Graeme Wood's climate of influence

Greens donor, Global Mail bankroller and pulp mill buyer Graeme Wood is doing his best to sway public debate his way, with increasingly far-reaching success.

The Power Index

Internet entrepreneur Graeme Wood is not a billionaire. And he hasn't made it into Wayne Swan's terrible trio of greedy rich people who oppose the Gillard government. Yet.

But he's doing his level best. And he's taken out our title of No. 1 Rich Crusader.

In 2010, Wood set a new Australian record for political donations by giving the Greens a whopping $1.6 million to fund a prime-time TV ad campaign, which helped them win the balance of power in the Senate. 

This alone might well have secured him the top spot, because it delivered a carbon tax that could change the face of Australia. But it's only one of Wood's many successful attempts to buy influence or action.

The laconic businessman is determined to give away most of the $370 million he made from starting Australia's No. 1 travel website Wotif, and he has already spent at least $50 million of it, mostly to protect the environment.

Last July, Wood and his fellow green activist, Kathmandu founder Jan Cameron, bought Tasmania's Triabunna woodchip mill from forestry company Gunns for $10 million, and promptly shut it down, to end the logging of native forests in southern Tasmania.

As you can imagine, the locals down there just love him for attempting to take their jobs away. And so does Liberal senator Eric Abetz, who called for a royal commission to inquire into the purchase.

But Wood – who we're told is currently on "extended leave" from his office in Brisbane – appears not to care about the criticism. "It is really entertaining to see how cranky some people get," he told Launceston's Examiner. "Eric Abetz grinding his teeth is a very pleasant sound for me."

It's no wonder the Right see Wood as a left-wing version of Andrew Forrest or Gina Rinehart, trying to buy influence in the political debate, especially since his latest venture is a new online newspaper, The Global Mail, which he has pledged to fund to the tune of $15 million over the next five years.

Wood's take on this new publication, which is free and free of ads, is that Australia desperately needs more intelligent investigative journalism, and that democracy thrives on a healthy media. But, that's not what the Right think.

As Andrew Bolt put it on his blog, "A super-rich boss with strong opinions from the political fringe now controls a media asset that's now pumping out the owner's world view."

Wood has promised he won't be telling journalists at the Global Mail what to write, telling Crikey recently that, "Neither the owner nor the board has editorial influence."

But Bolt responds that, "He won't need it, now that he's got a group-think collective which will, unbidden, take all the standard left positions."

According to Bolt, Wood and his editor at The Global Mail, former ABC Media Watch host Monica Attard, have assembled "a like-minded cabal of journalists of the Left, with not a single known conservative among them."

"Do these people even see their hypocrisy?" he asked triumphantly.

The Power Index has no problem with Wood starting his own news website, and would not care if Rinehart did so too. It's not the same as hijacking an established media group like Fairfax and changing its editorial policies.

But what Wood is doing with the Triabunna pulp mill gives us more cause for concern, because 33 jobs are at risk in a small community.

"We don't want to see people thrown out of work," Wood told The Australian last year, "but we also probably see more clearly the need for a restructuring in the forest industries generally and for people to open their minds about new ways of making a living in that part of Tasmania."

Wood and Cameron are hoping to re-open the pulp mill, using native logs, and run it for five to seven years, before turning the site into a vineyard and eco resort, but so far they haven't found an operator.

"People are starting to think about moving on," Orford Chamber of Commerce secretary Mick Fama, told The Power Index, "but it could turn out OK." Fama claims not to have seen Wood in town since the takeover, because "It's all being handled by Jan Cameron".

It's not the only thing Wood and Cameron have done together in Tasmania. Nine months earlier, they teamed up with another green activist Rob Purves to buy 27,000 hectares of native forest and wilderness for conservation. And before that, Wood campaigned hard against the proposed $2.5 billion Gunns pulp mill in the Tamar Valley. "The logging industry is very loud and strong politically, but no one is game to speak out for the tourism industry," he said at the time. "I had nothing to lose."

Wood, of course, made his money in tourism. And on that basis, one could argue he has been doing what miners and forestry companies do, which is look after his vested interest. But he certainly won't be making millions out of any of his campaigns.

Wood is a working class kid from Rockhampton, whose "struggling family" moved to Brisbane when he was five. Bright and good at sport, he went to state schools but played cricket in the GPS competition against "spoilt little brats" from private schools. "There's probably a bit of chip-on-the-shoulder attitude there," he once admitted to The Australian's Glenda Korporaal.

Wood made his career in computers for IBM and NCR, but became "a serial entrepreneur" in the 1980s, even going into business to import cheap eggs from NSW into Queensland. He finally cracked it in 2000, after two decades of trying, with Wotif, which sells vacant hotel rooms on the internet at last-minute cut-price rates.

In 2006, he floated it on the ASX for $670 million, and since then he has been busy giving money away. He has a couple of racing yachts, but was still driving an old Falcon Ute in 2008, despite his new found fortune.

Wood has committed $15 million to fund the Global Change Institute at Queensland University – to study climate change, food and energy security, and population growth – and several hundred thousand dollars to Beyond Zero Emissions, which has drawn up a plan to shift Australia to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020. In 2008 he also started Wild Mob, which gives young people the chance to train as conservationists and volunteer for wilderness experiences. 

He has also donated $20 million to the Graeme Wood Foundation, which has given $6 million to the University of Queensland to fund research into teenage drug and alcohol abuse.

But it's climate change and the environment where his passion remains, telling the Sydney Morning Herald in 2010: "Our two major political parties are between them the worst combination to get things going. You've got Tony Abbott and his neanderthals and Martin Ferguson still stuck in last century.

"Our politicians are scared of everything," said Wood. "We don't elect them to be scared, we elect them to lead. They are like rabbits. As soon as somebody doesn't like something, they jump back down their holes and disappear."

This article first appeared on The Power Index on March 15. Republished with permission.

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