The rich list of Australian politics


BRW Rich ListThe 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, most but not all on the Coalition side, include republican businessman Lindsay Fox, sports event promoter and former Liberal Party Treasurer Ron Walker, former Reserve Bank board member and big Liberal donor Robert Gerard, former Mayor of Toowoomba Clive Berghofer, and Sir Graham McCamley, founder of the Cattleman's Union of Australia, once a pushy pressure group.

But many on the list avoid the public spotlight altogether. If they are to be found in the media they will be more likely to appear in the business pages than the political news. That may be a reason why they are not interested in entering politics or even donating to a political party. Cynics might say that they have all the power they need without becoming a politician; they would rather be the organ grinder than the monkey.

It may seem surprising that the presence of almost all of the extremely wealthy on one side of the political divide doesn't make Australian politics one-sided. There are several explanations. Trade unions support the Labor Party financially. Some companies and wealthy individuals do too, either as an insurance policy or out of a genuine commitment to encouraging balanced democracy.

And of course, many of the most wealthy have no interest in politics at all and keep their money well away from the conservative parties.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Flinders University of South Australia and a Canberra Times columnist. He was named an Officer in the Order of Australia on the 2009 Queen's Birthday honours list.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Malcolm Turnbull, Busniess Review Weekly, rich 200, wealth, conservative politics



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Existing comments

Why do all the politicians receive a high salary,expense account and certain perks when they don't seem to be very productive at their jobs? They should be on a retainer. The same as someone on unemployment benefits and be paid for performance based bonus and work-related results in the community.
I would like to see if any politician could actually live on the measly Newstart Allowance ($225p/w)for one year.

They should get out and meet real hard working people in society and give support to all long term middle aged unemployed men who have a disability or a psychological disorder that is less than 20 points. Not women. It is easier for any woman to get a job than it is for a man.
James Baum | 16 June 2009

John Warhurst notes that the majority of commercially successful people who enter politics do so on one side. He's right; they've all joined one or the other wings of the party most devoted to commercial success, the LibLab Party.

Sufficient clamour of tumbling pennies over the next decade or so may see some of them turn away from the politics of generational impoverishment, and go over to the side of wealth sustainability. That is, they may abandon the LibLab Party and join the Greens.
David Arthur | 16 June 2009

Funny thing is Mickey Mouse has earned more money than all these idiots put together and he isn't even real!
ian James | 16 June 2009

It can be said correctly, I think, that money is a limited resource. Too much money in the economy of capitalism causes real problems so it's amount is monitored and capped accordingly. It can be said also that everyone at some point needs money. Money for food, for clothing, for shelter etc. Why is it then that this limited resource, one needed seemingly by everyone, is in the pockets of some of our fellow citizens to an arguably excessive degree? Surely there comes a point when common good trumps entrepreneurial nous? Surely there comes a point when common good is more important than what could be in the last will and testament of a 'rich-lister'? At what point is financial and material wealth of the few a detriment to the rest?
Andrew McAlister | 16 June 2009

I don't quite understand the point of this article. People in parliament should be judged by their contribution rather than by their wealth. And, by the way, let's not forgot the wealthy on the labor side e.g. Kevin Rudd, Evan Thornley (since left).
Sean Johnson | 19 June 2009

If we were to pay the politicians for their contribution, then it would be lower than the basic wage and most would be sacked anyway. They tell lies, appear only on election days and still get paid!
Sidney Nixon | 20 April 2018


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