Twiggy’s Philanthropic Leadership
Will Andrew Forrest convince Australia’s billionaires to open their wallets? Christopher Baker and Helena Liu ask.
On Monday, senior Catholic, Anglican and Muslim representatives were joined at the Vatican by Andrew Forrest to launch a “Global Freedom Network” to combat slavery and human trafficking.
This collaboration of major world religions has come about as a result of the passion, networks and commitment of one of Australia’s most wealthy individuals – Forrest is ranked 270 in the Forbes’s list of the world’s most wealthy. Forrest is also one of Australia’s most high profile philanthropists. Indeed one of his more recent philanthropic drives saw the establishment of the Walk Free Foundation in 2012, on the back of personal exposure to the horrors of human trafficking as a result of his daughter’s volunteering experience in Nepal.
The bringing together of global faiths to tackle this global scourge is indeed a most welcome initiative. From an Australian perspective it is particularly encouraging that one of our own billionaires has played a catalytic role. While there are welcome exceptions, research indicates that philanthropy by wealthy Australians does not compare well with that of their counterparts in many other comparable developed economies. Whereas there exists a broad societal expectation that the wealthy elite in particular will give in countries like the United States for example, this is not the case in Australia. There is no widespread peer pressure on our billionaires and no general expectation in the community or the media that the richest will, as a matter of course, direct some of their wealth explicitly for the benefit of others.
The impact that this current initiative might have on Australian philanthropy remains to be seen. As Australians with the greatest wealth tend to operate on a global scale it may be that this initiative by Forrest will help raise the bar for philanthropic contribution in this country and inspire others with the financial capability, influencing skills and international networks of peers to target transformative change.
There is another way to think about this issue other than as altruism. This is that of profile raising. Reporting of the launch of the Global Freedom Network, especially in the Australian media, has put Andrew Forrest front and centre, and those reports almost invariably use his nickname, Twiggy. In many ways the reporting has been about Forrest as much as it has been about the initiative. In what has become his custom and practice, Forrest has used his own profile to help drive media coverage of the issue. One of the outcomes of this approach is that the individual is presented as not only a local hero, but a hero on a global scale. Not to question the genuineness or legitimacy of his motives, it is nevertheless a useful counterpoint to recent reports in the Australian media that while Forrest has made much of his personal fortune from mining other people’s land, as the Australian Financial Review put it, Forrest “appears to have gone to elaborate lengths to prevent anyone from accessing his own”.
Recent as yet unpublished research undertaken at Swinburne University of Technology indicates that the Australian media has a tendency to uncritically declare individuals involved in high profile philanthropic activity as heroes. A deliberate strategy aimed at securing some of that halo effect would be neither unthinkable nor unprecedented. Nevertheless, if other wealthy Australians were to take philanthropic initiatives, even if driven primarily by the desire to enhance their personal reputation, this would be a small price to pay relative to the potential benefits to be delivered by the Forrest led anti-slavery campaign.
If the Global Freedom Network inspires previously ungenerous wealthy Australians to contribute more of their personal wealth for the public good, then the Forrest initiative has a potential benefit above and beyond its direct aims. If part of the motivation for such generosity is personal recognition and consequent media aggrandisement, so be it.
This article was published in The Guardian.