The need for billionaire balance


Courtesy of John Hempton at Bronte Capital (that other great Australian business blog):

Wayne Swan the Treasurer of Australia (in UK parlance the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in US parlance the Secretary of the Treasury) has been publicly criticizing the new Australian billionaires and their political influence warning that they are a risk to the Australian ethos of the “fair go”.

He is quoted as follows:

“A handful of vested interests that have pocketed a disproportionate share of the nation’s economic success now feel they have a right to shape Australia’s future to satisfy their own self-interest.”Swan’s critics have accused him of “class warfare”.

This will be highly familiar to American readers who have got used to living in a world where lots of money gives you better access to speech. I have barely met an American who disagrees with this sentiment but mainly when the said pile of money disagrees with them.

To liberals in America the Koch brothers are evil incarnate.

Several conservatives think the same thing about Warren Buffett when he argues the rich should pay more tax. Governor’s Christie’s comments were just plain angry. George Soros induces apoplexy in some conservatives.

And most Americans think there is something unseemly about K-Street and the influence peddling lobbyists of Capital Hill.

Money politics – American style – is settling in in Australia. Wayne Swan knows it.

But in Australia it is potentially much more dangerous than in America. Our new-era Australian billionaires – the ones Wayne Swan rails against – are all billionaires from resource extraction. They all get their money by digging up things that potentially belong to all Australians and selling them to foreigners. And they railed against the resource rent tax (a tax whereby the rest of us got paid something for their bounty). As well they might. And they rail against carbon trading schemes.

Indeed American style money politics in Australia is far more insidious than in the US because our billionaires are far less diverse. A diversity in billionaires (and in the way they make their money) gives us a diversity of billionaire opinion. You can get the Koch Brothers and George Soros in one system – and to some extent their opinions (and the money with which they foist them onto the rest of us) offset each other. The balance is preserved.

Here we risk no balance. And so I am writing a post to tell you just how important Frank Lowy has become. Frank is an opinionated billionaire who made his money from property management and shopping centres. He is “Mr Westfield”. He is also highly opinionated and funds his own think-tank (the Lowy Institute). I have in the past disagreed with him strongly – but at the moment I am just darn pleased that he is there.

Lowy is fighting with Clive Palmer (a resources billionaire) about of all billionaire disputes – the business of owning football teams. But I hope that is just the start of it. He is our most opinionated non-resource billionaire, one with a global perspective – and suddenly he is part of the future of Australian democracy.

Frank Lowy (despite the high quality think-tank) has never shown the intellectual depth and breadth of vision of George Soros. I am just as familiar with his influence on local councils (getting his projects approved and his competitor projects rejected) than I am with his global vision. But Frank is all we have got. Billionaire visions are pretty thin around here.

I never thought I would say this. Frank Lowy – your country needs you.


PS. I am a hedge fund manager. My job is to find rich people, invest their money and make them richer. The rise of an Australian plutocracy is thus in my interests but I would prefer a plurality of plutocrat clients.

About the author
David Llewellyn-Smith is Chief Strategist at the MB Fund and MB Super. David is the founding publisher and editor of MacroBusiness and was the founding publisher and global economy editor of The Diplomat, the Asia Pacific’s leading geo-politics and economics portal. He is also a former gold trader and economic commentator at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, the ABC and Business Spectator. He is the co-author of The Great Crash of 2008 with Ross Garnaut and was the editor of the second Garnaut Climate Change Review.