Business

Twiggy’s bushfire assistance ‘inspiring’

Andrew Forrest's critics say he's a fraud whose promises can't be trusted, and claim his charity efforts are just a PR play.

But that's not what the people of Marysville think about Wayne Swan's least favourite mining billionaire, who has helped them rebuild their community after the disastrous Victorian bushfires of 2009.

"It's certainly not my experience," says Graeme Brown, chair of MATDOG (the Marysville & Triangle Development Group), "I'd speak very highly of Andrew Forrest. He's a great motivator. He played an important role in drawing the community together and equipping us all to face the challenges. And I can still pick up the phone to him anytime."

"Forrest is one of the people who have hung in there," agrees Doug Walter, the previous chair of MATDOG. "I could give you a catalogue of people who have turned up to get their photo in the paper, made extravagant promises and then disappeared, but he's not one of them."

"Andrew was particularly helpful in the first week after the fires when we were all in a terrible state and utterly frazzled," Walter told The Power Index. "He came in with this really positive message: that there will be a tomorrow, there is hope and we will be able to rebuild our lives, and it really helped a lot. He captured the hearts and minds of everybody involved. He's such an enthusiastic man and it's catching."

No one is quite sure how much Forrest has contributed in hard cash, "but it would be a lot, especially in the early days," according to Brown, who says Forrest's Australian Children's Trust paid for the $100,000 marquee erected in the High Street, which served as a community centre after the fire.

More significantly, perhaps, his Australian Childrens' Trust kept a representative living and working in Marysville for a year after the fires.

Forrest also got things moving in the first few days after the tragedy hit, long before the bureaucracy could get its act together.

"He helped get a temporary village set up, by bringing in lots of dongas (mining huts) in from WA. He got Lindsay Fox to transport them on trucks and had them here virtually overnight."

Since then, Forrest has apparently played a key role in developing plans for a new 120-room conference centre and getting Greg Norman's agreement to remodel the local golf course.

"He's very different to what you read about him. He's human and very empathetic," says Walter, who recalls Forrest landing his helicopter in his paddock. "He told us to take a ride in the chopper and have a look at the burn from the air. We left him and his daughter with this elderly couple in their 80s who had lost everything. And when we got back we found him kneeling on the floor in front of them, holding their hands, crying."

"He was very inspiring," local doctor Lachlan Fraser agrees, even if one or two of his suggestions were a bit fanciful.

"He said we should aim for the sky," Fraser recalls. "We should get a freeway built from Melbourne. I think he said freeway, but he definitely said we should get a new road put through."

And as to any suggestion it's done for PR, the locals will have none of it. "It's Nicola and Andrew's family trust," says Brown. "They're not seeking any advantage in business. They didn't need to be here. And they didn't get anything out of it apart from the satisfaction of helping a community in need."


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