30/03/2022 - 11:03

Centre holds as influencers jostle

30/03/2022 - 11:03


Upgrade your subscription to use this feature.

A likely change of power in Canberra this year will have little bearing on the makeup of WA’s political and business leaders. Click through to see our updated ranking of WA's 50 Most Influential.

Centre holds as influencers jostle
Mark McGowan (right) prides himself on a good working relationship with business leaders such as Andrew Forrest. Photo: Matt Jelonek

There have been some major changes in our annual ranking of Western Australia’s 50 most influential business and political leaders, but the locus of power is unchanged.

Meg O'Neill has moved into the top 10 after being confirmed as Woodside Petroleum’s chief executive in August (see graphic)

Woodside is already one of the state’s largest and most important companies and is set to get much larger, once it finalises its merger with BHP’s petroleum division and starts development of its Scarborough gas project.

Joining her in the top 10 is new Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson, who was promoted in December to one of the most important portfolios in government.

It is still very early days in her ministerial career but apart from a few minor glitches, Ms Sanderson has performed well in the role, signalling she will be a prominent Labor figure into the future.

Slipping down the list is federal Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister Michaelia Cash.

It was only a year ago she was promoted to replace the outgoing Christian Porter.

With the prospect of the Liberal Party losing power in Canberra in this year’s federal election, Senator Cash’s influence has waned.

Mr Porter has exited the top 50 completely, after initially being demoted and then choosing to retire from politics.

It has been a dramatic fall from grace for the one-time rising star of conservative politics.

An equally dramatic exit from the top 50 has been made by Nev Power, who has been convicted of breaching COVID-19 travel regulations.

Mr Power has either resigned or taken leave from his multiple board roles, which included chairing Perth Airport, and it’s hard to see him recovering from this major setback.

John Langoulant, who served on multiple government and private sector boards, has also exited the list, but in very different circumstances.

He has taken up a new position as WA’s agent general in London, a role usually taken when people are approaching the twilight of their career.

Another exit is City of Perth Lord Mayor Basil Zempilas.

He was elected with a strong mandate for change, but the passage of time has confirmed that Australia’s third tier of government has little sway.

For most people on the Most Influential list, their position is tied to a particular role.

Once they finish up, they are off the list.

Former Woodside chief Peter Coleman and former CBH Group chief Jimmy Wilson are prime examples, with both having retired last year.

There are two notable exceptions to this rule, however.

Ben Wyatt had been on the list in his capacity as WA’s treasurer and energy minister.

Unlike most of his peers, who fade to obscurity after retiring from politics, Mr Wyatt has quickly built a new career as a professional director at the very top tier of business.

He has been recruited by Woodside and Rio Tinto as a non-executive director, adding to multiple other board roles, including at the West Coast Eagles and Perth Festival.

The Rio role is expected to be particularly important, as Mr Wyatt is the only director based in WA, where the global mining giant generates most of its profits and has suffered its biggest reputational damage.

A second exception to the rule is Bill Beament, who previously built Northern Star Resources into a gold mining powerhouse.

He has moved onto a new company, DEVELOP Global, where he has ambitious growth plans.

Equally important is his position as a prominent opinion leader in the mining sector.

Locus of power

Amid these changes, a handful of people remain at the centre of power and influence in WA, led by Premier Mark McGowan.

Labor’s resounding election victory in March 2021 has given him almost unprecedented influence.

Adding the treasury portfolio to his other ministerial responsibilities has made Mr McGowan even more powerful and he shows no sign of shedding the extra responsibility.

Who would when the state’s coffers are overflowing?

His personal popularity has fallen from its stratospheric levels but there is no surprise in that, and he retains an approval rating of 64 per cent, a number most politicians can only dream of.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison recognises the premier’s high popularity.

That was abundantly clear this month when the two men jointly hosted an unusually friendly press conference, with both keen to put aside past differences while announcing big infrastructure spending commitments.

