Wealth bonanza for Australia’s billionaires continues as the pandemic rages

The obscene wealth of Australia’s richest 250 people is being glorified in the pages of the Murdoch-owned Australian, with the release last week of its annual Rich List. The total combined wealth of Australia’s richest now exceeds $520 billion, a $50 billion increase in just 12 months.

This bonanza is amid a meteoric rise of the pandemic and as all basic health measures have been scrapped in the interests of corporate profit.

Led by the New South Wales (NSW) Liberal government of Premier Dominic Perrottet and his Victorian Labor counterpart, Daniel Andrews, all of the state, territory and federal governments have openly embraced the “let it rip” pandemic policies, creating a mass of infection, illness and growing deaths.

In just four months, since the “reopening” of December 2021, more than 4.2 million COVID cases have been detected, nearly 20 times the number of infections recorded in Australia over the previous two years. In the same period deaths have nearly doubled, rising from 2,006 at the beginning of December, to 5,951 as of March 30.

The chronically-underfunded public hospitals have been overwhelmed, with health workers placed under unbearable pressure. The schools have been transformed into petri dishes with the forced return of face-to-face learning. Children are unwittingly bringing the virus home to their families.

The reality of the continued spread of this virus is completely covered over in the media, which largely presents the pandemic as a thing of the past. This year’s Rich List is no exception with COVID barely getting a mention.

Instead, the glossy pages are devoted to a worship of wealth. The Australian hailed the nine new billionaires added to the list, bringing this super-wealthy cohort to 131 in total. They have an average wealth of $2.08 billion. The barrier for entry on the list now exceeds $500 million.

The $520 billion is sharply concentrated in the upper echelons of the list. With the top ten billionaires combined wealth exceeding $224 billion, they represent 43 percent of the total wealth. The top 20, whose wealth exceeds $284 billion, account for more than 54 percent of the total.

Gina Rinehart [Image: Wikimedia]

The two richest individuals remain iron ore magnates Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest, who have retained last year’s first and second positions respectively. In 2020–21, both of them more than doubled their wealth as iron ore prices skyrocketed.

While iron ore prices have fluctuated over the past year, the wealth of the mining barons remains at stratospheric heights. Rinehart’s personal fortune is $32.64 billion, down slightly from $36.28 billion last year. Forrest had a $2.6 billion increase in his wealth to $31.77 billion.

Fellow mining magnate Clive Palmer almost doubled his holdings, from $9.76 billion last year to $18.35 billion this year, due to the massive surge in price for nickel. This placed him at number seven on the list.

Four places on this year’s Rich List are occupied by the heads of tech companies. Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar, co-founders of Atlassian, increased their combined wealth by $8.25 billion, placing fourth and fifth.

However, by far the largest increase in fortunes is that of husband-and-wife Cliff Obrecht and Melanie Perkins, who are co-founders of the graphic design platform Canva. Their combined wealth increase was nearly $27 billion, launching them to the number 9 and 10 spots, with more than $31 billion together.

The rise of these tech companies is the direct product of unbridled financial speculation. Investors looking for the next Google gamble incessantly on the potential future profits of these tech start-ups, pushing their shares exponentially higher than the net profits of the business.

This makes the companies highly vulnerable to rises in interest rates as their valuation is based on potential profits at existing interest rates. The tech boom exerts considerable pressure on central banks to keep interest rates at record lows, further fuelling inflation.

The Rich List is silent on the plight of workers and the poor. But the astronomical wealth at the top of society is the direct product of mounting poverty and social hardship afflicting millions of ordinary people. The tale of two cities is only becoming more pronounced.

Australia’s official inflation rate increased to 3.5 percent in 2021, in addition to the 21 percent rise over the prior decade. The costs of essential goods far outstrips the official rate, however, with non-discretionary goods increasing by 4.5 percent according to the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

Housing costs, most of which are not covered by the CPI, have hit record highs. Average house prices in Sydney and other capitals are in excess of a million dollars. Any increase in interest rates could push hundreds of thousands, or even millions of mortgage holders over the financial cliff.

Average daily petrol prices are surging, reaching as high as $A2.25 a litre in some areas. Wage stagnation is continuing, with a rise of less than 3 percent predicted for this year as governments, the employers and the trade unions seek to slash business costs. Families and workers are forced to live paycheck to paycheck, with any unexpected costs spelling potential disaster.

In contrast the rich live in a different world. Typical of the Rich List is the worship of the obscene spending habits of the super wealthy. In one article the Australian writes of the “Gulfstream buying spree,” referring to the purchase of multi-million-dollar private jets used by the billionaires to get around in.

Paul Little, worth $1.53 billion and 78th on the list, is pictured with his “pride and joy,” an $85 million Gulfstream G650 private jet. This was the “gold standard” of private jet five years ago, but alas has now been outstripped by the Global Express 7500, the world’s largest business jet.

Only property developer John Gandel, worth $5.05 billion and ranked 16th, has the $100 million aircraft in Australia. Not to be outdone, Andrew Forrest, Kerry Stokes, worth $7.43 billion placed 13th, and Laurence Escalante, placed 33rd with a worth $2.99 billion, all have one on order.

Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest [Image: Wikimedia]

In one of the few mentions of the pandemic, a Rich List article hails the fact that the health crisis, which has killed an estimated 20 million people, has seen an “explosion” in private jet purchase and travel globally. While workers are funnelled into cramped airports, in which they risk spreading and catching COVID-19, the billionaires jet off privately.

The Liberal-National Coalition government, supported by the Labor opposition, claims there is no money to address bushfires, floods or to increase the below-poverty unemployment payment. Public health, vitally needed during the pandemic, is to be further reduced by $10 billion or ten percent in real terms under the 2022 budget.

The obscene wealth at one pole of society, and the growing poverty and social crisis at the other, is setting the stage for major social explosions.

In its own way, and despite the intentions of its authors, the Rich List makes the case for a socialist reorganisation of society. No social problem can be addressed, unless and until the massive resources monopolised by a handful of ultra-wealthy individuals and corporations are redirected to meet the needs of working people and society as a whole.