party, or “punitive expedition” to Hooley’s new property. The result was a massacre, with at least 21 “hostile natives” killed.

Unsurprisingly, the Forrest brothers found a more cooperative Aboriginal population. The sheep station grew profitable and would provide the dynasty’s fortune for the next century. Thirteen years later, John Forrest sat in a newly created premier’s office with a knighthood from Queen Victoria.

His great-grand-nephew wasn’t lying on Q&A. Sir John was indeed a federalist, albeit a lukewarm one – a broker, not a dreamer. He carefully haggled his colony into the Commonwealth, demanding a coast-to-coast railway in exchange for his signature. He also borrowed six times the state’s budget to fund a water pipeline to the Kalgoorlie goldfields.

Already the Forrest clan showed a zest for mythologising, charity and affectation. The family’s Perth retreat, a 12-room Edwardian mansion in leafy Claremont, was christened “Minderoo” after their station. Novelist Dorothy Sanders (a regular childhood guest at this more genteel Minderoo) recalled Sir John bringing an Aboriginal servant, Tommy, to the home. Tommy sat “very well dressed … knotting the lash-end of a stockwhip” in the suburban garden. “Have you been to see Tommy yet?” Sir John asked the girl. “What, not called on Tommy! Go and say ‘How do you do?’ to him at once! Strawberry cake comes after seeing Tommy, not before!”

John Forrest was still a pastoralist – part of a station-owning “squattocracy” kept afloat by native labour. He was quite progressive on women’s suffrage, but potential slights to his class threw him on an automatic defensive. In 1905, anthropologist WE Roth presented his Royal Commission “on the Condition of the Natives” to the WA parliament. He found northern Aborigines had few legal protections; police brutality was rife; indentured servitude – though illegal – was still a reality; and, alongside cases of concrete slavery, there was a system of dubious “contracts” and loose laws, with “nothing to prevent the greatest scoundrel unhung [from] putting under contract any blacks he pleases”.

The WA parliament took it personally. Newspapers hinted at pending libel suits. John Forrest dismissed Roth’s report as “sensational” and defended WA police as an “exemplary class of men” always “mindful of the interests of the Aborigines” – so mindful, in fact, that “persons in prominent positions” occasionally felt “aggrieved at the action of the police in being too indulgent”. Like Roth, he disapproved of neck-chaining, on benevolent grounds, but questioned “whether the neck chain is as inconvenient to the aboriginal as the wrist-chain, especially when he has work to do.” To go unchained meant Aborigines “would have to be continually kept under lock and key, or,” he added, “in well-protected yards, doing nothing.”

The Forrests’ Perth mansion was vacated in 1942, split into two large flats and sold privately. The station, then managed by Andrew Forrest’s grandfather, Mervyn, only grew more opulent as the family retreated from city life.

By 1948, the original homestead had been vigorously expanded, from three rooms to a palatial 30. A visiting reporter found “a green oasis of spreading lawn” with “palms and tall white river gums transplanted carefully and plentifully watered”. There were “55 windmills and seven big dams … revolving sprinklers, a fountain, sunken pipes and taps all pour[ing] thousands of gallons [of water]” onto “a tangle of shrubs and flowers which are dominated by heavy poinciana trees”. The lawns hosted charity fetes for the Red Cross and – the Northern Times reported – a recurring tennis tournament (the “Forrest Cup”) between neighbouring stations.

In 1948, at the prompting of the Department of Native Affairs, Mervyn Forrest built a “large Army Hut” for his half-caste labourers. The full-blood stockmen were housed separately, in corrugated-iron shacks. Mervyn’s philosophy, then not unusual, saw half-castes as a “saveable” class of native. On joining WA’s Upper House in 1946 (as a Liberal for the North Province) he pushed for government co-operation with the Christian native mission system, proposing a state-funded extension to the Church of Christ mission site near Carnarvon. In parliament, he assured his fellow MPs that half-castes were devoted and trustworthy: “The half-caste would not worry about going walkabout.”