The biggest impact from that event was likely to be inside the Labor Party, with many people surprised by the premier’s willingness to be so chummy with the prime minister, just two weeks after he failed to make time to have a public appearance with Labor leader Anthony Albanese.

Mr McGowan’s high approval rating reflects many traits, but two stand out.

First, he is inherently cautious, which has served him well during the pandemic.

Second, he is a centrist whose appeal extends from blue-collar workers to the big end of town, including the likes of Andrew Forrest and Kerry Stokes, whose influence sits head and shoulders above other business leaders in WA.

The premier’s close ties to Mr Stokes became clear this month when private text messages between the pair were released during a Sydney court case with Clive Palmer.

The text messages revealed a surprising familiarity and mutual backslapping.

They also revealed that the premier messaged Mr Stokes to give him a ‘heads up’ on contentious legislation that was about to be introduced to state parliament.

It provided a rare public confirmation of the close relationship that many observers had long suspected.

Kerry Stokes

Mr Stokes’ wide network of influence is most visible through his ASX-listed companies Seven Group Holdings and Seven West Media.

Central to his vast business empire is his private holding company Australian Capital Equity, which holds numerous investments, including a controlling stake in another ASX-listed company, BCI Minerals.

Another measure of influence is the lineup of powerful people – including Barenjoey chairman David Gonski, royal commissioner Neville Owen and former premier Richard Court – who serve as directors of his little-known private companies.

These links became contentious last year when it emerged that Mr Owen (as chair of the Perth Casino Royal Commission) would be questioning several executives and directors at Mr Stokes’ companies.

Approaching 82 years of age, Mr Stokes has taken a notable step toward slowing down.

He retired last year as chairman of Seven Group but remains a consultant to the company.

Mr Stokes also continues as chair of Seven West and ACE.

His Sydney-based son, Ryan Stokes, is the heir apparent, already serving as managing director of Seven Group, non-executive director of Seven West and chief executive of ACE.

The Forrests

Andrew and Nicola Forrest also rank near the very top of our Most Influential list.

The organisations they own, or control, are among the biggest investors in WA.

Fortescue Metals Group is one of the biggest investors in the Pilbara, having recently commissioned its Eliwana mine and pressing ahead with its Iron Bridge project.

The company’s wholly owned subsidiary, Fortescue Future Industries, has rapidly built a 700-strong workforce to support its ambitions of developing major green energy projects around the globe.

Closer to home, the Forrests’ private company, Tattarang, is a big investor in WA, buying everything from cattle stations to luxury resorts, adding to its interests in mining, energy and other industries.

Adding to all that, Minderoo Foundation is one of the largest and certainly most active philanthropic foundations in the country, with 200 staff and annual spending of nearly $110 million.

The Forrests’ wide network means people close to them also rank among the state’s most influential.

These include Fortescue chief executive Elizabeth Gaines; she announced her intention to step down from that role last December but will continue in the Forrest orbit, as a director of Fortescue and as the group’s global green energy ambassador.

Another is Mark Barnaba.

As Fortescue’s deputy chairman, he is paid more than most full-time chief executives.

Mr Barnaba is also chair of Minderoo Foundation’s Sea of the Future initiative and of technology company GLX Digital, in which Tattarang has invested.

His influence also comes from being the sole WA representative on the Reserve Bank of Australia board.

Other notable people connected to the Forrests include Minderoo and Tattarang chief executive Andrew Hagger and Tattarang chief investment officer John Hartman.

Business leaders

As one of Australia’s wealthiest people, Gina Rinehart has the capacity to shape industry development.

Her company Hancock Prospecting and its subsidiaries, Roy Hill Holdings and Atlas Iron, are major investors in the Pilbara, with several mines in production and plans for several more under way.

Mrs Rinehart’s companies secured a crucial breakthrough early this year when they won the right (in joint venture with Chris Ellison’s Mineral Resources) to develop a new shipping berth at Port Hedland.

Mrs Rinehart ranks high on the Most Influential list because she personally controls Hancock.

