Books Australia

Mining magnate paradox

14 November 2013

3:00 PM

14 November 2013

3:00 PM

In many ways, Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest has become the likeable face of the Australian mining boom, a self-made billionaire without the haughtiness of Gina Rinehart or the swagger of Clive Palmer. His wealth is estimated at $10 billion, mainly linked to his company Fortescue Metals, and although this book is not an authorised biography he is quite happy to be in the public spotlight.

Burrell, a business journalist for the Australian, notes that Forrest is a work in progress. He is only in his early fifties, and he has no shortage of ambition. Nevertheless, Twiggy leaves many questions unanswered, and sometimes Burrell seems to turn away just when things are getting interesting. Most importantly, he never quite resolves the contradictions of his subject.

And there are plenty of them. His business acumen took a while to develop, for example. One of his early ventures, the Murrin Murrin nickel project developed by Anaconda Nickel, of which Forrest was the CEO, cost investors more than $1 billion. Forrest was sacked, but it was unclear where the money went. This disaster would have destroyed people with less faith in themselves, but Forrest shook it off and forged onwards, looking for any opportunities that presented themselves. There have been some shady manoeuvres along the way, several of which have drawn the attention of various regulators. Forrest has always been able to talk his way out, and his silver tongue has been pivotal to his success.

In his younger days he spoke with a stutter; he overcame it, and the process made him realise the power of the word. He is known for giving great speeches, and for being even more persuasive in small groups. Even his business adversaries describe him as a charismatic, charming fellow.

This last point says something important about Forrest. He has opponents but not enemies. Unlike Rinehart, he does not hold grudges. Unlike Palmer, he does not construct opposition into conspiracies. He is seen as having a good deal of integrity, by the standards of the business world, though several courts have found him to be, as Burrell quotes, ‘a less than honest person’.

Burrell points out that the resources game, especially as it is played in WA, is not for the meek. Forrest has played it tough, but there is no evidence of personal malice in his business dealings. For his part, Forrest often speaks of his upbringing on his family’s cattle station in the Pilbara, and the fact that he is related to the legendary Federation-era politician John Forrest. He also refers to ‘finding God’ in the desert at the age of nine, in connection with a lost motorbike key, and his attempts to rub the colour of the Pilbara into his skin before he was sent away to boarding school.

His overt Christianity and Outback childhood underpins his attempts to improve conditions for Aboriginal communities. He has strong personal relationships with a number of Aboriginals, and Burrell believes that Forrest is genuine in his commitment to this cause. But he notes that it sometimes takes odd forms, such as a paternalistic focus on social benefits rather than monetary compensation for projects on Aboriginal land. Forrest has even tried to include wages for indigenous employees as ‘compensation’, which is missing the point of a series of fundamental legal decisions. In other examples, he has ruthlessly used divisive tactics in negotiations with Aboriginal tribes, picking the people to speak with rather than leaders designated by the community (although it must be said that working out just who is responsible for negotiations remains a problem for resource companies).

There is something similar in Forrest’s philanthropic activities. According to some estimates, he has given away over $300 million across a range of causes. This is a remarkable figure, but it fades a bit when Burrell recounts how several charities have been used to minimise Forrest’s and Fortescue’s tax liabilities. This is not to say that the donations have been a scam but certainly there is a sense that Forrest always has an eye on the main chance. Burrell suggests that Forrest’s philanthropy has an undeniable PR aspect to it, a matter of building a stock of goodwill should it ever be needed.

Will Forrest take his energy, wealth, and faith into the political world? He has already ventured onto the stage, to oppose the mining tax, and he seemed to like it. If he decides to go further, says Burrell, it will probably be as part of the Liberal party rather than through a Palmer-style vanity organisation. Some people who know him, and whom Burrell spoke to, say that he would like to be PM one day; another option is Premier of WA. Well, you could do worse.

All up, Twiggy is a pretty good book, but the lack of hard conclusions at the end lets it down. More boldness in reconciling the two aspects of Forrest would have provided a welcome focus. Maybe Burrell will revisit the subject in the future, and will provide a more complete picture.

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