Australia's 20 most powerful rich crusaders

This week we begin profiling Australia's most influential Rich Crusaders, the people who use their cash to influence public debate and promote causes they believe in. Here, Paul Barry presents the shortlist.

Gina Rinehart

Money talks. And no one has more than Gina Rinehart, who is a billionaire twenty times over. But can she buy influence over two of Australia's most famous newspapers, The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne's The Age?

The Power Index reckons the answer is no—or not yet—despite her recent raid on Fairfax Media, which has left the mining magnate with 14% of the shares.

Gina thinks global warming is nonsense and the mining tax is a disgrace. Last year she jumped on the back of a truck with fellow billionaire, Andrew Forrest, and led the chant to "Axe the Tax". She also funded climate-change denier Lord Monckton's recent Australian tour.

Graeme Wood

Greens donor, Global Mail bankroller and pulp mill buyer: Wood is trying to sway the debate his way

Graeme Wood isn't half as rich as Gina Rinehart, but he's trying hard to sway the debate. In 2010, he set a new Australian record for political donations by giving the Greens $1.6 million for the TV ad campaign that helped win the balance of power in the Senate.

Nine months later, he laid out $10 million to buy Gunns's Triabunna woodchip mill, so he could shut it down and end the logging of native forests in southern Tasmania. As you can guess, the locals love him.

His latest venture is the online (left-leaning) Global Mail, which he will bankroll for the next five years to the tune of $15 million.

Dick Smith

It's a quarter of a century since Dick Smith was dubbed Australian of the Year, but at 68, the nation's best-known boy scout is still agitating for the Australia he'd like to live in: where imports don't bankrupt our farmers and the fragile environment is protected.

Dick's been called a hypocrite, a pest, an egomaniac and a shameless self-promoter, (for stunts like going to the Melbourne Cup in a huge top hat advertising his own-brand OzEmite). But he's gutsy, generous and passionate about making Australia a better place.

Andrew Forrest

Super salesman Andrew Forrest set up Fortescue Metals in 2003 and has made $5 billion, making him the third richest person in Australia.

With help from his fellow iron ore billionaire, Gina Rinehart, Twiggy led the crusade against the mining tax.

But that's not his only political act. In 2008 he got Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to launch his Australian Employment Covenant, and roped in James Packer, Lindsay Fox and Kerry Stokes to support its pledge of 50,000 indigenous jobs. Twiggy has also given $130 million to charities in the last four years.

Rupert Murdoch

We thought we'd put him in, even if he doesn't quite fit the definition, because no one is better than Rupert at using his money and power to influence the political debate. Murdoch's 175 newspapers around the world were unanimous in supporting the invasion of Iraq in 2003, (once the Hobart Mercury was called into line), and over the years they have fallen in behind Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and our own John Howard. Rupert even made and broke Gough Whitlam almost 40 years ago. But he's already on our media moguls list and his political activism is more a business than a hobby. So he may not make the cut.

Chuck Feeney

Who the Chuck is Feeney? He's the biggest philanthropist Australia has ever seen, that's who. The 81-year old Irish American billionaire has given away some $500 million in this country since the 1980s, through his Atlantic Philanthropies foundation. Almost all of this has gone into medical research and biotechnology, funding 19 state-of-the-art university and medical research institutes. So why does he do it? Feeney believes that a man who dies wealthy dies disgraced. He also believes that advances in medicine will be of most benefit to the poor and disadvantaged.

Robert Purves

Robert Purves spent $10 million setting up the Purves Environmental Fund in 2004, but has been busy saving the environment for much longer than that. He bankrolls the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, funds the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and the Total Environment Centre, and sponsored last year's 4 Degrees conference in Melbourne. "I'm a restless soul. I like effecting change, I like making things happen," he says. But there's much, much more. In 2005, he funded Tim Flannery's book The Weather Makers and sent copies to federal politicians. And last year his fund bought up 1600 hectares of Tasmanian wilderness next to Cradle Mountain National Park for conservation, the largest-ever such purchase.

Eve Kantor

Eve Kantor and her husband Mark Wootton have spent $50 million on environmental causes since 1995, including $14 million to set up and fund the Climate Institute and $10 million to bankroll the Australian Conservation Foundation.

This activism has put them at odds with Eve's famous uncle, Rupert Murdoch, who effectively gifted them the money when he bought Eve's mother Anne out of his News empire.

A famous clash came last year, when the Kantors funded the famous "Say Yes" campaign, and prompted those attacks on "Carbon Cate" Blanchett.

"One of the reasons we do this," says Mark Wootton, "is because of some of the things the Murdoch papers have done."

