31/03/2021 - 13:39

Power and influence more concentrated

31/03/2021 - 13:39


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Our updated listing of the 50 most influential Western Australians in business and politics highlights four individuals who stand apart from the rest.

Power and influence more concentrated
Mark McGowan with Governor Kim Beazley and the new ministry. Photo: David Henry

Mark McGowan’s resounding victory at this month’s state election has set him up as one of Western Australia’s most powerful premiers.

His dominance of the state government was evident in his ministerial reshuffle.

Mr McGowan took the opportunity to extend his influence by adding the treasury portfolio to his existing responsibilities.

Like any leader, however, his power is not unfettered.

(view a PDF version of this special report)

He has needed to be cognisant of the influence of Labor’s dominant left faction, which is strongly represented in the caucus and the ministry.

Notably, the one casualty from the ministerial reshuffle was Peter Tinley, who was aligned with the right faction.

While Mr McGowan has more power, that is not expected to lead to marked changes in his policy agenda.

As a cautious centrist, he will focus on continuity: creating jobs, diversifying the economy, and continuing to build new roads and rail lines.

The premier’s ministerial team has been refreshed with five MPs winning promotions.

However, apart from the retirement of Ben Wyatt, the core team of senior ministers is largely unchanged.

Deputy Premier Roger Cook has retained health but added two economic portfolios previously held by the premier: state development plus jobs and trade.

Rita Saffioti has an expanded role. She has retained the transport and planning portfolios and added ports, which will include planning for the new container port at Cockburn Sound.

Bill Johnston will continue in energy and mines. He is not considered close to the premier, but as an experienced and accomplished minister who is very well regarded in the business community, he is rated as one of the government’s most influential.

Other senior ministers close to the premier include Sue Ellery, Paul Papalia, and John Quigley.

A major change has occurred in the premier’s office.

Long-serving chief of staff Guy Houston and deputy chief of staff Jo Gaines have both announced plans to retire shortly.

Daniel Pastorelli has been promoted to chief of staff, providing some continuity.

He has worked for Mr McGowan since 2013, most recently as director of communications, and before that worked for Ms Saffioti.

Political pundits will be keen to see who fills the senior vacancies in the premier’s office.

They will also watch closely to see whether the unions seek more influence, especially after four years of wage restraint in the public sector.

The power of the unions is best represented by Carolyn Smith, who is state secretary of the United Workers Union and president of WA Labor.

The United Workers Union, along with the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union, provides the powerbase for the dominant left faction.

The left’s policy influence is apparent in the government’s strong push to revive railcar manufacturing in WA; a policy that also accords with the widely held desire to diversify the WA economy.

Its influence is also evident in Labor’s reversal of privatisation, most notably at the Water Corporation and in the health portfolio.

Service contracts held by private companies have ended and more than 1,000 jobs have been brought back into the public sector.

Kerry Stokes

Since winning power in 2017, Mr McGowan has regularly faced questions about his links to powerful and influential business figures.

A handful of names usually comes up, led by media magnate Kerry Stokes, and property developers Nigel Satterley (who is very public in his support for the premier) and Adrian Fini (who is very guarded in his public comments).

The premier bats away the criticism, saying he deals with people from all parts of society.

But in these cases, and especially that of Mr Stokes, there are a number of decisions where the lack of transparency fuels the speculation.

Mr Stokes’ enormous wealth and wide network makes him influential in anyone’s book.

His largest source of wealth is his shareholding in ASX-listed Seven Group Holdings, worth just under $5 billion.

Seven Group is a large and diversified company, with its main operation being Caterpillar dealer WesTrac.

Mr Stokes is also chairman of ASX-listed Seven West Media, which owns the Seven TV network and publishes Perth’s only daily newspaper.

His influence is evidenced by, and extended through, several other roles, such as patron of WA’s largest charity fundraiser, the Channel 7 Telethon Trust, chair of the Australian War Memorial, and former chair of the National Gallery of Australia.

At the height of WA’s COVID-19 lockdown last year, Mr Stokes was able to travel back into the state after being granted an exemption, something many other people were not able to obtain.

When questioned about this, the government insisted he went through normal channels

In April last year his private company, Australian Capital Equity, along with Andrew Forrest’s private company Tattarang (then known as Minderoo Group), were named as preferred proponents to redevelop the East Perth power station.

A deal on this site has not been finalised. It could mean a derelict state property is revived by visionary developers for the benefit of the wider community. 

It could also create an opportunity for lucrative inner-city apartment developments. We await the details.

In August last year, Mr Stokes benefitted from another state government decision.

The $750 million Waitsia gas project, in which he has a substantial stake via Beach Energy, was exempted from the state’s gas reservation policy.

