15/07/2010 - 00:00

Would Forrest fit the bill in politics?

15/07/2010 - 00:00

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Andrew Forrest has all the credentials needed to make a fine political leader.

Would Forrest fit the bill in politics?

I HAVE often wondered aloud whether Andrew Forrest might one day enter politics, following in the footsteps of his forebear John Forrest, the first premier of Western Australia and the man who brought the state into the federation.

Sir John took big risks and understood the political price for doing so. A good example was the fight to push through the water pipeline from Mundaring to Coolgardie to guarantee a reliable source of water to the rich Goldfields. It was expensive, in both real and political terms, but it delivered real dividends for the state. Kalgoorlie still thrives today, a rare Australian example of a big and successful inland city.

Most people I know are dismissive of my views on the political potential of Sir John’s descendant. Mr Forrest, the mining executive, has too much entrepreneurial baggage, they say. And why would he be interested in direct political power when he has indirect influence via his billions? Furthermore, who needs the pain of constant public dissection?

These are all good reasons for not engaging in politics. But you could turn them on their head and suggest that for someone who has already scaled the heights of business success – at one stage he was Australia’s richest man and remains one of the nation’s wealthiest self-made billionaires – what challenges remain?

Mr Forrest has already been subjected to intense scrutiny for sailing too close to the wind in several of his business dealings. While they provoked headlines, they have proved to be insignificant. It proves only that the entrepreneur is less than perfect, a trait hardly exclusive to self-made billionaires.

And then there’s the mining tax. Until the resource super profits tax proposal, I’m sure that most of my colleagues’ objections to a political Forrest campaign would have carried the day. But was the RSPT a game-changer? To many in mining, the tax grab was not just an inept government stealing their profits under the guise of national interest; it was, more disturbingly, dangerous government that was prepared to risk the future prosperity of the nation to buy votes in decaying and unproductive population centres of the old Australia.

Even before the mining tax debate erupted, Mr Forrest had proved his political mettle by getting cosy with then prime minister Kevin Rudd to attract attention to his plans for indigenous employment. The mining tax has only underlined Mr Forrest’s credentials in this space.

Whether it was wearing a suit or a pair of overalls, he is the human headline. In the world of politics, attracting coverage is half the battle, especially if you can sound sensible when you do. For a billionaire to come through this debate looking so good is remarkable; just ask Clive Palmer.

Adding up these political attributes makes a strong case for why Forrest for PM (or even a less lofty portfolio) is not such a silly idea. He has political pedigree; can attract publicity; can fund his own campaign; is ahead of the curve on policy issues; has a thick hide when it comes to the slings and arrows of political fortune; he peaks eloquently and communicates with the person in the street.

More importantly, Mr Forrest has seen what bad government can do and might well want to correct that. We all know he doesn’t lack drive when committed to something. He may also see his name etched in history’s page. We all know of Sir John Forrest for his political and exploratory success. None of us remembers who the richest man in the state was at the same period.

And if Mr Forrest isn’t prepared to make this great leap, there appear to be quite a few others who might fit the bill. I suspect that the mining tax will have galvanised a level of support in WA for the conservative side of politics that will last for a generation in terms of sparking interest in either running for office or funding others campaigns from those with capacity to do so.

If I had to venture another name for such an enterprise then perhaps David Flanagan might be an alternative. While he may not have the billions, he makes up for it with passion. Maybe not being a billionaire might actually be an advantage in terms of appealing to the voters.

And, let’s face it, if you can get a mining company up and running in the Pilbara you must have strengths that will work in government. It will be fascinating to watch political developments in the medium term to see if the anger over the mining tax translates to this kind of direct political action.

Sustainability

SUSTAINABILITY is an easy word to bandy about, but be wary when politicians use it. I was bemused to see federal cabinet member Tony Burke’s job description as Minister for Population change to incorporate ‘sustainability’. On the ABC’s panel session Q&A, Mr Burke said a sustainable population did not necessarily mean stopping population growth but may include encouraging new migrants to move to regional centres where there was capacity for growth and not to the big cities where infrastructure was already creaking.

This is an interesting view from a government that wants to extract a mining tax from companies that operate in the regions to spend the money in south-eastern electorates where the voters are ageing and less productive. Is that sustainable?

Rotto correspondent

I’VE been on holidays this past week at Rottnest and, as usual, I won’t miss an opportunity for a review of the island. With the battering the island took from the weather, we had less chance to enjoy its many charms than in our usual holiday break in September. Instead we did different things, including long walks and using the bus for the first time that I can remember.

All in all, I can’t complain. In mid winter, with the crowds down, that fact some of the island’s services aren’t operating is hardly unusual for a tourist destination in off-season.

• mark.pownall@wabusinessnews.com.au

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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