He’s seriously got whatever it was that drove Alexander and John Forrest and David Forrest to go into the deserts of the middle of the country. It’s in the history, it’s in the blood.

—JANIE HICKS, Andrew Forrest’s sister

When Judy Forrest discovered she was pregnant in 1961, her first reaction was to plan for a miscarriage. Life on a remote sheep station in the Western Australian outback was demanding enough with two small kids and a husband gone from dawn to dusk. For Judy, the thought of having a third child was horrifying. So she decided to ride her horse bareback across the rugged Pilbara terrain every day for a week, with the aim of aborting the pregnancy. When that didn’t work, she jumped off the roof overlooking the homestead’s tennis court three times a day for seven days, but without success. Friends advised her to hit the gin bottle as well, but she drew the line at that.

Several months later, on 18 November, Judy gave birth to a healthy baby boy, John Andrew Henry Forrest. She confided in her youngest son from an early age that she had wanted to end the pregnancy and told him he must be a tenacious type to have survived in the womb. It may have been a calculated ploy by the tough-as-nails Judy to instil in her youngest son a sense of self-belief and drive that she believed would take him far in life. According to the small group of friends who have heard this story from Forrest over the years, it also implanted in the boy’s brain the overwhelming need to impress his mother. “So much of what he does is proving to his mother that he’s worth it,” says Warwick Grigor, Forrest’s former business partner. “It really is a big motivating factor.”

Young John carried another weighty burden from birth: his name. Being named after Sir John Forrest, his great-great-uncle and Western Australia’s most famous historical figure, was simply too much to bear for the boy, and so he decided he’d be known by his second name, Andrew. Despite this, many now believe that Andrew Forrest, the entrepreneur, has been inspired to take extraordinary risks and pursue grand dreams by seeking to follow in the footsteps of Sir John, who was the state’s first premier and most celebrated pioneer. Warwick Grigor, who knows Forrest better than most, suggests the businessman’s success is driven by a combination of living up to the Forrest family legacy while subconsciously trying to prove to his mother that he deserved to be born in the first place.

Over the years, Forrest has rarely missed a chance to cite the deeds of Sir John in the self-promotional spiels he delivers when wooing a financier, pitching his vision to a politician or signing up a customer. Often he has worked at a desk underneath a framed portrait of the burly, bearded image of “Uncle John”. Even his home address contains potential clues to his family inspiration. For the past thirteen years, Forrest has lived in Perth’s salubrious beachside suburb of Cottesloe at the pinnacle of John Street, which runs parallel to Forrest Street – both leafy thoroughfares were named after Sir John Forrest. Perhaps Forrest’s decision to buy a house in this location was a coincidence. If so, it’s an extraordinary one. For his part, Forrest has mostly rejected the notion of himself as a latter-day incarnation of Sir John. Yet the words of his family members and others who’ve observed him up close have tended to blunt his denials.

“I think, unconsciously perhaps, Andrew would like to emulate his great-great-uncle,” said Forrest’s father, Don, when asked whether his son was motivated by the deeds of Sir John. Forrest dismissed such talk in a rare interview on the topic with Perth journalist Mark Drummond in 2007. “We can never escape who we are,” he said. “We are the opportunities, the education and the genetics we were given. But as far as it [the Forrest name] being a motivator to me, that’s entirely misguided.”

By 2011, however, after his goal of building an iron ore mine in the vast red dirt of his Pilbara homeland had been realised, Forrest seemed more willing to accept that he had been inspired by Sir John and his sidekick CY O’Connor, the brilliant engineer who designed a revolutionary water pipeline to the Goldfields but committed suicide after being accused of corruption. “I think those two guys probably did have an impact,” Forrest said. “To think, okay, if you really believe in something yet you’re heavily ridiculed for it, well, just cop it. Don’t make the mistake which CY did, which is to let it all get to you … I was fascinated by [O’Connor], fascinated by the fact he was told it’s absolutely impossible to create a dam at what is now the most beautiful Mundaring Weir [outside Perth]. He was told it was completely impossible to pump water up a hill for 600 miles, and I love the fact that John Forrest believed so much in him and backed him completely.”

