14/02/2020 - 14:08

Power rests with a select few

14/02/2020 - 14:08


Save articles for future reference.

This year’s Most Influential feature has been narrowed down to the 50 people in WA making the biggest impact in business and politics.

Power rests with a select few

This year’s Most Influential feature has been narrowed down to the 50 people in WA making the biggest impact in business and politics.

Power can be wielded in many ways. Some people have a big say over government policy settings, others can influence where money gets invested, and some are able to influence public opinion.

The 50 people profiled in this feature wield influence in at least one of these ways.

There is no scientific or objective way to draw up these lists. But it is useful to ask questions such as this. If someone phoned the prime minister’s office, would the call be put through? And if that person called a press conference, would they get onto the evening news?

(Click here to read a PDF version of this special report)

There are very few people for whom the answer would undoubtedly be yes.

Andrew Forrest is one person who meets all of these tests.

As chairman and major shareholder at Fortescue Metals Group, Mr Forrest leads one of the state’s largest companies.

Fortescue is a big investor in Western Australia, with billions of dollars going into projects such as Iron Bridge and Eliwana, and a big employer with nearly 4,300 workers.

As a co-founder of the Minderoo Foundation with his wife, Nicola Forrest, he is a globally significant philanthropist, committing hundreds of millions to his chosen causes.

And he has the ear of government, with the cashless welfare card a notable example of his influence.

Some people assert that the ‘super rich’, such as Mr Forrest and fellow billionaire Gina Rinehart, and big corporations like BHP, Woodside Petroleum and Chevron effectively rule the roost in WA.

These people and companies are undoubtedly very influential, but they do not top our list.

WA government

Mark McGowan has been premier for three years and is odds-on favourite to win another four-year term at the 2021 state election.

He leads a government that is united and effective, if not inspiring in its achievements.

Mr McGowan’s power stems from the thumping election win he achieved in 2017 and his ability to stay ahead of the opposition.

The 52 year old shows the benefits of serving a lengthy political apprenticeship, having spent years as a minister and on the opposition benches before winning power.

He has captured the middle ground of WA politics: he hasn’t delivered everything the unions and the greenies wanted, nor has he delivered everything the business lobby has wanted, but he has given something to all these groups.

Mark McGowan was joined early this month by two of his most senior ministers, Roger Cook (left) and Ben Wyatt, when the government outlined its initial response to the coronavirus. Photos: Gabriel Oliveira

Mr McGowan’s success as premier has been aided by some quality ministers, none more so than Treasurer Ben Wyatt.

Mr Wyatt has been widely applauded for the fiscal repair job he has implemented, capping growth in government spending and reversing the rise in state debt.

He has even managed to complete several big privatisation deals, in the energy and land titles sectors, without greatly upsetting Labor’s left.

Deputy Premier and Health Minister Roger Cook has been another strong support for the premier.

Mr Cook has implemented multiple reforms, none more notable than the voluntary assisted dying laws. More importantly, however, the public health system is seen to be running more smoothly under his watch.

Transport Minister Rita Saffioti is another linchpin in the McGowan government.

She helped devise and is now implementing one of Labor’s signature policies, the Metronet public transport network, though the lack of on-the-ground construction work on new rail lines has left her exposed to criticism.

Ms Saffioti is also driving reform in the property sector around planning approvals and higher density.

Other influential ministers include Sue Ellery, despite several slip-ups, and Alannah MacTiernan, helped by a high public profile and can-do reputation, while Mines Minister Bill Johnston and Tourism Minister Paul Papalia hold key portfolios.

As opposition leader, Liza Harvey plays an important role. Having taken over from Mike Nahan, her ability to hold the government to account and punch holes in Labor’s record will help determine the outcome of the next state election.

Behind the scenes

Guy Houston is the premier’s chief of staff. He has been Mr McGowan’s right-hand man since 2012, making him more powerful than many ministers.

Mr Houston is a former ABC journalist and media adviser to premiers Gallop and Carpenter, but also worked for Chevron and sent his children to an elite private school (the kind of background that suits a government holding the middle ground).

Darren Foster is director general of the Department of the Premier & Cabinet, making him the state’s most powerful public servant.

Mr Foster was a deputy DG in the fisheries department before being seconded to DPC in March 2017.

More telling in his resume was the four years he spent as Mr McGowan’s chief of staff up to 2008, and the many years he worked for former Labor treasurer Eric Ripper before that.

Carolyn Smith has been WA Labor president since June 2017 and represents the middle-of-the-road unionists who help support the McGowan government.

She runs the United Workers Union (formerly United Voice), the dominant bloc in WA Labor’s powerful ‘broad left’ faction.

Other union leaders, such as Maritime Union of Australia boss Christy Cain, make more noise but wield much less influence.

Federal government

Western Australians are strongly represented in the federal government, with five cabinet ministers from WA.

As finance minister and leader of the government in the Senate, Mathias Cormann is one of the most influential people in Canberra, despite backing the wrong man (Peter Dutton) in the 2018 leadership battle. He is also a powerbroker in the WA Liberal Party.

Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter also ranks as one of the government’s top ministers.

Linda Reynolds’ star is on the rise, having been promoted to minister for defence in May last year.

Michaelia Cash has kept a lower profile during the past year, having been caught up in several politically damaging controversies, but has retained her spot in cabinet.

As Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt holds a high public profile, but it is yet to be seen whether he wields real influence inside cabinet.

Former WA Liberal party state secretary Ben Morton shot to prominence as a key adviser to Prime Minister Scott Morrison during the federal election. He has since been appointed assistant minister to the prime minister and cabinet.

WA business

The people who run WA’s biggest companies wield significant influence, courtesy of the money they invest, the people they employ and the returns they deliver to shareholders.