At the time, the premier said Waitsia would be allowed to export some of its gas as LNG for a short period of time.  

In an update released on Christmas Eve, it was revealed that Waitsia would in fact be able to export 85 per cent of its annual production up to the end of 2028. 

Mr Stokes was the beneficiary of another favourable decision by government last year, in December, this time in the federal sphere.

ASX-listed BCI Minerals, in which he holds a 40 per cent stake, obtained a $450 million loan from the federal government’s Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF).

The 15-year loan represented the largest allocation to a WA-based company since NAIF was established five years ago.

The money will be used to help fund development of BCI’s Mardie Salt & Potash project.

On their own, each of these decisions is reasonable.

Collectively, they show Mr Stokes has enjoyed a very good run when it comes to securing favourable decisions from government.

Andrew and Nicola Forrest

Andrew and Nicola Forrest are ranked among Australia’s wealthiest people, with an estimated worth approaching $30 billion.

But more than most super rich people, they are very active and unusually public in what they do with their money.

Their main source of wealth is a 36 per cent shareholding in iron ore miner Fortescue Metals Group, which Mr Forrest built from scratch.

As Fortescue’s chairman and major shareholder, he has a big say in the miner’s spending plans.

At the moment, it is investing billions of dollars in new mines, including at Eliwana and Iron Bridge.

Mr Forrest also influences how that money is invested, with Fortescue always keen to highlight the contracts it awards to Aboriginal contractors and jobs it provides to Aboriginal people.

More significantly, Mr Forrest has radically pivoted the iron ore miner towards green energy through its subsidiary, Fortescue Future Industries.

He has signed up former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to chair FFI in Australia and outlined extraordinarily ambitious growth plans, saying green energy will one day rival the importance of mining.

There are very few people in the world who could pivot an operating business as large as Fortescue so dramatically and so quickly.

Beyond Fortescue, there are the Forrests’ private pursuits.

They are largely funded by dividends from Fortescue, which is currently churning out record profits.

Mr Forrest pocketed dividends totalling about $2 billion last year, with more to come this year.

That money goes into their private investment company, Tattarang, and the philanthropic Minderoo Foundation.

Minderoo increased its spending last year to $88 million, making it by far the country’s largest philanthropic foundation, according to a national study in The Australian.

After that, it still has $1.9 billion in the bank, according to its June 2020 annual report.

It has dozens of researchers, academics and consultants on its books, working on projects as diverse as ending global slavery and cleaning up the world’s oceans.

Also growing fast is Tattarang, which recently added iconic boot manufacturer RM Wiliams to its diverse business portfolio.

The scale of the Forrests’ commercial and philanthropic activities means they are joined on the ‘50 most influential’ list by several associated people.

Mark Barnaba is one of Perth’s best-connected businesspeople, making him influential in his own right.

His roles include being deputy chairman of Fortescue; in practice, he often fills in for the chairman because Mr Forrest spends so much time focused on his other interests.

Fortescue chief executive Elizabeth Gaines is also on the list, as she has a key role in guiding and running the iron ore juggernaut.

Another to make the list is Andrew Hagger, the chief executive of both Minderoo and Tattarang.

Business leaders

Other business leaders making their mark with substantial investments are Gina Rinehart and Chris Ellison.

Mrs Rinehart is ranked as Australia’s wealthiest person, with a fortune of more than $36 billion.

That mostly comes from her interests in iron ore mining via Hancock Prospecting and its subsidiary, Roy Hill Holdings.

With support from her key executives Tad Watroba and Barry Fitzgerald, Mrs Rinehart is pursuing further growth in the Pilbara and other regions.

She is well known for her support for Olympic athletes, especially female swimmers, and breast cancer research, though the extent of her philanthropic activity is unknown.

While Mrs Rinehart’s expansive wealth and business interests give her immense commercial influence, she has had less success influencing government policy.

Mr Ellison is the managing director and major shareholder of Mineral Resources, which has interests in contracting, iron ore, and lithium.

It’s a small business next to the likes of Fortescue and Hancock Prospecting, but still has nearly 4,000 employees and contractors across its operations.

More significantly, it is one of the most entrepreneurial companies in WA, constantly seeking new growth opportunities and smarter ways to run the business.

Wesfarmers chief executive Rob Scott and chairman Michael Chaney are among the state’s most influential business leaders.

Wesfarmers is one of Australia’s top 10 companies by market value and the retail conglomerate is also one of the country’s largest employers.

That put Mr Scott at the centre of public debate over how to respond to COVID-19.

Resources companies

The leadership of WA’s biggest resources companies is going through multiple changes.

Rio Tinto announced in January a new management team to lead the group after the turmoil caused by the Juukan Gorge controversy.