Segregated living continued at Minderoo after Don Forrest, Mervyn’s son and Andrew’s father, took over. As late as 1960, the two half-castes had individual wooden huts “normally used by white employees” with a laundry, hot water, electric lights and septic tanks. (This was better housing, at the time, than many European migrants could afford.) Meanwhile, the full-blood labourers had the same tin shacks as before with, as noted by a Native Affairs inspector, “no suitable sanitation [other than the] use of bush”. Housing for half-castes and full-bloods merged during Andrew’s childhood. Scotty Black, his boyhood “mentor” and the Forrests’ head stockman, had been one of the half-castes given huts of their own.

These were Minderoo’s twilight years. For all of Mervyn’s experiments and upgrades, the station’s sheep flock waned over the decades, from nearly 60,000 in the late 19th century, to 40,000 in 1925, 27,000 in ’51 (when Don became manager) and down to a dismal 20,000 four years later. The land had been overstocked for 70 years. Its riverbanks were eroded and its pastures degraded. The station, which had once held at least 40 Aboriginal labourers, kept a mere five in 1970. Changing public opinion, walk-off strikes by black stockmen (alluded to in Mervyn’s “walkabout” quip) and the equal pay rights granted in 1968 had left the old business model high and dry.

Interviewed on ABC’s Dynasties in 2005, Don Forrest recalled an ominous day when his three children approached him, asking, “What’re we going to do, Dad?” To ten-year-old Twiggy, he suggested moving to the city and going into business. Perhaps he regretted that his own father had never given him the same chance. The fortunate Lang Hancock had already jumped from grazing to mining decades earlier. Don would spend the second half of the ’80s defending Minderoo from attempts to dredge the river’s magnetite deposits. He made a string of failed appeals to the EPA, citing the area’s “environmental fragility”. Downstream from the proposed dredging site, he experimented with growing sisal, a fibrous Mexican plant related to the tequila agave. In 1998, he finally sold the property, happy, as he told the ABC, “because I’m leaving all that debt behind.”

From his early teens, Andrew boarded at Christ Church Grammar, where he did not do well. It took the no less exclusive Hale School, where he repeated Year 11, to pull him into line. In return, Forrest has been generous to the school; four years ago he opened its new Forrest Library. Lang Hancock himself was a celebrated Old Halean. The school held its Year 11 retreats at Wittenoom, the later-abandoned asbestos mining town where Hancock made his initial fortune. The magnate would lend a house and Land Rover for the boys’ excursions. Young Twiggy became a popular boarding house captain, prefect and debating champion. After university, he talked his way into a job at a brokerage firm. It was the early ’80s, and the free-wheeling Perth business scene was dominated by the likes of Alan Bond, banker Laurie Connell and then premier Brian Burke (all three of whom went on to do time for various offences). Forrest thrived and before long was hired to launch the Perth office of Jacksons, a Sydney broking house.

After the stock-market crash of ’87, he moved to head office in Sydney. The 26-year-old Forrest was a sweet-talking, hard-partying hotshot who had a talent for swimming with bigger fish, including James Packer and the Adler family. Friendly business associates described him as “cavalier”, others called him a cowboy. He rode a Harley, owned a plush bachelor pad and left Jacksons to co-found a broking firm, Intersuisse, with, among others, Alan Bond.

Around this time, Andrew met Nicola. Her parents, Brooke and Tony Maurice, had also run a sheep station, Gillinghall, in western NSW. Now they lived in Robertson, in the Southern Highlands, where they managed holiday rental cabins. They belonged to the Australian League of Rights, a group described by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in 1991 as “the most influential and effective, as well as the best organised and most substantially financed, racist organisation in Australia”. The League’s founder, Eric Butler, who once theorised that Hitler had been a “Zionist” agent, saw Communist, Jewish and even “Fabian” conspiracies trying to subjugate white Australians. Butler’s followers considered themselves “soldiers of Christ” and their ideal nation was a Christian theocracy “in which every individual enjoys inalienable rights, derived from God, not from the State”. The League pressed its supporters to be “the mills of God, which grind very slowly and exceedingly small”. From the ’70s onward, they tried to infiltrate Coalition parties, earning the lasting hatred of moderate Liberals.

