Fortescue Metals Group boss, Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest and his wife Nicola, set a new Australian philanthropic record in May with a donation of $400 million. The money will go towards social and scientific initiatives “of their choosing” including cancer research and tertiary education. While the amount was significant, it was only a fraction of their estimated $6.5 billion fortune.
Malcolm Turnbull trumpeted the donation at a celebrity-studded media announcement that was attended by senior politicians and the billionaire couple. During his announcement, Turnbull explained that the Greek meaning of philanthropy was “an act of love”.
With corporate greed on people’s minds, public displays of ‘love’ by rich entrepreneurs seem to be in vogue at the moment. In fact, billionaires are encouraged to highlight their generosity within elite circles as a way of covering over growing wealth inequality.
The truth is that successive Australian governments have reduced corporate tax rates and rewarded charitable gifting with tax incentives. In other words, the rich pay less and get to minimise their bill even further by writing off philanthropic donations. Conversely, working class people have been forced to pay more tax while suffering from cuts to public services and falling standards of living.
The question that needs to be asked is where did Forrest’s loot come from in the first place? It came from exploiting Australia’s natural resources, as well as local indigenous communities and the workers that dig these resources up. He would never had amassed such wealth if his mega-profits were taxed at a much higher rate.
It makes no sense to have to rely on the ‘generosity’ of rich individuals to fund social services and scientific initiatives. If Fortescue Metals was publicly owned we could democratically decide where the wealth created is distributed. Instead of initiatives of a billionaire’s choosing, we could use it to address society’s ills like poverty and homelessness.
By Robyn Trott