Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


The rich list of Australian politics

  • 16 June 2009

The listing of Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull in the Business Review Weekly among Australia's richest 200 people with $178 million caused a passing political stir. Despite the  fallback position that Therese Rein's wealth is measured at $50 million, Turnbull, the Member for Net Worth (not Wentworth) according to BRW, still does not appear to be comfortable discussing the subject.

He could retort that in politics, economic success in life should be a plus rather than a minus. Senator Bill Heffernan took this line when he hijacked Laurie Oakes' interview with Turnbull, accusing Oakes of running a 'bullshit' line of questioning.

Heffernan has a point. In our community, however, a suspicion of extreme wealth remains, whether we call it envy or the tall poppy syndrome.

What can the position of Turnbull and of the top 200 tell us about wealth and politics? First and most obviously, that the extremely wealthy almost always get involved, like Turnbull, on the conservative side. That might not be rocket science but it needs to be said.

Among the other 199 names on the BRW list, some have direct links with politics. Ted Baillieu, the Victorian Liberal Opposition Leader whose family wealth ($463 million), is a junior version of Turnbull. In explaining his wealth to the Victorian electorate he has faced the same problems as Turnbull.

There is also Clive Palmer, the fifth wealthiest Australian with $3.42 billion, whose son, Michael Palmer, stood for the Queensland Liberal National Party at the last state elections. Clive Palmer is a big political donor to the Liberal Nationals and has come under sustained attack from Queensland Labor because of it.

These three, all on the conservative side, seem to be the only ones directly involved with parliamentary politics. But others are interested. Among the very rich, Frank Lowy (second wealthiest at $4.20 billion) set up the Lowy Institute for International Policy. His company Westfield is a big donor to both sides of party politics.

Andrew Forrest of Fortescue Metals, once Australia's richest man, is trying, with Federal Government help, to create a major Indigenous work-experience and employment training program. Luca Belgiorno-Nettis makes a considerable investment to the newDemocracy Foundation to encourage greater citizen participation in politics.

Dick Honan, the largest ethanol producer, is a prominent lobbyist for ethanol in petrol. The Howard Government funding he received was linked in public reporting to his company donations to the Liberal Party.

Other familiar names,