Myer Family

The Myers have been giving away millions of dollars to change the face of Australia since Sir Sidney Myer left one tenth of his fortune to the community in 1934. Other generations of Myers have also chipped in, and the extended family now spends more than $11 million doing good. Some is pure philanthropy, some is more political, promoting closer links with Asia, backing indigenous causes and protecting the environment.

Frank Lowy

Westfield boss Frank Lowy stumped up $30 million to set up the Lowy Institute in 2003, on the 50th anniversary of his arrival in Australia. But he doesn't try to tell its experts—who specialize in foreign affairs—what to think or say. Which is one reason why it was recently rated the best think tank in Australia.

The 80-year old tycoon probably has enough power without trying to shift the nation's politics to the right or left. Despite run-ins with the tax office over trust accounts in Liechtenstein, Frank has served two terms on the Reserve Bank board and had a conga line of Prime Ministers and politicians sucking up to him.

Clive Palmer

National Living Treasure contender Clive Palmer is the biggest regular donor to political parties in Australia. But with $5 billion in his tuckerbag, the coal and iron ore mining giant can afford to be generous. Naturally, he gives to the conservatives, with $2.8 million to the Coalition over the last three years, and the bulk to the LNP in his native Queensland.

Clive says his next move might be to copy Gina Rinehart, by setting up a new Brisbane newspaper or buying her in Fairfax. But we suspect he's just trying to frighten us.

In 2008, Palmer pledged $100 million for medical programs in Western Australia, aimed at improving the lives of indigenous people. But no money has yet been spent.

Geoff Cousins

Former adman Geoff Cousins led the opposition to Gunns's new Tasmanian pulp mill in 2007, hounding environment minister Malcolm Turnbull during the election, and eventually convincing the ANZ Bank not to fund it. Not only did he stop the mill, he persuaded Gunns to give up logging old-growth forests.

Geoff's latest war is against Woodside's proposed $30 billion gas hub in the Kimberley. And that battle is even rougher. He has not splash out millions, but he does put his reputation on the line. "That's worth much more than money," he says.

Jan Cameron

Kathmandu founder Jan Cameron is another rich businessperson who devotes time and money to saving the environment. Last year, she teamed up with Graeme Wood to buy Gunns's Triabunna pulp mill for $10 million, with the aim of closing it down. (She lives just up the coast in Bicheno.) The previous year, she forked out $5 million to set up the Animal Justice Fund, which plans to "promote the cause of animal welfare through strategic litigation, public awareness campaigns and the prosecution of persons or businesses who commit offences against animals used in intensive farming". Cameron has created a wildlife sanctuary near her home, bought up native forests and funded a community hospital and childcare centre in her hometown. She gives all the profits of her Tasmanian discount store chain—Chickenfeed—to charity.

Evan Thornley

Evan Thornley made his fortune in the boom with Looksmart, the internet search engine, and managed to sell some of his shares before the crash. Since 2005, he's devoted much of his time (and some of his money) to getting the Labor Party to re-examine what it stands for. He helped set up and fund the progressive think tank, PerCapita, and has also contributed to the Fabian Society and Chifley Research Centre. Thornley was a founding member of GetUp and an ALP MP in Victoria from 2005 until he resigned in 2008. He now runs the Australian division of electric car company, Better Place.

Peter Scanlon

Peter Scanlon was one of John Elliott's top executives at Elders IXL in the 1980s, and was a co-defendant in the famous fraud trial brought by the National Crime Authority. (They both got off.) Nowadays, he's a successful property developer, worth around $600 million. He has used some of this money to establish the Scanlon Foundation, whose mission is to foster "social cohesion", ie make multiculturalism a success. Scanlon wants a Big Australia—what Dick Smith fears—but his foundation has also supported 300 community projects in its ten-year life.

Tony and Maureen Wheeler

The Wheelers founded Lonely Planet travel guides in the 1970s and turned it into the backpackers' bible. In 2007, they sold a majority stake to the BBC for £88 million, and in 2011 got rid of their remaining stake for another £44 million. They now concentrate on philanthropy through the Planet Wheeler Foundation, which gives money to projects around the world, but especially in developing countries. The Wheelers have also tipped in almost $100,000 to fund GetUp! over the years and have set up an endowment for Melbourne's Wheeler Centre, which is dedicated to "the discussion and practice of writing, books and ideas".

Martin Copley

Martin Copley has done more than anyone to safeguard Australia's biodiversity and endangered species. The 72-year British born businessman, who made his fortune in insurance underwriting, set up the Australian Wildlife Conservancy 11 years ago, after spending millions of dollars of his own money on conservation. The AWC owns 26,000 square kilometres of sanctuaries across Australia, protecting 100 threatened ecosystems and 170 threatened animal species. According to Tim Flannery, Copley is "an absolute standout" who has made "an extraordinary contribution" in his field.

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