Rob Scott has overseen big changes since taking the helm at Wesfarmers in 2017, although not all have delivered results for the conglomerate. His biggest strategic move, the $780 million purchase of lithium company Kidman Resources, is looking ill timed.

Kerry Stokes isn’t your average business leader. A self-made billionaire, his control of Seven West Media gives him extra clout.

Woodside boss Peter Coleman is aiming to leave his mark on the state by driving the multi-billion dollar Browse and Scarborough gas projects.

Gina Rinehart polarises opinion but her commercial impact is beyond question. She has become one of Australia’s wealthiest people by building a highly successful mining and pastoral business.

Under the leadership of Elizabeth Gaines, iron ore miner Fortescue Metals Group has overtaken Woodside to be WA’s second biggest listed company with a market value of $33 billion.

Another WA success story is Northern Star Resources. Built from scratch by executive chairman Bill Beament, the gold-miner is worth more than $10 billion. Mr Beament’s latest move was buying half of Kalgoorlie’s famed Super Pit, reinforcing his status as an industry leader.

Rod Jones has an enviable reputation as the founder of global education services company Navitas. Last year he bought back the company with the help of private equity. He also had the ear of the premier, successfully pushing the government to reverse contentious migration rules.

Other chief executives holding big commercial influence are Mineral Resources boss Chris Ellison, South32’s Graham Kerr, Austal’s David Singleton and Jimmy Wilson of CBH Group.

Wesfarmers chairman Michael Chaney is one of Australia’s most respected company directors.

Company directors

Michael Chaney established his reputation as a business leader while he was chief executive of Wesfarmers and has since become one of Australia’s most respected company directors.

Having served as chairman of Woodside and National Australia Bank, and chancellor of the University of Western Australia, he has returned to his old company as chairman.

Another former Wesfarmers chief executive, Richard Goyder, has also become a leading company director, as chair of Woodside, Qantas and the AFL.

Former Rio Tinto chief Sam Walsh has taken a slightly different path. He is the first Westerner to have joined the board of Japanese giant Mitsui, which is a major investor in WA gas, iron ore, salt, and forestry projects. He is also chair of Gold Corporation and the Australia Council for the Arts.

Some of WA’s most influential women are professional directors. Diane Smith-Gander’s board roles include being a director of Wesfarmers; she has used her profile to become a strong advocate for gender equity in business.

International business

Global businesses such as BHP, Rio Tinto, Chevron and Shell are among the largest investors in WA.

Their business decisions have a huge flow-on effect through the state’s economy.

This makes their Perth-based executives some of WA’s most influential people.

Edgar Basto has run BHP’s WA iron ore division since 2016. He has been acting president of the group’s entire Australian minerals business since November last year, when Mike Henry was promoted to chief executive.

Edgar Basto has been acting president of BHP’s mining operations in Australia since November last year.

Mr Basto’s counterpart at Rio Tinto is Chris Salisbury, who has been chief executive of its iron ore product group since 2016.

Mr Salisbury is a 30-year veteran at Rio with very little public profile outside the mining sector, but he doesn’t need profile to exert influence in his role.

Al Williams started as Chevron Australia managing director in January last year.

Since Mr Williams moved to Perth, Chevron has backed the construction of a $360 million office tower at Elizabeth Quay.

He has also been the public face of Chevron’s support for the arts sector, notably through the Perth Festival.

Far more significantly, it is haggling with Woodside and other joint venturers over development of the giant Browse LNG project.

Chevron and BHP have been identified as the two members of the North West Shelf consortium that are playing hardball over terms for processing Browse gas.

As managing director of Chevron Australia, Al Williams represents one of the world’s largest companies.

Shell is another big player in the energy sector, in both WA and on the east coast.

Since the start of this year, Queenslander Tony Nunan has been Shell Australia chairman.

He succeeded Zoe Yujnovich, who became one of the most prominent women in Australian business during her three years in the role, speaking out on a range of policy issues.

Another global company to have changed local leadership is Alcoa, which appointed Michael Gollchewski vice-president of its extensive Australian operations.


Adrian Fini is certainly not the biggest property developer in Perth but his projects have an impact. He put commercial development back on Perth’s radar with the ABN Group headquarters in Leederville, was part of the syndicate that developed new entertainment venue The Rechabite, and is gearing up to start construction at the Murdoch Health & Knowledge Precinct.

Mr Fini has also made a big contribution to revitalising the eastern end of the CBD through his Historic Heart initiative.

Adrian Fini (left) and Dale Alcock are major players in the property sector and are working together on a new Leederville office.

Dale Alcock heads the state’s second largest home building group and is developing a new headquarters in Leederville. He uses his profile to speak on broader development issues and, as chairman of the Fremantle Dockers, has driven big changes at the AFL club.

Paul Blackburne is the most energetic and vocal apartment developer in Perth. His One Subiaco project is a real catalyst for the rejuvenation of one of the city’s most iconic suburbs. Several developers have tried to make the site work and failed.

John Bond and David Schwartz braved a tough IPO market to list their property manager, Primewest. With added financial firepower, their group will only get bigger.

Frank Marra led the merger of LandCorp and the Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority, and now heads one of the state’s most powerful government agencies, DevelopmentWA.

Chris Palandri leads construction giant Multiplex, which has built many of Perth’s iconic structures, including Optus Stadium, the new museum and Chevron’s new headquarters.


Corruption and Crime Commissioner John McKechnie has had a big impact, overseeing multiple inquiries that have forced the government to act.

Chief Justice Peter Quinlan has responsibility for a court system that affects the lives of many Western Australians.

James Edelman is one of the youngest people to be appointed a High Court judge and will have a big say in how Australia’s laws are interpreted in years to come.


Subscription Options