Simon Trott is the group’s most senior Perth-based executive after being put in charge of its iron ore business.

He grew up in WA and has been with Rio for 20 years, based mostly in Perth.

Another Western Australian taking a senior role is Kellie Parker.

She grew up in the Pilbara mining town of Wickham and is now chief executive Australia, based in Melbourne.

The changes at Rio were announced six months after BHP finalised a new executive structure.

Perth-based Edgar Basto was formally appointed president of minerals Australia from July 2020, having been the acting president of operations since November 2019. 

As a member of BHP’s executive leadership team, he is responsible for its iron ore, nickel, coal and copper operations across the country.

Mr Basto succeeded Melbourne-based Mike Henry, who was promoted to BHP’s chief executive.

Another big miner going through a leadership change is Northern Star Resources, just months after completing its merger with Saracen Mineral Holdings.

Executive chairman Bill Beament, who took Northern Star from a small, one-asset gold miner to a top-10 global producer, had been intending to move to a non-executive role in July.

Instead, he has opted to join aspiring copper miner Venturex Resources.

Based on Mr Beament’s track record, its likely Venturex will emerge over coming years as a major player.

Amidst these changes, there has been stable leadership at the state’s two alumina producers.

Graham Kerr has led ASX-listed South32 since the company was spun-out from BHP, while Michael Parker continues to lead Alcoa of Australia.

In the oil and gas sector, Woodside Petroleum will go through a change of leadership this year.

The Perth-based company announced in December that Peter Coleman would retire as chief executive before the end of 2021 after 10 years in the role.

Chairman Richard Goyder is overseeing an executive search that is sure to attract global interest.

The new chief executive will have a key role guiding Woodside’s final investment decisions on its planned Scarborough and Browse gas projects, two of the largest resources projects planned for WA.

The pending change at Woodside comes one year after American Mark Hatfield was appointed managing director of Chevron Australia, which continues to be a big investor in WA through its Gorgon project.

WA Liberals

The influence of Liberal Party politicians is diminished at both a state and federal level.

At a state level, the party has been all but wiped out over the course of two elections.

The handful of MPs left in the state parliament led by Cottesloe MP David Honey have an enormous task rebuilding their stocks and presenting as a credible alternative to the McGowan government.

At a national level, the change has not been so dramatic but is nonetheless very significant.

In recent years, three Cabinet ministers from WA have retired: Julie Bishop, Michael Keenan and, most recently, Mathias Cormann.

A fourth, Melissa Price, was demoted last year to a junior ministry (defence industry) after failing to impress as environment minister.

After this week’s reshuffle, the WA Liberals have five ministers in Cabinet but the influence of most of them is under question.

As Attorney-General, Minister for Industrial Relations and leader of the house, Christian Porter had been one of the most senior people in the government.

He was demoted in the reshuffle to be Minister for Industry, Science & Technology

That followed weeks of controversy over the historical rape allegations against him, which he has denied, and his decision to launch defamation action against the ABC.

Similarly, Linda Reynolds has been demoted after her contentious handling of the Brittany Higgins rape allegations and her decision to take extended leave.

Senator Reynolds has been shifted from the key defence portfolio to become Minister for Government Services and Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

From a WA business perspective, the most notable aspect of her time in defence has been her failure to make a decision on full-cycle docking for Australia’s Collins class submarines.

If this work is transferred from Adelaide to the west, as many believe it should, it would provide an enormous and ongoing boost to the local defence industry.

A decision was due at the end of 2019 and we are still waiting.

Another minister who will struggle to point to any significant achievements is Ken Wyatt.

As the first Aboriginal person to be minister for indigenous Australians, his appointment was historic but, to date, has not delivered significant change.

With talk that he will retire at the next federal election, due in 2022, Mr Wyatt may have missed his opportunity to drive big change.

A big winner from this week’s reshuffle was Michaelia Cash.

She has been promoted from the Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business portfolios to be Attorney General and Minister for Industrial Relations

After the wipeout at the state election, and with issues hanging over Mr Porter and Senator Reynolds, there will be more pressure on her to help rebuild the party in WA, while continuing with her ministerial responsibilities.

There will also be keen interest in whether she stands again at the 2022 election.

Ms Cash is aged only 50 years but has already been a senator for 12 years and risen to the top of the national government.

Another winner from the reshuffle, but to a lesser degree, was Melissa Price.

She benefited from the prime minister’s decision to bring more women into Cabinet.

It means Ms Price is in the curious position of being a Cabinet minister despite only holding a junior ministry.

The Liberal Party’s longer-term future in WA may rest with 39-year-old Ben Morton, who is described as close to, and a key adviser to, Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Mr Morton has been Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister and Cabinet since May 2019.

Since then, he has been given added responsibility for the public service and electoral matters.



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