As early as 1972, the Maurices’ station had been used for League event bookings. When Tony died in 2004, the League’s newsletter, On Target, ran an obituary for the long-time supporter, which mentioned that the Christian Alternative Movement (a front group created to contest the ’83 federal election) “was formed during meetings at the Maurice home”. The Maurices’ eldest daughter, Katrina, remains married to David Thompson, Butler’s handpicked successor, who organised Australian speaking tours of David Irving, the infamous Holocaust revisionist.

The details of Andrew’s courtship remain hazy. At one stage he broke off the engagement. “He got a bit tired of talk of bridal dresses and babies and he said, ‘I don’t think I’m ready yet to be married, still a few more girls in the field,’” his father Don’s second wife, Marie, told the Australian in 2008. “I said to Andrew at the time, ‘You have just got rid of the best part of yourself.’ … About nine months later he said, ‘Well, I guess if I want to marry little Nic I’d better go and chase her.’ He did that but from then it was on her terms.”

Don Forrest told the same interviewer, Cameron Stewart: “Nic has been very good for him; she’s taught him other values.” Marie agreed that Nicola had been “determined to infuse Twiggy with more Christian values” and “demanded that they both do a counselling course before they married”. Said Marie: “[Nicola] wanted them to do this course together and then see how they felt at the end of it and maybe go forward with a different set of values.”

The League of Rights ran courses, including “Freedom Potentials” workshops. David Greason, a former member, recalled in the book Faces of Hate that these were “not too dissimilar to the evangelising, personal transformation courses so popular in California in the 1970s”. One Freedom Potentials graduate told the League’s newsletter in 1994 that he had “in a sense been reborn again” and that the workshop “moved [him] from belief to conviction [in] the Christian ideal”. Jeremy Lee, who ran the courses, was a founding figure in the Christian Alternative Movement launched at the Maurice home.

Whether the young couple attended a League-run course is unknown – Forrest declined to respond to questions for this article. (He abhors talking about his private life, once telling an interviewer that “all a high profile serves is to cause extraordinary circumstances around ordinary people and an ordinary family”.) Regardless, the Maurices’ daughter would become Andrew’s better half – handling the couple’s charity work and co-founding the Australian Children’s Trust. In effect, she would oversee the crusading side of Andrew’s image, the part of him that aspired to be more than just another “mining boss”.

At the start of the 1990s, he tried his hand at pastoralism, with an alpaca venture in the Southern Highlands, 40 minutes away from Nicola’s parents. His  remarried mother and newlywed sister were also involved. Alpaca wool fetches steep prices, which meant it was a decent, low-risk enterprise given the dynasty’s sheep-farming expertise, and Andrew Forrest – now Executive Chairman of International Alpaca Management – imported a hundred animals. (A legal dispute with the Kiwi seller, though, would drag on into the next millennium.)

But other enterprises beckoned. Religious fervour runs smoothly with natural salesmanship, and under his hardhats and Akubras, Forrest had the brain of a venture capitalist. His great skill was finding big investors for things that weren’t tangible yet – or else names he could drop to attract those investors – and watching the capital gradually snowball. If Forrest hadn’t chosen mining, he might have made a property developer. And after his first foray into mining, he still might’ve been a property developer. Any number of careers seemed open after the debacle that was Anaconda Nickel.

