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Forrest Donations and False Charity

It is easy to sneer, and availing oneself of this chance, let’s. The celebratory guff floating on the media glow of mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest for giving away $400 million to charitable pursuits is reminiscent to that of Mark Zuckerberg. At least he did not dig up the earth in the process.

Within the kernel of philanthropic generosity lies a deception: charity, its great fruit, is born from fundamental inequality, and more to the point, the assumption that such inequality can never truly end. You are kind, because you can be; you are generous, because your wallet provides the cream that enables you to do it. As a caustic H. L. Mencken observed, the nature of such altruistic projects conceals self-interest.

More saliently, the issue of social, even political influence, an appropriation of causes and select projects over which the philanthropist can exert control, is an unavoidable fact. This does not bother supporters of the philanthropic project who see it as “risk capital for social change.”

Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, sees philanthropy in that light, with risk being its motivating “calling card”. Accountability, surmises Rodin, does, in fact exist, leveraged through the notion of risk. The risk takers are the great catalysts, and for that reason, are the anointed warriors of change.

Consider Rodin’s motivational speak, designed to bore: “I tell my board that if we succeed at everything we do, we’re not taking enough risk, and if we’re not taking enough risk, we’re clearly not doing everything in our power to maximise impact for the poor and vulnerable.”

Forrest had already etched himself in Australia’s philanthropic records, channelling money through the Minderoo Foundation. This particular donation drive has several projects. $75 million is parcelled out for the international effort to end modern slavery. The same amount is set aside for developing a program for child development in Australia and outside. Even more is inked for cancer research.

These are questions of priorities – and who, ultimately, should be entrusted with such tasks. Government, being often an arbitrary, appropriating gang of members rather than an effective one, is bypassed in such acts. But philanthropy, ultimately, remains the poorer deliverer in terms of welfare.

This point is missed by Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who sees philanthropy in terms of influence as “greater than that of government, because it comes with the love of the philanthropist, a love of mankind.” This view is highly conventional, and heavy with dust: governments can only ever spoil what the people might do better for themselves. (Leave aside, for a moment, the fact that the people might be divided between the billionaires and the paupers.) For philanthropy, reminded the prime minister on the occasion of the Forrest donation, was an “act of love” in Greek.

Turnbull’s deformed understanding of love did not convince critics of Forrest’s methods of wealth redistribution. His power and influence have already gone so far as to suggest, through government solicitation, welfare reforms. Having wheedled his way into the house of power, he wishes to make marks on the very way government policy operates. These include suggestions on how welfare recipients use their money, and the cashless welfare card.

Former NSW premier Kristina Keneally certainly wished that Forrest, for all his “great” philanthropic gestures, could have simply paid more tax.” Such philanthropy vested “massive power in the hands of the giver to determine how much money is available and what causes merit support.”

Keneally’s point is affirmed in the conduct of Forrest and Fortescue Metals Group, at least in terms of the contempt shown towards the tax collector. (To give a sense of scale, FMG is the fourth largest producer of iron ore on the planet.) In a senate hearing in 2011, officials of FMG revealed that the company had never paid company tax, though it had forked out $450m to $500m in mining royalties each year.

As then government senate leader Chris Evans explained, “They have never paid a dollar in company tax to date and they want to resist having to pay the Mining Resource Rent Tax.” Such a state of affairs was “not something the Australian people should accept.”

Such misgivings did not stop there, for behind Forrest’s wealth lies the eager hand of historical appropriation, the coloniser’s prerogative to make good the use of natural resources. Forrest’s great-grand-uncle, Sir John Forrest, set the trend as a plundering pioneer when he took some 2000 hectares of Crown land, offering the Indigenous inhabitants poor compensation: the possibility of employment and a paternal patronage.

This state of affairs was incarnated in modern form, with West Australia’s Yindjibarndi people in the Pilbara battling FMG over a certain matter of compensation for the site where the Solomon Mine is located. All Forrest was doing, claimed Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation CEO Michael Woodley, was surrendering money “from the country that he’s mining, which belongs to the Yindjibarndi people, and other traditional owner groups as well around the Pilbara.”

Initial negotiations begun in 2008 with 700 traditional owners for a meagre 0.5 percent of mining royalties collapsed. Forrest preferred to keep matters down to standing promise of cash payments capped at $4 million a year, with $6.5 million promised in terms of business opportunities, training, jobs and housing.8 Certainly a more generous offer than that of his predecessors, but still not much.

The impression left by FMG and Forrest’s gesture is a hollow one, a matter of surrendering loot and plunder obtained from a line of work that is becoming increasingly unpopular. It could even be construed as a form of elaborate money laundering. Twiggy may have seen the writing on the wall: best make a name in the philanthropy books now when matters are easy, before it all goes under.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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