The WA leaders driving change

Source: Business News

Our annual update of WA’s 50 most influential people analyses those using their role and profile to make a difference.

THERE have been major changes across Western Australia’s political and business landscape during the past year, with new leadership installed at some of the state’s largest companies.

Fortescue Metals GroupTattarangBHPAlcoa of AustraliaPerth Airport and HBF have all reported notable moves in their top ranks.

In the political sphere, there have been ministerial changes in the state government, new leadership in the state opposition and a change of power in Canberra.

Amidst all these changes, however, there has been a large degree of continuity in terms of the state’s most influential business and political leaders.

Premier Mark McGowan continues to be ranked by Business News as the state’s most powerful person.

With an unprecedented parliamentary majority and every expectation of another win in two years’ time, Mr McGowan’s position looks near impregnable.

Around him is a small group of ministers and backroom advisers, led by chief of staff Daniel Pastorelli, who help to set the agenda.

Andrew and Nicola Forrest continue as an enormously influential power couple, as business leaders, investors, philanthropists and advocates for public policy reform.

Seven West Media chair Kerry Stokes also remains a very powerful figure, with his influence reflecting his extensive commercial interests, his media empire and his reach into the corridors of power in Perth and Canberra.

With Labor governments in power in most jurisdictions around Australia, Hancock Prospecting chair Gina Rinehart is on the outer politically.

Her ill-fated sponsorship of Netball Australia illustrated how prevailing political mores have moved on from her world view.

However, the sheer scale of her business interests, centred on iron ore mining in the Pilbara, and her multi- billion-dollar personal fortune gives her very substantial influence.

Rob Scott, as chief executive of national conglomerate Wesfarmers, and Meg O’Neill, as chief of Woodside Energy, continue to be highly influential given their current roles.

Michael Chaney and Richard Goyder, who chair the Wesfarmers and Woodside boards, respectively, are ranked as the state’s most senior company directors.

But unlike their CEOs, the national reputation they have built over many years means their profile and influence is not tied to a specific role.

Working it

In analysing the state’s most powerful political and business leaders, it is instructive to look at how people use their profile and influence.

Who is shifting the dial in WA?

Who is making a lasting impact that will change the state for years to come?

There are two people who stand head and shoulders above others on these criteria.

One is Mr McGowan.

The other is Mr Forrest.

The premier is using the parliamentary majority he won two years ago to implement profound changes.

He started in 2021 with changes to the voting system in the Legislative Council that Labor had dreamed of for decades.

The move to a single, state-wide electorate for the upper house will shift political influence away from regional WA to the city, for the long-term benefit of Labor.

Another dramatic change was his decision to ban the logging of native forests from 2024.

It was a move that blindsided the industry and left timber towns reeling, with big job losses on the way, but was clearly designed to win favour with voters focused on environmental issues.

Like the electoral reforms, Mr McGowan did not campaign on this issue.

Recently, he announced sweeping changes to the approvals process for property developments, with emergency measures introduced during COVID becoming a permanent fixture.

These changes shift control of any significant property development away from local councils to government- appointed panels.

Collectively, these measures illustrate the almost unbridled power now enjoyed by the premier.

Top ministers

When he announced the planning changes at a Property Council lunch last month, Mr McGowan was accompanied by senior ministers Rita Saffioti and John Carey.

They form a power trio that is hard to match.

Ms Saffioti has long been recognised as one of the prime movers in the McGowan government, with responsibility for transport, planning and ports.

As well as the planning reforms, her portfolios encompass Labor’s largest current infrastructure project – the Metronet rail network – and its largest future project: the construction of a new container port at Cockburn Sound.

The Westport project will directly affect numerous industries, shifting commercial activity out of Fremantle and opening up the existing wharves for enormous property development opportunities.

That ensures a spotlight will continue to be shone on the relationship between the state government and property developers. Mr Carey represents the next generation of Labor leadership.

With responsibility for housing, lands, local government and homelessness, he has some of the government’s most important portfolios.

Another minister on the rise is Amber-Jade Sanderson, who has weathered some early storms in the always-challenging health portfolio.

Barring any dramatic missteps, they are poised to become even more influential as senior ministers such as Sue Ellery (who plans to retire at the next election) and Bill Johnston move on.

The future is less clear for Roger Cook; he is set to continue as a senior minister but there is speculation he will be replaced as deputy premier before the next state election, most likely by Ms Sanderson.

Mr McGowan’s absolute control of the government has delivered increased influence to a small group of backroom advisers that wield as much, if not more, influence than most ministers.

Led by Mr Pastorelli, this group includes the premier’s strategic adviser Kieran Murphy and policy director Dave Coggin.

All three are long-term Labor advisers who have worked for various ministers and premiers over many years.

Their career choices when Labor was out of power say a lot about the priorities of the government.

Mr Murphy worked for a petroleum industry lobby group and Mr Coggin worked for a mining company.

Another key adviser is under- treasurer Michael Barnes, who has held that role for nine years.

He is known to have developed a close relationship with the premier, whose focus on fiscal repair aligns with Treasury’s world view,

Other key bureaucrats include premier and cabinet boss Emily Roper, public sector commissioner Sharyn O’Neill and transport supremo Peter Woronzow.


While the premier enjoys enormous influence, he does not get everything his way.

City of Perth Lord Mayor Basil Zempilas has landed a few blows after challenging some aspects of the Perth City Deal that were agreed to before he won office.

He was subsequently not invited to public events with the premier, showing a sensitivity to criticism.

New opposition leader Shane Love is still building a profile in Perth.

The most potent critic of the government in state parliament has been Libby Mettam, who has focused on the chronic problems in the hospital system.

Her elevation to Liberal leader has formalised a role she was effectively playing beforehand.