Graeme Kirke, Forrest’s former colleague at Perth stockbroking firm Kirke Securities, believes Forrest’s raw determination, obsessiveness and zeal are actually embedded in his DNA. “Do I think it [the family legacy] is on his shoulder? No, I don’t – I think it’s innate,” he says. Forrest’s sister, Janie Hicks, is also a believer in the nature, rather than nurture, theory when analysing her famous brother’s personality. “He’s seriously got whatever it was that drove Alexander and John Forrest and David Forrest to go into the deserts of the middle of the country,” she said in 2005. “It’s in the history, it’s in the blood.” Forrest’s older brother, David, agreed: “Andrew will probably go down as a very significant part of the 21st-century version of John.”

To fully understand Andrew Forrest, we need to delve into the history of Western Australia and examine the exploits of Sir John. There are, in fact, plenty of similarities between Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, the entrepreneur of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and John Forrest, the explorer, politician and statesman of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Twiggy has said his business motto today – of taking bold but calculated risks – is essentially the same as the philosophy Sir John employed in the desert more than a century ago. John Forrest survived his three dangerous expeditions into the continent’s interior by never venturing so far from a waterhole that it would be impossible to return. It’s a fitting analogy because Andrew Forrest has strayed from the metaphorical waterhole a few times in his colourful career. And so far, like Sir John, he’s always made it back – sometimes bloodied yet still alive.

Like John Forrest, Andrew has ventured into frontier territory and built some of the essential wealth-generating infrastructure of his era. Sir John borrowed six times the annual WA government budget – an extraordinarily risky amount, equal to a premier taking out loans of more than $100 billion today – to build the Goldfields water pipeline and other nation-building works at a time when the colony was beginning to grow rapidly, thanks to the discovery of gold at Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie. Andrew Forrest has shown a similar fondness for debt, raising billions of dollars to build the Murrin Murrin nickel project north of Kalgoorlie in the 1990s and, more recently, the Fortescue iron ore mines of the Pilbara. John Forrest, a “bulldozer of a man” in the words of historian Geoffrey Bolton, was the pivotal figure of the state’s first mining boom in the 1890s. Andrew Forrest, by dint of his wealth and activism, is the poster boy of the latest one. Both rose to the top with boundless energy, habitual optimism, self-belief and an ability to inspire others. Both were gamblers. Luck also played a part, for both Forrest men were in the right place at the right time.

Born in 1847 near the WA town of Bunbury, south of Perth, John Forrest was the son of indentured Scottish migrants who had arrived in the colony in 1842 with virtually nothing, spending their first night huddled in a tent. John was a tall, strong youth who sprung to fame at the age of twenty-one by leading a daring expedition into the heart of Australia in search of the missing explorer Ludwig Leichhardt. Leichhardt’s party had last been seen twenty years earlier, about 2400 kilometres east of the most easterly sheep station in Western Australia, while attempting to cross the continent from east to west through the interior.

This was an era in which the colony of Western Australia, settled only in 1829, was still almost totally isolated from the rest of the continent and was economically backwards in most respects. Forrest, a surveyor by profession, left Perth in April 1869 with five other men, sixteen horses and several dogs. After traversing more than 3000 kilometres of desolate country in the most remote interior of Western Australia, he failed to find any trace of the Leichhardt party. Nor did he find, as he had hoped, an inland Garden of Eden, a river system or even any decent pastoral land. As John Forrest’s biographer Frank Crowley noted, the most significant outcome of the expedition into the “Great Lone Land” was the confidence Forrest developed in his own abilities and the respect he inspired in both his subordinates and superiors.

Yet there was another benefit of that first mission: after Forrest’s compass became affected by what he assumed was the presence of underground minerals, he recommended that geologists be sent to what would become known throughout the world as the WA Goldfields. It was in this desert region, a century later, that Andrew Forrest would forge another new frontier by establishing a $1-billion nickel operation.

