Last week the Australian Financial Review published its annual list of the nation’s richest 200 people, with mini biographies telling how they acquired their massive wealth. The accounts add evidence to the premise that wealth and power are concentrated increasingly in Australia's east coast cities: Sydney, Melbourne and to a lesser extent Brisbane. The exception is Perth where there is a handful of super-rich miners.
The rest of Australia, including Newcastle and the Hunter, is sleeping rough. We don’t generate the wealth that makes anyone super rich and the super rich don’t live here. Neither of which is a worry, sure, but there are wider concerns.
According to the AFR, the top 200 rich listers are worth $233 billion in total. This is the first time since the list was first compiled in 1984 that the average wealth of the top 200 in Australia exceeds $1 billion. The average age of the rich listers is 66. Only 22 are women. Sydney is home to 64 rich listers and 59 live in Melbourne.
Inherited wealth isn’t common across the list. Rather, it is dominated by the people who actually built successful businesses. Mostly, however, these businesses have been sold to giant corporations and the proceeds invested in property.
Many of these build-and-sell rich listers have been around for decades. It is striking, for example, how many of the textiles and clothing investors from the 1980s remain very wealthy despite the devastation that hit the sector when trade protection measures were removed. Textiles and clothing mills employed almost 5000 women in the Hunter in those days and many lost entitlements when firms went bankrupt and their jobs disappeared.
Other rich listers are persistent wealth and jobs generators. The nation’s richest family is headed by Anthony Pratt who runs Visy, the cardboard box and recycling giant. Then follow: Harry Triguboff, who heads developer Meriton; Gina Reinhart, who has patiently built her iron ore export operations from her father’s Hope Downs mining lease; and Westfield’s Frank Lowy.
While Pratt’s cardboard ventures show what Australian manufacturing can do, the mere sprinkling of manufacturing investors across the list has to be seen as a failure of national industry policy.
Disappointing too is the small number of 21st century entrepreneurs on the list. Australia’s IT darlings Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar – the creators of Atlassian – are at the top end of the list, each worth $2.5 billion. But otherwise high tech entrepreneurs are poorly represented.
Instead, wealth making in Australia is dominated by property investors. And this is where the three east coast cities are important. There we find the largest incomes and highest rates of population growth. Demand for dwellings drives investment in apartments and new residential estates. Meriton makes big bucks building apartments. And land holders on the fringes make fortunes carving up their rural holdings.
Finally, the Hunter’s connections to the rich listers is meagre. I could only spot Brisbanite Trevor Lee’s interests in the Brindley Park feedlots near Merriwa, Nutrimetics founders Imelda and Bill Roche because they built Hunter Valley Gardens, Gerry Harvey because of his thoroughbred interests, and the Oatley family who made a fortune selling the Rosemount Estate.
Oh, and a couple of coal investors keenly investigated in recent times by ICAC.