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Issue #1616      October 30, 2013

Ideologically motivated philanthropy

What has got into Australia’s capitalist class? Billionaires are lining up to donate to universities and other well respected institutions. Is it an attack of conscience after screwing workers and destroying the environment in the course of amassing their personal fortunes? Have they concluded that the privatising neo-liberals have gone too far and that public education (for example) needs a helping hand? It was Andrew (Twiggy) Forrest of Fortescue Metals Group who set tongues wagging recently with his donation of $65 million for postgraduate research at the University of Western Australia (UWA). The consensus on the business pages is that large scale, US-style philanthropy has arrived in Australia and that it is good news for those of us who must wait for crumbs to fall from the tables of the wealthy.

Twiggy Forrest and Tony Abbott.

Twiggy and his wife Nicole have signed the “Pledge” to give away half their fortune, following in the footsteps of Bill and Melinda Gates of Microsoft fame and mega-rich investor Warren Buffett in the US. Forrest has handed over more than $300 million in the past decade and the decision to pump another $65 million into Forrest Foundation scholarships and the construction of Forrest Hall at UWA has certainly upped the ante in the latest round of local philanthropy. The mining magnate has previously attracted attention with a series of cash injections into Aboriginal employment and education projects. So have we got the capitalists all wrong?

“Much of our philanthropy has been anonymous because of our belief it is best to give without strings attached,” Forrest has been quoted as saying. But the latest announcement was made to a VIP audience including Prime Minister Abbott, WA Premier Colin Barnett and Governor Malcolm McCusker. The conservative pollies among them would have been well pleased. Coalition plans place great importance on philanthropy and the other ways private interests can make further big incursions into public education.

In fact, most of the “philanthropy” in recent times appears to be directed at strategic points in health and education – the two sectors of the economy identified by former PM Gillard as not having yielded totally to “free” market treatment. And while Twiggy Forrest would love us to believe he is an uncomplicated guy who previously was driven to make a fortune and is now driven by his very publicly proclaimed Christian beliefs to give it away, there is more to the mining magnate than meets the eye.

Mr Forrest has a long association with extreme right-wing politics. A new biography by Andrew Burrell entitled Twiggy; the High Stakes Life of Andrew Forrest reveals that Forrest employed David Thompson from the League of Rights to be a senior executive at Anaconda, one of Forrest’s less successful business ventures in the 1990s. Thompson was Forrest’s wife’s brother-in-law. Nicole’s family had been involved with the notorious anti-Semitic group for a long time. Thompson was organising speaking tours of Australia by holocaust-denying British “historian” David Irving when he was put on the payroll.

Twiggy may not be a racist but he certainly shares the right wing’s contempt for government’s ability to get the job done. These latter day philanthropists don’t leave a bag of money at the door of a charity or the department of health or education to help the less advantaged. The dent the amounts involved would make in funding shortfalls would be relatively minor in any case. They want to help build a generation of leaders who also recognise the power of private capital.

BHP Billiton is putting up $10 million to partner the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation to provide scholarships to 185 high achieving Aboriginal students to attend elite private boarding schools. The former top donor, Graham Tuckwell, gave $50 million for undergraduate scholarships to the Australian National University. John Grill chipped in $20 million to set up a Centre for Project Leadership. Harold Mitchell contributed $12.5 million for a health and education policy research institute. That promises to be a busy place in the near future!

A lot of this philanthropy was sparked by Howard-era legislation that made it easier for donors to set up tax-effective private ancillary funds (PAFs). Labor introduced the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) partly in order to regularise the flurry of mega-rich generosity. Abbott’s social services minister, Kevin Andrews, is philosophically opposed to any such government “meddling” and committed to dismantling the agency. Nothing is going to be curb the Coalition’s vision of an Australia made to order for the corporate sector.

Next article – 24 Hours of Reality: The cost of Carbon

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