John Forrest set off on another dangerous expedition in 1870, this time aimed at surveying the area between Western Australia and South Australia – a region along the coast of the Great Australian Bight then known as No Man’s Land. Earlier, the explorer Edward John Eyre had traversed the same coastline but had almost died of thirst and, in a desperate dash for survival, had taken few detailed notes. Forrest chose his twenty-year-old brother, Alexander, who had also qualified as a surveyor, as second-in-command, and Aboriginal tracker Tommy Windich as his guide. In total, there were six men, sixteen horses and several dogs. The group survived on damper and salt pork, slept in the open for more than three months and suffered from unbearably painful feet after walking vast distances in the hot, fly-plagued country. Finding enough water for themselves and the horses was a daily struggle. Once they were forced to make a 250-kilometre dash to a waterhole with just one litre of water each per day. A few weeks after his twenty-third birthday, Forrest arrived in Adelaide to a hero’s welcome. While the tangible results of the expedition were again limited, Forrest had successfully led the first west-to-east crossing of Western Australia. The mission also helped bridge the gap that was finally closed seven years later with the completion of the telegraph line connecting Perth to London, via Adelaide.

But the mysteries of the vast interior still nagged at Forrest and the British colonists of the era. Again backed by Alexander Forrest and Tommy Windich, Forrest began his longest and most daring journey in March 1874 – a 4000-kilometre transcontinental expedition that started in Geraldton, 400 kilometres north of Perth, and went straight through the Australian centre. According to writer Cyril Ayris, the mission earned the group the sort of fame “that in our day comes to young men and women as successful Olympic athletes or tennis stars”. Ayris wrote that this was Forrest’s most difficult trip of all.

Water became scarce and grass gave way to spinifex which made walking difficult and cut the horses’ flanks. The terrain was an endless sea of corrugated sand hills. The sun beat down on them and the glare of the sand dazzled them. This was terrible country – worse than any of them had seen.

The party were twice attacked by naked, spear-throwing Aborigines, possibly because they had camped inadvertently on a sacred site. As the group trudged up and down sandhills, Forrest began to pray to his “Creator” to guide him to water. One of the men suffered scurvy and his feet became so badly swollen that he could hardly walk. By September, as they followed the dry bed of a river in the northern part of South Australia, the men were subsisting on nothing but flour porridge three times a day. John Forrest had lost ten kilograms in weight. Finally the group reached the overland telegraph line that ran through the centre of the continent from Darwin to Adelaide. Upon reaching Adelaide in early November, they were given another civic reception, with big crowds lining the streets. Again, Forrest publicly regretted that the land he had traversed was largely useless and never likely to be settled. But Forrest’s fame had grown immeasurably. He travelled to London, where he was presented to Queen Victoria, and upon his return was promoted to deputy surveyor-general of Western Australia at the age of just twenty-eight.

Forrest never took unavoidable risks and no man died on any of his three expeditions. This was a time when many fellow explorers had perished in the Australian interior because they pushed ahead too quickly without ensuring a supply of water. By all accounts, Forrest had great personal attributes. He was physically strong and able to survive for as long as forty-eight hours without food and with only the smallest amount of water. Yet Sir John’s name is not readily associated with the nation’s greatest explorers. Historian Geoffrey Bolton believes that outside Western Australia his achievements are largely ignored in favour of “tragic incompetents such as Burke and Wills”.

In 1876 John Forrest married a refined young woman, Margaret Hamersley, and the couple moved into a magnificent house called The Bungalow in the centre of Perth, which had been bequeathed to Margaret by her late father. Forrest, the son of a humble miller, had married into the city’s elite. John and Margaret were treated as WA royalty and The Bungalow was at the centre of much of Perth’s social and political activity. To their deep regret, however, the couple could not have children, possibly because Margaret had suffered injuries in a horseriding accident as a teenager. Once married, Forrest returned to his day job as a surveyor, spending months at a time away on work that helped formed the basis for the eventual mapping of the entire state of Western Australia.

