The emptiness of ‘billionaire philanthropy’

May 11, 2022
Nicola and Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest.
Nicola and Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest are trying to brand themselves as "generous" billionaires, though their philanthropy is mostly self-serving.

Billionaire philanthropy is a very tired trope, but that did not stop ABC’s Australian Story from rehashing mining magnate — and second-richest person in Australia — Andrew “Twiggy”  Forrest’s philanthropic posturing in its April 25 episode, “The Undercover Billionaire”.

It focused on Nicola Forrest “stepping out of the shadow of her at-times controversial husband” to become a lobbyist for their special causes.

Giving an advertising campaign a new face is an age-old marketing trick.

The 2022 The List: Australia’s Richest 250 estimates the Forrest family’s wealth to be $31.77 billion, just behind the $32.64 billion owned by another mining magnate, Gina Rinehart, the richest person in Australia.

The Forrests boast they plan to give away the majority of their fortune in their lifetime and, in 2001, they set up their own charity, the Mindaroo Foundation, supposedly to carry it out. Australian Story told us the Forrests are “giving away” about $100 million a year.

This has barely dented the billionaire family’s wealth. As Grant Turner noted in Independent Australia, the Mindaroo fund has been exposed as largely self-serving.

Forrest was splashed across the corporate media for donating $70 million to the Black Summer bushfire crisis in 2020. “Many were delighted to see this incredibly wealthy man giving to such a worthwhile cause,” Turner said, but if “we look a little deeper into Forrest’s philanthropic donation it’s apparent that his gift comes with conditions”.

He said $10 million went to immediate relief for the bushfire bushfires but that “another $10 million will go to Twiggy’s ‘army of helpers’ — whatever that means”. Another $50 million went to his own Foundation, “apparently, to enable his own handpicked researchers to look into ‘fire mitigation’”.

Forrest has used his Mindaroo Foundation to promote the racist Indue “cashless welfare card,” which is mainly forced on First Nations welfare recipients.

Forrest has also challenged Native Title claims against his Fortescue Metals Group (FMG), the fourth-largest mining company in the country.

Paul Cleary, in the September 2021 Monthly, wrote that “FMG’s conduct would become more extreme and aggressive than what has gone on else­where in the iron ore industry — and quite possibly the entire mining industry in this country”. Forrest used the media to disparage the benefits of royalty payments to Traditional Owners, “glossing over the fact that this view also saved the company a great deal of money”.

Cleary locates Forrest’s attitude to the Traditional Owners in the fact that he is a member of one of Western Australia’s big landowning families — wealthy dynasties built on the dispossession and super exploitation of First Nations peoples.

FMG is notorious for its tax minimisation, coming under fire in a 2011 Senate hearing for having “never paid a dollar in company tax”. Forrest, along with Rinehart, led the fight against the Rudd Labor government’s mining super profits tax.

But instead of looking in detail at this ugly record, the episode served up the following little anecdote from Nicola Forrest: “My son came home from school one day and said: ‘Mummy, what’s a billionaire?’ I said: ‘You know what, sweetheart, it’s all just figures in books. You know how we've got shares in Fortescue? It’s not real money.’ But yeah, of course, now we are reaping the rewards of the dividends.”

Yes, not real money, just a few dividends!

The idea of the huge wealth of billionaires not being “real money” was demolished by The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, who noted that billionaires can borrow money on their shares as collateral, make themselves richer in the process, take tax write-offs on interest and then tell the tax office this wealth gain should not be taxed because it is unrealised.

Most ordinary people know we live in a system rigged for the rich. But Green Left added that it does not have to be like this. We simply cannot afford to continue the way we are going.

We can and must democratise the economy and take its main resources back into collective ownership if we are to end the accelerating race to greater inequality and climate catastrophe.

If you agree, you should become a Green Left supporter today and make a donation to our Fighting Fund.

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