Where goes the money, do the brains follow? Twiggy branches out

The news this week of Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest's extraordinary donation to the University of Western Australia has brought to light something very important - the very future of Australia.
By · 19 Oct 2013
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19 Oct 2013
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The news this week of Andrew "Twiggy" 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 federal 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 clear that 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 unforeseen 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 apparent wealth is a recent report by the Productivity Commission that says that between 2.3 and 2.8 million - nearly one in seven Australians - are income poor. These people live on less than half the median household income. We might think that 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.

Andrew 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 has 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 extraordinary generosity from media companies. Consider just one example in the state of Victoria, the Royal Children's Hospital appeal each Good Friday, where Channel Seven has continued a long tradition of support with other media. 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 children in their most vulnerable years.

Twiggy's imaginative gift of $65 million highlights the fact that we need all of our children, without exception, to come much 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 WA just might drain some brains from establishment universities on the east coast. Is it possible the intellectual capacity of other Australian universities will start to move to a warmer climate, more open space and a better-funded academic world?

We saw that happen in America with the great growth of Stanford University, which emerged as a leading tertiary force out of the vibrant iconoclastic lifestyle of San Francisco in the '70s and the dotcom boom that followed some decades later.

Is it possible that Andrew Forrest and WA could do the same? I wonder if the great wealth that has been created in the west will move the intellectual centre closer to the money?

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

Lindsay Fox is one of many farsighted corporate leaders who is already active. Lindsay's Linfox transport company cut its carbon emissions by 37 per cent through its Eco-Drive education program. And his family gives to many important community causes.

So, it's hats off to all our wealthy families who defy the cynical old definition of a philanthropist, "someone whose family hates him".

It is very plain that a new generation of wealth in Australia is going to depend on a new generation of giving, not just taking.
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