Forrest returned to Perth to run the company in 1994. Its first project – the Murrin Murrin Joint Venture in WA’s north-eastern goldfields – would involve leaching igneous rock with sulfuric acid, in huge high-pressure autoclaves, to extract high-purity nickel. The technology was new to Australia. To raise seed money, Forrest relied on his Rolodex. He found an early investor in FAI Insurance chief Rodney Adler, who would later be jailed on four counts of fraud following the collapse of HIH. (The two remain close friends – the ex-con’s personal website has a testimonial from Forrest: “Rodney has paid a very high price for what was a notorious collapse – he deserves a second chance.”)

Eventually, Forrest persuaded Swiss multinational Glencore – today called Glencore Xstrata – to spend $280 million for a 40% stake in the Murrin Murrin chemical plant. There was a cost to swimming with big fish. Glencore made constant takeover threats, which Forrest could only counter by attracting more huge investors. In 1999, he sold another large stake to Glencore’s rival multinational, Anglo American. Former associate Albert Wong, with whom Forrest fell out at Intersuisse, would later tell Four Corners: “For him to achieve bringing in two giants (like) Glencore and Anglo American, and standing in between the two, reminds me of our days together when we read this book, The Art of War by Sun Tzu … the old saying is divide and conquer.”

Might this explain why Forrest, far more than Rinehart, has tried to court both sides of parliament; why he isn’t, as he puts it, “a political person”? Before his friendship with Rudd, he was matey with John Howard, who appeared as a guest of honour at the Murrin Murrin refinery’s 1999 launch. “I’ve met a lot of managing directors,” the Liberal PM told attendees, “but I don’t think I’ve met a more self-evidently enthusiastic and dedicated managing director than I’ve met in Andrew Forrest.”

But the launch was mostly show, and production did not begin for several years due to gremlins in the plant’s autoclaves. In the meantime, the company defaulted on $400 million in bonds, which Forrest had raised to supplement Glencore and Anglo’s equity investments. Forrest had promised too much, too soon, and was pushed from his executive roost. Investors lost tens of millions, though not Rodney Adler, who’d cashed in his $4 million investment at the height of the hype, for a $60 million pay cheque. The company – quickly renamed Minara Resources – wouldn’t become profitable until 2006.

Forrest spent six months in Europe, in self-imposed exile from the mining industry. When he returned to Perth, his focus had shifted further north, where the profits were measured in billions. Australian finance wasn’t attracted to his new company, Fortescue Metals Group, so he sourced capital overseas, to the tune of $3 billion. It took Fortescue just five years to begin iron ore production; during that time, it had to build a port, a railway and an unusual processing plant for the low-grade ore in which it planned to specialise. To keep early investors aboard, Forrest announced memoranda of intent from several China steel mills to buy Fortescue’s iron ore and fund the company’s transport and processing infrastructure. To persuade the Chinese, he promised to break the iron ore duopoly of Rio Tinto and BHP, which he claimed was “keeping the Pilbara closed” and forcing up prices. “We have a problem,” he said, referring to the duopoly, “and the prime minister has contacted me to solve this problem.”

He dropped John Howard’s name again several months later, warning Chinese investors, “I have been to see the prime minister and he knows there is a signed agreement.” Failing to build Fortescue’s infrastructure, he cautioned them, would “damage” Australian-Chinese relations. In October 2004, Forrest emailed his project manager Ed Heyting, confident that a “detailed contract” with the state-owned China Railway corporation was imminent: “Due to the political pressure I sense CR is under … it may well be possible to execute this at the official ceremony … Then we start to rock and roll!”

Despite his confidence, Forrest was on shaky ground. Months after he’d announced the three contracts to build the port, railway and processing plant to the Australian Stock Exchange, they were revealed to be non-binding “framework agreements”. A harrowing legal struggle with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) followed, which the High Court only settled in Forrest’s favour late last year.

In 2008, when Fortescue began production, Forrest became a miner, rather than just a mining billionaire. The distinction mattered, not least to his father. As Don Forrest told the Australian months earlier, “He says to me jokingly every now and then, ‘Aren’t you proud of me, Dad?’ I say, ‘No, bugger it, when that first ship of ore goes out I’ll be very proud of you.’ He always shakes his head and says, ‘Dad, you never give me any praise.’”