Global miners Rio Tinto and BHP have much larger operations in WA but ultimate control rests with their head offices, in London (Rio) and Melbourne (BHP).

Nonetheless, their top Perth executives – Simon Trott and Edgar Basto, respectively – rank among the state’s top business leaders.

Among professional chief executives in Perth, none rank higher than Wesfarmers boss Rob Scott, reflecting the sheer scale and breadth of the conglomerate’s operations.

Wesfarmers has produced the state’s two most influential company directors.

Michael Chaney, who chairs his old company, surprised many last year when he chose to start a new board role as chairman of Northern Star Resources.

Richard Goyder’s board portfolio has more of a national spread, as it includes Qantas and the AFL as well as Woodside and Mr Stokes’ favourite charity, the Channel 7 Telethon Trust.

Senior ministers Labor’s electoral dominance in WA has delivered enormous influence to the government’s top ministers and key decision makers.

These include Planning and Transport Minister Rita Saffioti, who has been close to the centre of power for many years, either as an economic adviser to former Labor premiers or as a senior minister.

The Metronet public transport project continues to be one of Labor’s defining policies and responsibility rests with Ms Saffioti to deliver.

The big spike in construction costs over the past year has made that a much more challenging task.

Deputy Premier Roger Cook continues to be a major player.

After last year’s reshuffle, Mr Cook has an opportunity to drive the long-term economic reform agenda and create new opportunities in WA through portfolios such as state development and tourism.

Amber-Jade Sanderson, as noted above, now ranks among the government’s most important ministers.

If she continues to perform well, she will amass more influence in cabinet and have more impact than older, more experienced ministers such as Sue Ellery, Bill Johnston and Alannah MacTiernan.

Backroom advisers

The government’s key backroom advisers are led by the premier’s chief of staff, Daniel Pastorelli. He was promoted to that role a year ago after the 2021 state election, having previously served as the premier’s director of communications.

Other key advisers in the premier’s office include deputy chief of staff Veronica Jeffery, who formerly worked for Ms Saffioti, and media director David Cooper, from the Seven Network.

The government’s policy direction is also swayed by the influence of Labor’s factional powerbrokers, none more so than Carolyn Smith.

She is state secretary of the United Workers Union, which is the most influential union in Labor’s dominant left faction and has been president of WA Labor since 2017.

The left’s influence is evidenced by the government’s decision to reverse several privatised outsourcing contracts held by companies such as Programmed and Serco.

The close-knit connections in WA were illustrated by the career moves made by two of the premier’s key advisers after they retired at the state election.

Former chief of staff Guy Houston joined Australian Capital Equity as a strategic adviser and has secured a couple of government board roles, at the Rottnest Island Authority and VenuesWest.

Former deputy chief of staff Jo Gaines is the new chair of super fund GESB and been appointed a director of DevelopmentWA.

The GESB role was one of several that became available after John Langoulant was appointed WA’s agent general in London.

Nicole Lockwood, who chairs the Westport Taskforce, was rewarded with promotion to chair of Infrastructure WA, while Hamish Beck was promoted to chair the Rottnest Island Authority.

The chairs of other major government businesses include Sam Walsh at Gold Corporation, Ross Love at Fremantle Ports and the Water Corporation, and Rob Cole at Synergy and Landgate.

Mr Cole is a rarity, as he chairs both government businesses and ASX-listed companies.

The former Woodside executive became chair of mining services company Perenti Global in 2021 and will take over as chair of mineral sands miner Iluka Resources in April this year.

Public servants

The government has bedded down the leadership of the public service this past year after the retirement of several directors general and the early resignation of Darren Foster, who previously oversaw the Department of the Premier and Cabinet.

The government has taken a conservative approach, opting for long-serving public servants who, in many cases, had been acting in their current roles.

Public sector commissioner Sharyn O'Neill has officially overseen the appointments, in a process that lacks transparency and purports to be independent of ministers.

Acting DG Emily Roper was promoted in December to run Premier and Cabinet.

Notably, it took the government nearly two years to permanently fill what is traditionally considered the most important public service role in the state.

