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Tough times for Australian billionaires - Page 2


Tough times for Australian billionaires

Australia's treasurer has accused some of the country's richest citizens of using their wealth to influence national affairs.

Smith told The Australian: "The reason we are so wealthy is we have the Gina Rineharts and the Twiggy Forrests. They are actually Australian-owned companies, the wealth stays here. I think that's good."

Janet Holmes a Court, the widow of Robert Holmes a Court, the first Australian businessman to accumulate over a billion dollars, said that an entrepreneurial culture was a good thing as long as the benefits were distributed by the few.

"If those few become incredibly wealthy then I think the American idea or the Myer family idea of sharing and distributing that wealth is to be applauded," she said in The Australian. 

At least one of Swan's targets let his money do the talking. The company run by Forrest, Fortescue Metals, hit back with full-page advertisements in major newspapers on March 5, describing his article as an "irrational outburst" and "unfair, untrue and divisive."

"For Mr Swan to demonize Andrew Forrest ... for not paying taxes where there was no taxable income — is an act of cynical hypocrisy," the advert quotes Fortescue chairman Herb Elliott as saying.

Clive Palmer, Australia's fifth-richest person owing to his coal mining interests, dismissed Swan's criticism, saying he should focus on learning more about how an economy worked.

"We're not evil people. I employ 3,000 people nearly in Queensland and Australia. Maybe the Treasurer needs more love, maybe he's had a hard life. I don't know what's turned him so bitter," Palmer said in remarks broadcast on ABC Radio Monday.

Everyday Australians have a say

Somewhat surprisingly in a country that voted for the center left Labor Party at the last two elections, the billionaires can count on some sympathy from the man in the street.

"It's a bit hard for us to have a go at [miners] because that's where the money's coming from. The miners are employing people," said attorney Lucy Hamill, 32. "If it's not them it's going to be someone else.

"They've worked bloody hard to get where they've gotten. And if they want to [buy influence] then good on them. I'm definitely pro-billionaire — I wish I was one."

Chef Daniel Petrie, 27, a Labor voter, couldn't agree more. "I'd do the same thing if I could," he said of the billionaires' supposed influence peddling. "Let them be, man. They're the same an anyone else walking around here, except they have a fatter wallet than me."

The idea of asking billionaires pay more tax was just plain unfair, Petrie said, adding: "They've done the hard yards, so leave them alone."

However, Swan's message evidently resonated with Tony Lawlor, 57, a former nurse who felt that $1 billion should be enough for any one person for a lifetime, so "what more could they possibly want. Get a bigger yacht — or a bigger harem.

"Besides which, have you noticed how unhappy most of those billionaires look. Overweight, unhealthy — I wouldn't want any of them deciding what's best for all of us."

Undeterred, Swan re-entered the fray Monday, telling the National Press Club that: "For every Andrew Forrest who complains about high company taxes, and then admits to not paying any, there are 100 or more that go about employing Australians and creating wealth in a constructive way."

He said that he was not attacking the rich, rather highlighting an imbalance in influence and opportunity.

"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, and more and more plainly expressed in their own private interests."

While accepting that entrepreneurs boost employment, Swan said the likes of Rinehart, Forrest and Palmer seek to wield influence beyond their immediate business interests.

"They are openly seeking to exert an inordinate degree of political power, and I'm highlighting that fact," he said.

As for Forrest's claims that he gives wads of cash to charity, Swan had a retort for that too: It's no substitute for paying taxes.