Andrew Forrest had only been scraping things out of the ground for a month when he reached his peak on the BRW Rich List – number 1 with $9.41 billion. A year later, he’d dropped to eighth, with $2.38 billion. Just about all of Forrest’s fortune is on paper, in Fortescue shares: roughly a billion of them. His executive salary has always been comically small by comparison: a little over $100,000 a year, plus – Forrest has a sense of humour – ten grand in super. He wears his salary much like his fluorescent shirts.

That’s not how, say, Gina Rinehart does things. Her flagship company, Hancock Prospecting, is 100% private and believed to have only 125 employees. Hancock “shares” – under the conditions of Lang’s will – can only be traded between blood relatives. Most of Rinehart’s fortune comes straight from her company’s revenue, skimmed off Rio Tinto royalties in return for sharing her leases, for which she needs neither many staff nor much outside investment. Her father, an archetypal libertarian, believed too much in “sound money” to trust anything as fluid as the stock exchange, and his daughter appears to have inherited his stock-market agora-phobia. Her unfamiliarity shows in her awkward efforts to buy out Fairfax from shareholders not very keen on giving her a controlling stake. Even this year, when her new joint ventures suffered falling share prices, it only nipped at the edges of her fortune.

And that’s the barb for Forrest. With his slicker, modern intellect, his grasp of stock-market subtleties, his demonstrably better PR skills, his judicious self-effacement, his cross-career agility – with all these things, his fortunes are sinking for now, in line with commodity prices; while Rinehart, who often seems designed for some earlier, less nuanced rat-race than market capitalism, has grown more than six times richer.

Like the Chinese pledges to build his infrastructure, not to mention the fluctuating demand of their steel mills, Forrest’s not-for-profit ventures have their own stock of unsteady assurances. On the surface, the Warren Buffett Giving Pledge seems radical: billionaires linking arms in a movement “to commit to giving” more than half of their wealth away. But, per the website: “The pledge is a moral commitment to give, not a legal contract.” After signing on, billionaires are left to pursue their separate ideologies. Buffett’s pledge “encourages signatories to find their own unique ways to give that inspire them personally and benefit society.” It’s the language of a high-school Duke of Edinburgh challenge applied to the Fortune 500.

For Forrest, with most of his wealth in shares, that promise seems even more abstract. Fundraising & Philanthropy magazine cheerily reported in February that Andrew and Nicola’s commitment “will see them donate in excess of $2.5 billion”. But in a real-world share market, “more than half” of Forrest’s wealth, given over a lifetime, could mean any number of amounts. In 2011, the Australian Financial Review calculated that while Forrest’s $90 million in Australian Children’s Trust donations was “the largest exercise in philanthropy in Australian history”, tax benefits (and some coincidental slumps in share prices) meant his true net loss was “probably less than $2 million”. According to Fortescue’s annual reports, Fortescue stock newly donated to the Trust was worth over $70 million five years ago. Today, most of the shares are right where Forrest left them, but the value of the same 0.36% company stake has plummeted.

In 2007, Forrest gave the Trust a “charitable donation” of 115 million options in Poseidon Nickel Ltd, his new venture. He explained to the Australian that he’d been “encouraged by the work of the Rockefeller group” and “what Bill and Melinda Gates have done”. But none of those 40-cent options ever went to an outside cause. Initially, Forrest seemed ready to have the Trust exercise them, which would buy a 39% controlling stake, and shrewdly arrange his charity as a holding firm in everything but name. A press release from September 2007 testified that he “expected the Trust to retain a long-term interest in the company”. Then, in late 2008, Poseidon shares dropped to a fraction of the options’ strike price, leaving the “donation” without value. Unable to use or sell them – not even after four years – Forrest let the options lapse.

