Forrest spent his formative years on his family’s Mindaroo Station, a 2400 square kilometre property in the iron ore-rich Pilbara founded by his great-grandfather David Forrest and his great-great-uncle John, who is famous in WA as a pioneer and the state’s first premier.
The once shy boy from the bush is now far from bashful about his roots, telling the Today show’s Karl Stefanovic on Thursday “I’m the most Australian person I know”. After school at some of Perth’s most exclusive schools, Forrest wound up spruiking shares for a small-time stockbroking outfit.
But it’s what he did next that catapulted his career into the exceptional. And controversial. Forrest’s first big venture was Anaconda Nickel, which left investors hundreds of millions out of pocket after he was ousted as chief executive in 2001. US bondholders who bet $400 million on the company recouped 26¢ in the dollar and Anglo American fared even worse, walking away with 7 per cent of its $200 million investment.
From the ashes Forrest built Fortescue Metals Group, the mining minnow which became the iron ore giant FMG Resources and launched him into rich lists around the world.
What does he do?
While FMG Resources remains the iron jewel in Forrest’s commercial crown, he has diversified far beyond mining into property development and agriculture. He is the boss of the Mindaroo Foundation, a vehicle for philanthropy efforts including his campaign to ‘‘end modern slavery’’.
But China is Forrest’s biggest customer by a long shot, even though FMG also markets its iron ore into Japan, South Korea and India.
His relationship with Beijing and its political and business leaders put him in a unique position when the coronavirus broke out in Wuhan. Forrest attempted to leverage his reputation as a deal-maker in China to secure about $1 million in medical gear for WA and COVID-19 testing kits for the Commonwealth. This was after he sent medical equipment from Australia to China earlier in the year.
And certainly, Forrest’s attempts to bring his influence to bear on the coronavirus crisis has been supported by governments. FMG’s multimillion-dollar private jet hasn’t been impeded by the state’s strict border controls as he has been given an exemption by Premier Mark McGowan’s government on its many trips interstate and to China.
While he has ostensibly been helping governments prepare for the pandemic, Forrest has copped a good measure of criticism for his cosiness with the communist regime. He has been accused of assisting Beijing to manage the PR disaster rendered by the coronavirus and of becoming a megaphone for its key messages.
He has also faced scrutiny this week over whether his charitable endeavours at times advance his commercial interests given the fortunes of Fortescue are largely dependent on China.
Where did the coronavirus originate? Don’t ask Twiggy. “I don’t know if this virus started in China or somewhere else and frankly I don’t care,” he said earlier this month.
What did he do this week?
On Wednesday, Forrest thought he’d do a good turn for the Sino-Australian relationship by inviting China’s consul-general for Victoria Zhou Long to speak alongside him at a media conference with Health Minister Greg Hunt.
The trouble was, Hunt didn’t know he’d be sharing the media spotlight with one of Beijing’s key diplomats amid escalating tension over Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s push for a global inquiry into the origins of coronavirus. Instead of a story about the 10 million coronavirus tests imported by the Mindaroo Foundation using Forrest’s China connections, he faced headlines about blindsiding an Australian Government minister and the angry reactions from Coalition backbenchers.
Forrest pulled a similar stunt in Perth on April Fool’s Day when he brought along China’s WA consul-general to a media conference with WA Health Minister Roger Cook. And just in case his week hadn’t been busy enough, the billionaire was also weighing up a tilt at Virgin Australia.
Why does it matter?
Australia’s relationship with China has long been fraught with tension. The key tool in China’s kit bag is its willingness to leverage trade relations for geo-strategic influence. It is embarrassed by the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, and is desperate to shut down an inquiry.
Beijing’s ambassador to Australia warned the push for an inquiry could spark a Chinese consumer boycott of students and tourists visiting Australia, as well as sales of popular agricultural exports like wine and beef.
Forrest, not to mention the WA Government, is worried his mining interests and employees are also in the firing line. So Forrest and other WA billionaires such as Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes will exert any political or public relations influence at their disposal to keep the China relationship on track.
Nathan is WAtoday’s political reporter and the winner of the 2019 Arthur Lovekin Prize for Excellence in Journalism.