Education the way ahead, and Forrest's donation is bang on the money

The news this week of Andrew Forrest's extraordinary donation to the University of Western Australia has brought to light something very important - the very future of Australia.

The news this week of Andrew Forrest's extraordinary donation to the University of Western Australia has brought to light something very important - the very future of Australia.

The Sustainable Australia Report 2013 commissioned by the former government said "Australia is at a pivotal point; decisions and actions taken over the next 10 years will determine whether the next generation of Australians is the first in recent history to be worse off than their parents and their grandparents".

It was a worrying report in that it made it clear we need to do better in the future. "Australians today have a material standard of living and a quality of life that could hardly be imagined by our grandparents." It attributes this largely unforseen wealth to our progress in acquiring and adopting new knowledge. In other words, it's our education that is our most important currency. But there is a very big but. The benefits of our expanded knowledge and wealth are not shared nearly widely enough if we are to remain a cohesive society.

Underlying this issue about our wealth is a report from the Productivity Commission that says between 2.3 million and 2.8 million - that's nearly one in seven Australians - are income poor. These are our people who live on less than half the median household income. We might think we're doing well but the truth is too many are not and we need to do something about it. This is not about wealth redistribution, it's about community action for knowledge distribution.

Forrest understands this and he typifies the great Australian characteristics of independent entrepreneurial spirit and generosity. He understands, like many of our country's great philanthropists, that entrepreneurship and generosity are the sides of a single coin - citizenship. It's been the Australian way for a long time.

This column deals with matters of the media and marketing, and millions of people across the country have benefited from generosity from media companies. Consider one example in Victoria where the Royal Children's Hospital appeal is held each Good Friday and Channel Seven has continued a long tradition of support with other media in the state. Together, they have raised $128 million and that is just in the past 10 years. The really wonderful thing about this huge gift is that it is not just a cheque in the mail. It's the mobilisation of thousands of people to participate in protecting the lives of our nation's children.

Forrest's gift of $65 million highlights the fact that we need all of our children, without exception, to come closer to reaching their potential. But has he accomplished something else as well? A sum as big as that circulating in the tertiary sector of Western Australia might just drain some brains from universities on the east coast. Is it possible the intellectual capacity of other universities will start to move to a warmer climate, more open space and a better-funded academic world?

We saw that happen in America when Stanford University emerged as a leading tertiary force out of the vibrant San Francisco in the 1970s and the dotcom boom that followed some decades later. Is it possible Forrest and Western Australia could do the same? I wonder if the great wealth that's been created in the west will move the intellectual centre closer to the money.

But to be fair to Forrest, in making his gift, he appealed to others with wealth to increase their efforts in education to achieve a more prosperous and sustainable future.

Lindsay Fox is one of many far-sighted corporate leaders who is already active. His Linfox transport company cut its carbon emissions by 37 per cent through its Eco-Drive education program, and his family gives to many important causes.

Hats off to all our wealthy families who defy the cynical old definition of a philanthropist as "someone whose family hates him". It is clear a new generation of wealth in Australia is going to depend on a new generation of giving.

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