If Forrest’s achievements had ended at this point, he would still be remembered as one of Western Australia’s most important citizens. But he was about to embark on a spectacularly successful career in state and federal politics, which would take him to within one vote of the prime ministership. At age thirty-five, Forrest had become surveyor-general and a member of Western Australia’s executive council – the first locally born man to be admitted to the colony’s highest governing body. It did not take long for Forrest, always a man of strong opinions, to clash with the colonial governor of the day, Frederick Broome, whom Forrest accused of ruling in a despotic style. But Forrest established a reputation as a shrewd political tactician and was regarded by the public as a “local boy made good”.

When Britain granted Western Australia the right to self-rule in 1890, John Forrest was elected unopposed to the seat of Bunbury in the Legislative Assembly. He then threw his hat in the ring to become premier, gathering supporters among fellow members of parliament and lobbying the governor at that time, Sir William Robinson, to give him the job. Crowley observed that the hugely energetic Forrest was desperate to become Western Australia’s first premier.

Why did he seek the premiership so ardently? The answer can only be found in the character of the man as it had been influenced by his career. He was without doubt a born leader, a man with a remarkable degree of self-confidence, who, unlike many gifted in that manner but not so fortunate, had been able to take advantage of situations best suited to his temperaments and his natural talents. He had an appetite for leadership and power, and a temperament well-suited to decision-making.

After being named the state’s first premier, Forrest quickly employed CY O’Connor, who had twenty-five years’ engineering experience in New Zealand, as his chief engineer to build a harbour at Fremantle and find a way of transporting water to the Goldfields. The appointment was oneof his best decisions. Public works were urgently needed because the British government had been unwilling to approve spending in the distant colony. Across the vast state, railways, ports, jetties, lighthouses and town halls would be built by the Forrest government in a frenzy of activity. When O’Connor first cabled Forrest to ask what his new job would entail, Forrest simply replied: “Railways, harbours, everything.” The water pipeline, in particular, was one of the world’s great engineering feats. Water was dammed outside Perth at Mundaring Weir and piped uphill for more than 550 kilometres to Kalgoorlie. To this day, it is a lifeline for mining towns perched on the edge of the desert.

In both its far-sightedness and scale, the Forrest government’s provision of infrastructure is arguably unparalleled in Australian history. The town of Southern Cross, 370 kilometres east of Perth, had a railway by 1894, just four years after it was gazetted. Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie were connected by telegraph by 1894 and had their railway two years later. These were towns experiencing a population explosion as a result of the gold discoveries that were making news worldwide. Perth itself experienced huge growth and was catapulted from the ranks of country town to one of the top ten cities of Australia by the turn of the century. Western Australia’s population soared from 100,000 to 240,000 in the decade to 1904, a period in which unemployment was high and industrial action common in the eastern states. Unlike today’s mining boom, which has attracted more international than interstate migrants, most new settlers to Western Australia in the 1890s came from the economically depressed states of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia.

For better or worse, it is difficult to imagine governments of today acting so rapidly with such huge amounts of taxpayers’ money. But Forrest had the political courage to stare down his many critics and see projects through to completion, even when accused – at home and abroad – of corruption or incompetence. London’s Financial Times, in a report on the economic miracle that was occurring in the colony under Forrest, wrote of the “waste and extravagance which one sees throughout Western Australia”. But Forrest, the politician, took political credit for the public works he was building, telling parliament that future generations would thank his government. By this time his authority had been enhanced by a knighthood – he was the first native-born Western Australian to receive the honour. O’Connor, a more reclusive and sensitive man, shot himself while riding his horse into the waves at a beach near Fremantle in March 1902, aged fifty-nine, a year before the pipeline was commissioned. Weeks before his suicide, an article in Perth’s Sunday Times newspaper had accused him of “gross blundering” and “reckless extravagant juggling with public funds”.