The Trust’s motto is, or was until recently, “The fishing rod, not the fish”. In other words, the Forrests were not in the business of complementing government hand-outs. “Working collaboratively with philanthropy, governments can be way more effective with taxpayers’ dollars than they ever could be on their own,” Forrest told Philanthropy Australia last year, claiming that his Aboriginal Employment Covenant, an agreement struck with the Rudd government to create 50,000 indigenous jobs in two years, would “[spell] the end of the clearly broken model of welfare”. Nicola added that the Children’s Trust operated “with a view to influencing social agendas and government policy to move from welfare to employment”. This was “guided,” the Forrests wrote in their Giving Pledge letter, by “the book which inspired the successful leadership of our companies, the New Testament”. On Deb’s Place, a Christian YouTube series, Nicola notes that the term “covenant” is a direct biblical reference. “With the Children’s Trust, we often try and support Christian-based activities,” she says, “because that is what is real and that is what gives life to people.”

Organisations subsidised by the Forrests include the Fresh Start Recovery Program, an evangelical rehab centre championing controversial “rapid detoxification” therapy for heroin addiction. In 2006, the Trust gave $200,000 to the Family Training Institute, a church program run by Kalgoorlie trucker-evangelist – and one-time Trust board member – Graham Thomson. (Thomson became known this February as a co-founder of DAMAGE – or “Dads and Mums Against Greens Extremism” – an enigmatic group that held scare campaigns during the last WA state election.) Another project supported by the Forrests was a 2007 documentary called The Songs of the Mission. The film, according to its distributor’s website, “offers a different perspective” on the Stolen Generations, by featuring Aboriginal people for whom “the Mission experience was a very positive one, giving them skills, knowledge and a self-belief that has served them well their entire lives”.

The following year, Forrest announced the Aboriginal Employment Covenant. It was launched on 30 October, at Kirribilli House. “This is a good day for Australia,” Kevin Rudd, then still PM, told the audience. “I think we are cele-brating also the death of ideology on this question, the absolute death of ideology.” While Rudd celebrated, the Trust’s website claimed that the Covenant was “all about the Aboriginal people of Australia defeating the dead hand of welfare” with support from employers. In reality, it remains a somewhat opaque, confidence-boosting exercise. The initial two-year deadline passed with fewer than 3000 actual jobs created and 20,000 “pledged”. An ANU academic, Kirrily Jordan, has noted that it is hard to monitor retention rates, or track whether Covenant jobs are bringing anyone out of welfare and not simply making employed indigenous people more employable. Also, the Covenant (now rebranded “GenerationOne”) hasn’t accounted for overlap with other affirmative action policies and training arrangements when claiming its successes. One suspects last year’s sharp dip in the spot price for iron ore didn’t help, when Fortescue laid off 1000 employees and contractors at a stroke, black and white.

For Andrew Forrest – whose billion-share fortune doubles as an enthusiasm barometer, and who once said the priorities in his life were God, family, friends and business, in that order – faith and confidence go hand in hand. Last year in Indonesia, and earlier this year in Burma, he launched Walk Free, “a movement of people everywhere, fighting to end one of the world’s greatest evils: modern slavery”. No tonnage target, cause or ambition seems too grand for Andrew Forrest. Weaning indigenous people off welfare, ending slavery, denying the government his “super profits”, out-mining Rio Tinto, distinguishing himself from fellow barons Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer – all of it and more depends, for now, on the return of healthy commodity prices. As ever, he’s bullish about that. And then, who knows? A knighthood? Or if he wasn’t so at pains to portray himself as non-political, he might covet the prize that was Sir John Forrest’s: the premiership of WA. Or even the one that then eluded his great-grand-uncle 100 years ago, when Sir John missed out on the prime ministership by a single parliamentary vote. After all, like prime-ministerial aspirant Clive Palmer, Andrew Forrest did not get where he is without thinking, and talking, big.

Ramon Glazov

Ramon Glazov is a Perth-based writer, critic and journalist. His work has appeared in Overland, Jacobin, Tincture Journal and the Saturday Paper.

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