It has also raised the stakes, with Ms Mettam and her very small team trying to cover the full gamut of portfolios and policy issues.

The premier has also faced criticism from an unlikely source in the union movement.

UnionsWA boss Owen Whittle led a rally outside Parliament House after the last state budget, calling on the government to change its hardline wages policy.

The union campaign, which highlighted the government’s big budget surplus and the damaging effect of rising inflation on workers, has proved successful in forcing the government to offer big pay rises.

The Forrests

Mr Forrest has been set on making a difference for most of his adult life. His greatest achievement to date is the building of Fortescue Metals Group from scratch into the third force in iron ore.

As executive chairman, he has spent the past two years reinventing the company, seeking to build a green energy powerhouse that will set an example to others.

It’s a pivot that would be the envy of any tech entrepreneur but is unheard of for a large mining company.

With his wife, Nicola, he has built Minderoo Foundation into one of Australia’s largest philanthropic organisations, with more than 150 staff and total spending on projects and partnerships last year of $136 million.

The Forrests back their spending with very public and forceful advocacy, on topics as diverse as clean oceans and child slavery.

They have also used the billions of dollars in dividends from FMG to create one of Australia’s largest and fastest-growing private companies.

Tattarang employs about 2,500 people either directly or through its subsidiaries, which encompass, mining, property, hospitality, agribusiness and marine services.

The person driving much of its growth is John Hartman, who was recently promoted from chief investment officer to CEO at Tattarang and CEO-elect at Minderoo.

He is also chair of Tattarang’s major subsidiaries, including Squadron Energy (which recently spent $4 billion buying wind farm company CWP Renewables) and Wyloo Metals (which this month lodged a $760 million takeover bid for nickel miner Mincor Resources).

His many other roles include chairing bootmaker and clothing producer RM Williams and venture capital outfit Tenmile, which has a $250 million kitty to invest in tech startups.

There are very few executives, in public or private companies across Australia, wielding as much commercial influence.

Mr Hartman’s promotion last year was among several major changes in the Forrest empire.

Another notable shift was the recruitment of Woodside executive Fiona Hick to be CEO, Fortescue Metals, with responsibility for its mining operations.

Under the group’s new structure, she and Fortescue Future Industries chief executive Mark Hutchinson will report to the FMG board.

That marks a significant shift from the old structure, in which Elizabeth Gaines was chief executive and a director of the parent company.

She left that role in September last year but continues as a non-executive director and ‘global green ambassador’ for FMG.

Big miners

Another big mining company under new leadership is Alcoa of Australia, after Michael Gollschewski retired in November.

US parent Alcoa Inc has brought in Rob Bear to fill the role on a temporary basis while it seeks a permanent replacement.

BHP has also seen a leadership transition but in much smoother fashion.

Brandon Craig has emerged as the company’s most senior and visible executive in WA.

He has been asset president for WA iron ore since October 2020 but initially operated under the shadow of Edgar Basto.

Mr Basto moved into a new role in October, as BHP’s chief operating officer.

While he is still based in Perth, he has a wide brief across the group’s operations with a focus on safety and productivity improvements.

Billionaire battles

The competing power of Perth’s business elite has been on show this year, in two ways.

The first was the battle for control of Perth Basin gas play Warrego Energy.

Strike Energy, chaired by dealmaker John Poynton, was the first bidder.

Beach Energy, which is backed by Mr Stokes, lodged a competing bid.

Mrs Rinehart’s Hancock Energy came over the top of both with a cash offer.

She was ultimately successful after Chris Ellison-led Mineral Resources, which had built up its own stake in Warrego, accepted the Hancock offer.

There was a similar outcome a few years ago when Mrs Rinehart beat two other bidders for control of miner Atlas Iron.

The second insight into Perth’s battling billionaires came last month when Mr Forrest launched an extraordinary attack on Mr Stokes.

In a briefing to staff, which was rapidly leaked to the media, Mr Forrest said The West Australian – part of Mr Stokes’ Seven West Media – had been “biased, inflammatory and above all inaccurate” in its commentary.

“This could well be driven by narrow self-seeking commercial interest,” he said.

It came after FMG decided to buy its next fleet of haul trucks from German supplier Liebherr rather than WesTrac, which is also part of Mr Stokes’ business empire.

It also came after the collapse of a joint proposal by Mr Forrest’s Tattarang and Mr Stokes’ private company Australian Capital Equity to jointly develop the East Perth power station.

The West’s reporting on FMG, which has included multiple highly critical front-page stories, is an example of the campaigning style of editor-in-chief Anthony De Ceglie.

Once Mr De Ceglie picks a target, The West goes hard against it, and many other media outlets choose to follow suit.

That makes Mr De Ceglie an influential figure in WA.

Property players

Property is one of WA’s major industries, and that makes the major developers very influential in shaping Perth’s future.

The state’s largest land developer is Satterley Property Group, and founder Nigel Satterley is well known as an active fundraiser for political parties.

Satterley has spent decades promoting new sub-divisions on Perth’s urban fringe but, like others, has needed to adapt its strategy to reflect the focus on infill.

That shift has benefited apartment developers such as Paul Blackburne, whose company sits behind some of Perth’s most prominent developments.

Blackburne’s One Subiaco project, which only proceeded after years of battling local community and council opposition, is seen by the state government as an example of what Perth needs more of.

Another major developer at the forefront of the changing market is Hesperia, led by Adrian Fini and Ben Lisle.

Their project portfolio is large and unusually diverse, and includes commercial buildings, residential developments, hospitality venues, industrial estates and a major medical precinct.

Their projects often focus on urban regeneration.

The two founders are also very active in Perth’s arts community as donors and board members, adding another layer to their networks of influence.