March 5 (Bloomberg) -- Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan said there is a risk “hyper-rich activists” will distort public policy debates in the nation as their ability to wield influence through the media trumps ideas.
“There has been a perceptible shift in this country over the past few years towards a stronger and stronger influence, being wielded by a smaller and smaller minority,” Swan said in an address to the national press club in Canberra today. “We see this most obviously in the ferocious attacks bankrolled by” resource-industry billionaires Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer, he said.
Palmer, whose wealth is estimated by Australia’s BRW magazine at A$5.05 billion ($5.4 billion), labeled Swan an “intellectual pygmy” in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper today. “I would say that, with his limited ideas, he could not make an impression on a cushion,” Palmer wrote in the article.
The debate was sparked last week when Swan said in an article in The Monthly Magazine that resource tycoons including Rinehart, Palmer and Andrew Forrest are threatening the nation’s democratic process by using their wealth to shape policy to their interests.
Australia’s economy is propelled by a mining boom predicted to last decades as the urbanization of hundreds of millions of people in China and India drives demand for iron ore, liquefied natural gas and coal.
“A strong economy is not an end in itself,” Swan said today. “What matters is what we do with our nation’s prosperity. Who benefits. It’s not just about putting dollars in people’s pockets, but about building a better society; a society that provides opportunity to more people, a society that lifts up the worst-off, and gives everyone a decent shot at a decent life.”
Fortescue Metals Group Ltd., the company founded by Forrest, took out a full page advertisement in the Australian national newspaper today rejecting Swan’s comments.
“For Mr. Swan to demonize Andrew Forrest -- whose team built the fastest-growing mining and export company in the world from scratch -- for not paying taxes when there was no taxable income -- is an act of cynical hypocrisy,” Fortescue Deputy Chairman Herb Elliott said in the advertisement that reiterated much of the company’s March 2 statement on Swan.
In 2009 and 2010, during the debate over the mining tax, Hancock Prospecting companies donated a total of A$750,000 to the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies, according to the Australian Electoral Commission. The association is an industry body created to represent the exploration and mining industry.
Rinehart, the richest woman in the Asia-Pacific region with a net worth of $20.4 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, has also been boosting her influence in the media. Earlier this year, Rinehart, Hancock Prospecting and associated interests increased its voting stake to 12.6 percent in Fairfax Media Ltd., publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper. She also controls a 10 percent holding in television broadcaster Ten Network Holdings Ltd.
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