* Australia Treasurer says nation’s billionaires “distort public policy”
* Swan focuses on richest mining magnates who fought government’s tax plan
* Miners hit back, say criticism “heartbreaking” (Adds more details, reaction from miners, quotes)
By James Grubel and James Regan
CANBERRA/SYDNEY, March 2 (Reuters) - Australia’s treasurer lashed out at some of the country’s wealthiest and most powerful mining executives on Friday, accusing them of using their money and influence to monopolise public debate and distort policy to their own ends.
Once hailed as economic saviours and credited with insulating Australia from the worst of the 2008 global financial crisis, miners have since fallen out of favour with the centre-left Labor government over stiff new taxes set to hit profits from iron ore and coal, Australia’s two biggest exports.
Treasurer Wayne Swan’s attacks were directed at iron ore mining billionaires Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest, and Australia’s “King Coal”, Clive Palmer. All are outspoken critics of the new 30 percent tax that takes effect from July 1.
In an essay published in current affairs magazine The Monthly, Swan said vested interests felt they had a right to shape Australia’s future for their own purposes.
“Politicians also face a choice between standing up for workers or kneeling down at the feet of the Gina Rineharts and the Clive Palmers,” Swan said.
He later told Australian radio “a few individuals” were trying to use their vast resources to “distort public policy”.
Over the past two years, Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s government has also been fighting with the gambling industry over betting limits on slot-machines, international tobacco companies over plain packaging for cigarettes, and big business in general over a carbon tax.
“I think the fair go that we all cherish, the fair go that we nurture, is at grave risk today because vested interests are on the march,” Swan said.
“We’ve seen this just not through our debate on resource taxation. We’ve seen it through carbon pricing and we’ve seen it through the debate about plain packaging of tobacco,” he said.
The mining, gambling and tobacco industries have all funded television advertisements critical of the government’s policies.
Rinehart, with an $18 billion mining fortune, holds a 10 percent stake in Australian television company Ten Network , and recently became a major shareholder in publisher Fairfax Media in a move seen as trying to influence news coverage.
A promise to turn rust-red iron ore into gold for those who invested in his Fortescue Metals Group transformed Forrest from a “penny stock” mining entrepreneur into one of Australia’s richest man, worth more than $4 billion.
“Andrew epitomizes the spirit of what an Australian can do if given a fair go,” Fortescue’s deputy chairman, Herb Elliott, said in a statement emailed to Reuters.
“For a politician to suggest that he has lost sight of this fair go ethic is heartbreaking to the Forrest family and baffling to those of us who work with him.”
Australia’s economy averted a recession after the global financial crisis and continues to grow strongly, with low unemployment, due to a mining boom fuelled by China’s demand for mineral resources. But the benefits have not been evenly spread.
While miners enjoy record profits, high wages and generous work benefits, manufacturers and retailers are struggling with a strong Australian dollar and lacklustre consumer sentiment.
Palmer, a law school dropout who invested in undeveloped coal mines in Australia on the advice of his teenage son, said politicians had a responsibility “to everyone without fear or favour”, a report in the Australian Financial Review said.
The mining industry ran a multi-million dollar advertising campaign against the mining tax in 2010 and forced the government to cut the tax from 40 percent to 30 percent and limit it only to iron ore and coal mines.
In the face of a public campaign by Australia’s hospitality industry, the government in January also scrapped plans to introduce mandatory pre-commitment technology on slot machines. (Editing by Lincoln Feast and Paul Tait)