This article originally appeared in Herald Sun.
HIS Order of Australia citation recognises his “distinguished service to the mining sector, to the development of employment and business opportunities, as a supporter of sustainable foreign investment, and to philanthropy”.
Philanthropy seems mentioned almost as an afterthought, yet Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest says it has occupied 90 per cent of his time since he stepped down as chief executive from Fortescue Metals Group and became non-executive chairman in 2011.
Asked how much he has given away in the last decade, Mr Forrest, 55, says: “It’s about $250m.”
How does it feel to give money away? “It isn’t as difficult as giving time,” he says.
“If you have excess capital, by all means get involved in giving but the most generous form of giving of all is the giving of your time. And we can call do that.”
Mr Forrest, based out of Perth, now spends most of his time agitating governments and business on two fronts: in Australia, it is increasing indigenous participation in the workforce and changing the welfare culture; and here and overseas, ending all forms of modern slavery.
“A feel-good rather than a do-good system has left so many Australian children, particularly First Australian children, behind,” he says.
He believes the cashless welfare blueprints he designed in the Forrest Review, commissioned by former PM Tony Abbott in late 2013, are now in play in WA’s east Kimberly and SA’s Ceduna, are producing “amazing results”.
He describes as a fallacy the “so-called human right” that people should be allowed to spend welfare money as they choose.
“We’ve been heavily influenced by the macabre mirage of the human rights argument as opposed to do what we know is better for Australia and our people,” he says.
“It’s commonsense to not encourage the consumption of alcohol and drugs in communities which struggle to get off their knees.”
Perhaps taking more of his time is his passion to end modern slavery. “It was not eliminated under Abraham Lincoln, it was deregulated,” he says.
Mr Forrest says 70 per cent of human trafficking and workforce slavery happens within the Asia-Pacific and he has been heavily engaged in the Bali Process to enforce international agreements to end abuses.
“If we can lead the world out of slavery in the Asia Pacific region, we’ll lead the world out of slavery, full stop,” he says.
Mr Forrest argues that Australia is not only involved in downstream slavery but “direct forms of slavery in parts of the seafood sector, the upfood processing sector, and certainly, sadly, in the sex industry.
“We tolerate any activist who says forced marriage is a human right of cultures; I say take your culture back to where it came from. Because here in Australia, forced marriage is just another form of slavery.”
He advocates the need for our own “modern slavery act”, but says conversations have gone nowhere.
“Lightweights in government say business might find it an impost,” he says.
“The response has been silence.”
However, he says major Australian companies strongly support eliminating slavery in their supply chains — and that government only need to pick up the phone to find far-reaching support for his ideas.
Mr Forrest acknowledges he misses “being up to your armpits in active business management and project management, but I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to polish and hone those skills and bring them into the end of disparity arena, and the end of slavery arena”.
Fortescue had widely been predicted to fail under the weight of high debts and falling iron ore prices (which have since recovered). That would, of course, have brought his philanthropic work to an end.
“Fortescue’s in excellent health,” he says. “It’s repaying debtors at a rate which we planned, but some in the capital markets find bewildering. It will have a very strong balance sheet as you expect it should, earning a position as the lowest-cost operator in the world.”
Asked what the citation meant by “sustainable foreign investment”, he guessed it was that he had brought Chinese investment into Fortescue while allowing “absolute Australian freedom of management and leadership”.
An alternative reading is that Fortescue has survived in a market that was previously dominated by Rio Tinto and BHP, with many believing there was no room for any other players.
“Straight from the heart, we just live in a magnificent country and I’m very grateful to have been nominated by those who consider the work I’ve done a priority,” he says.