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.

Andrew Forrest’s good intentions

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

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 billionaire-evangelists, 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 low-hanging 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.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 7, 2017 as "Amiss givings".

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