Other key appointments include Peter Woronzow to run the Department of Transport, Anthony Kannis at the Department of Planning Lands and Heritage, Lanie Chopping at the Department of Local Government Sport and Cultural Industries, and Richard Sellers at the Department of Mines Industry Regulation and Safety.

This process has allowed several other senior public servants to return to their substantive roles, including Rebecca Brown to the Department of Jobs Tourism Science and Innovation, and Jodi Cant to the Department of Finance.

Senior public servants who have continued in the same job throughout this period of change include under-treasurer Michael Barnes.

Federal politics

WA has been a conservative stronghold for many years in terms of federal electoral outcomes.

Just a few years ago, the coalition parties held 12 out of 15 WA seats in the House of Representatives.

WA was also home to many of the federal government’s most senior ministers, including Mathias Cormann, Julie Bishop and Christian Porter.

The Liberals still hold 10 out of 15 seats in WA but that is expected to fall after this year’s election.

The party’s waning fortunes in WA are also reflected in the state’s reduced influence in federal cabinet.

There are four Western Australians in Scott Morrison’s 24-member cabinet but only one could be described as senior and influential: Michaelia Cash.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt is widely respected but has not been able to drive meaningful change.

WA’s two other cabinet ministers are not considered heavy hitters after suffering setbacks in their careers.

Defence Industry Minister Melissa Price was removed from cabinet after the 2019 election in what was widely seen as a demotion.

She was returned to cabinet in 2021 at a time when the Morrison government was under pressure over sexual assault allegations and was keen to lift its standing among women.

Linda Reynolds has been a cabinet minister since 2019 but was demoted last year from defence to two lesser portfolios: government services and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

That was after the government became embroiled in controversy over its handling of sexual assault allegations by one of Senator Reynolds’ former staffers, Brittany Higgins.

A more influential person in Canberra is Ben Morton, who sits in the outer ministry.

As minister assisting the prime minister and cabinet, minister for the public service and special minister of state, he is considered closer to the centre of power than some cabinet ministers.

A former state secretary of the Liberal Party in WA, Mr Morton is considered a shrewd campaign adviser trusted by the prime minister.

Another Western Australian on the rise is the Assistant Defence Minister Andrew Hastie.

Electoral swing

With a federal election due to be held in the next two months and Labor well ahead in the polls, political influence in Canberra is set for a massive shake up.

National opinion polls show Labor attracting about 54 per cent of the two-party preferred vote while the coalition is on 45 per cent.

If those numbers hold up, Anthony Albanese will become Australia’s next prime minister.

Recent polling in WA, including by Utting Research, shows a similar result in this state.

The Utting poll, published in Seven West Media’s daily newspaper this month, shows Labor is well ahead in three seats held by the Liberals: Swan, Pearce and Hasluck.

It also shows Labor could pick up a fourth seat, Tangney, held by Mr Morton.

On his recent visit to Perth, Mr Albanese focused his attention on the three seats where Labor is ahead.

Most notably, he has been a strong supporter of City of Wanneroo Mayor Tracey Roberts, who is contesting the northern suburbs electorate of Pearce.

If Labor takes power in May, WA is likely to have modest representation in the cabinet, judging by Mr Albanese’s 23-member shadow ministry.

It includes just one Western Australian, Madeleine King, as shadow minister for trade and resources.

Mr Albanese has refused to confirm if Ms King – or, indeed, any other individual – would serve in his ministry if Labor was to win the election.

However, he has stated that Ms King would play an important role.

“I think she’s doing a great job,” Mr Albanese said in Perth this month.

“And it was a very conscious decision to appoint Madeleine. And she will remain a very key part of my team.”

The next most senior Western Australian is Matt Keogh, who sits in the outer shadow ministry, with responsibility for defence industry and small business.

Other Western Australians who could receive roles in an Albanese government include Patrick Gorman, Josh Wilson and Patrick Dodson, who are currently shadow assistant ministers.


Subscription Options