Another of Forrest’s great legacies is his guidance of Western Australia into the federation in 1901 despite strong opposition from within his rural electorate, his ministry and even his friends. Throughout the 1890s Forrest was a member of the national meetings that framed the Australian Constitution, and he argued repeatedly for a strong upper house to give the less populous states a voice. He also lobbied the eastern premiers – largely unsuccessfully – for a number of concessions for Western Australia to enter the federation. Forrest called a referendum in 1900 and the margin was two-to-one in favour of federation, with women voting for the first time. The mining boom in the Goldfields and the arrival of tens of thousands of “t’othersiders” from the east had boosted public support for Western Australia to join the commonwealth. But many of his former supporters never forgave Forrest for championing the “yes” vote, and he would be blamed for the supposed negative effects of federation on the state’s economy and finances for the next thirty years. Many opponents of federation soon became firm advocates of secession – a fringe movement that survives in the west to this day.

As premier, John Forrest is credited with many social reforms, including extending voting rights to women. But in truth Forrest was nowhere near as visionary in his social outlook as in his economic policies. His attitudes to women were staunchly conservative, which was hardly unusual for the era. He was pleased when an early motion to allow female voting was defeated in parliament, believing that it would lead to women sitting in parliament and neglecting their home duties. Forrest told parliament in 1897 that men were created to be breadwinners and women were intended to be “the comfort and solace of our homes”. By 1899, however, he’d had a sudden change of heart. It is thought that his wife, Margaret, who by that time had joined the Suffrage League, inspired the premier’s sudden enthusiasm for the cause.

Forrest’s attitudes to Aborigines were similarly unenlightened. Historians Bob Reece and Tom Stannage concluded that Forrest and his colleagues were “locked into and promoted an ideology of development which had racism at its heart”. While it seems clear that Forrest had a sympathy for individual Aborigines who had helped him as a surveyor and explorer, he had no vision of a future for indigenous people in a white society and viewed the surviving Aborigines in settled areas as little more than a public nuisance. He believed it was the government’s duty to help indigenous people in need “until the race died out”. But as an investor in sheep stations, Forrest needed Aborigines as a source of cheap labour, and in 1893 he called for restraint by those whites who would regularly shoot Aborigines caught stealing food or cattle. “It’s all very well for us to be incensed against these native outrages, but we must remember this: they are not all bad,” he said. “How would we like to be shot at when we had done nothing wrong? Those who do the mischief deserve punishing, no doubt, but this sort of random retribution would kill both the innocent and the guilty … We must endeavour to civilise them by degrees. I must not, in the position that I am in, do anything or sanction anything that will lead to the impression that an indiscriminate slaughter of blackfellows will be tolerated or allowed by the government of the colony.”

Unsurprisingly, his attitudes to foreigners were hardly progressive either. Forrest told parliament he did not want any Asians to settle permanently in the colony. “There are millions of them, and if we do not place some restrictions on them they will overrun the country, and, instead of being a British country, this will be an Asiatic country,” he said. Forrest introduced an Immigration Restriction Act in 1897, which established a dictation test aimed at excluding the Chinese from living in Western Australia, and he was proud that his government had not allowed Asians to be issued with mining rights. This sort of unconcealed racism was common, of course, at the time. Frank Crowley believes Forrest “took with him to his grave this compound of social snobbery, laissez faire capitalism, sentimental royalism, patriotic Anglicanism, benevolent imperialism and British racial superiority”.

By 1900 John Forrest had been joined in parliament by two of his brothers, Alexander and David. The three of them owned the vast Minderoo sheep station, which David Forrest had managed since the 1870s. John and Alexander Forrest, in particular, became the target of gossip that they took advantage of their government work to acquire big landholdings. But there was no evidence of corruption, certainly not on John’s part. “He [John] used his own money to finance expeditions, didn’t charge travelling expenses and, as an early member of parliament, was not paid,” wrote Forrest family historians Alison and Dinee Muir. “He refused to take a parliamentary pension as he said the country could not afford it and he had enough money of his own.”

Alexander, however, proved to be exceptionally gifted at seizing the lucrative business opportunities that were emerging in the fast-growing economy, accruing interests in pastoral stations, gold mines, newspapers, the timber industry, butchering and cattle shipping – even as he sat in parliament. He was the first genuine entrepreneur in the Forrest family and would remain its most successful until his great-grand-nephew became Australia’s richest man in 2008. According to the Forrest family’s historians, Alexander Forrest was a “prolific investor and played the stockmarket with zest”. After leading a gruelling expedition in 1897 to the wild Kimberley region in the state’s far north, he was granted 5000 acres of prime pastoral land near what is now the town of Derby. Because he was also the local member for West Kimberley at the time, the Legislative Council’s decision to grant the land to Alexander fuelled allegations of corruption. In 1897 he became lord mayor of Perth while continuing to sit in parliament.

With John entrenched as premier, critics of the Forrest family began to voice concerns that the state was being run by a clique. Allegations continued to emerge in the press that Alexander Forrest was engaged in shonky business dealings and had secured government contracts for his various companies. “The truth was that it would have been almost impossible for the government to have bypassed his many interests,” wrote Alison and Dinee Muir. Geoffrey Bolton has adopted a cautious tone in analysing Alexander Forrest’s fusion of money-making prowess and political influence. “As a capitalist he was an uncomplicated believer in the development of Western Australia’s natural resources, enjoying the gamble of speculative investment, generous in prosperity and uninterested in the acquisition of power beyond the extent necessary to serve his immediate interests,” Bolton wrote. “But he was careless of appearances and failed to realise that the casual practices of a small-town business community, linked by kinship and connexion, could be interpreted unkindly in a more sophisticated commercial and political milieu.”

Alexander was dogged by rumours of corruption until his sudden death at fifty-one. He died with an estate worth £195,238, one of the largest amassed in the state at that time. A prominent statue of Alexander Forrest stands on St Georges Terrace in the heart of Perth’s modern business district, an apt location for a memorial to an arch-capitalist.

After ten years as premier of Western Australia, John Forrest resigned in January 1901 to become the federal minister for defence in the newly formed conservative national government of Edmund Barton. At Australia’s first federal election, in March of that year, he became the member for Swan. Forrest went on to serve as minister for home affairs, treasurer and acting prime minister in various conservative governments over the following seventeen years. But his greatest disappointment in politics came when he failed to win the leadership of the Liberal Party, then in opposition, by a single vote in 1913.

The opportunity arose after Alfred Deakin had resigned as leader, providing Forrest with the moment he had been waiting for since leaving the premier’s office twelve years earlier. But Deakin, whom Forrest had regarded as a close ally and friend, threw his support behind Joseph Cook for the job and, five months later, the Liberals returned to power with Cook as prime minister. Deeply hurt by the probability that he had missed out on the prime ministership by one vote and saddened by what he felt was Deakin’s betrayal, Forrest wrote a note to his old boss after the ballot: “My dear Deakin, ‘Et tu, Brute?’, Yours sincerely and in sorrow, John Forrest.”

John Forrest achieved another of his great visions in 1917, when a 1700-kilometre transcontinental railway line was joined on the Nullarbor Plain, finally linking Perth to the eastern states. Sir John, who had championed the project for decades, saw it as vital to Australia’s economic development. A year later, at the age of seventy-one, Forrest was seriously ill with a cancerous cyst on his temple. He resigned as federal treasurer and boarded a ship for London to seek specialist medical attention. But on 3 September 1918, with his ship off the coast of Sierra Leone, he died. When warned not to make the long journey to London, Forrest had said: “I have faced death before and I will face it now. What does it matter if I die at sea?”

To this day, Forrest’s record of public service – his years as an explorer, his decade as premier of Western Australian and his eighteen years of prominence on the national stage – remains virtually unrivalled. His statue, a portly bronze figure swathed in robes, stands in Perth’s Kings Park, overlooking the capital city of a state that he transformed.

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