Can prosperity and public office mix?

Would knowing the bank balance of politicians make a difference at the ballot box? JAMES THOMSON has gone on a campaign to uncover some politically rich secrets.

By James Thomson

Rich secrets politicians

Would knowing the bank balance of politicians make a difference at the ballot box?

When US Democrat presidential candidate Barack Obama announced his vice presidential running mate would Joe Biden, the media served up an avalanche of stories about the senator’s background and personality.

One small fact that caught the attention of Rich Secrets was Biden’s net wealth.

He is universally known as one of the poorest members of the American senate and is reported to have a net worth of around negative $US300,000. This guy has some serious debt, which should make it pretty easy for him to relate to his sub-prime-smashed constituents.

An interesting quirk of US politics is that politicians are required to tell the Federal Electoral Commission the value of their assets and liabilities. While exact figures are not required – the politicians only need to specify the value of their assets within reasonably big bands – the exercise does put some presidential candidates in a different light.

Here’s how some of the big players from the presidential race stack up:

  • Republican candidate senator John McCain’s assets are estimated to be $US25 million to $US38 million, most of which comes from his wife Cindy. The couple is reported to have extensive property holdings in Arizona and Cindy also owns part of a beer company her father started.
  • Barack Obama put his net assets at between $US456,000 and $US1.1 million. He and his wife had total income of $US984,000 in 2006, including $US567,000 in royalties for two books he has written. His wealth may surge in the coming years because of the success of his book The Audacity of Hope.
  • Hillary Clinton put her assets between $US10 million to $US50 million, a large proportion of which came from her husband Bill. Last year the Washington Post reported Bill Clinton has earned more than $US40 million in speaking engagements since leaving office.
  • Republican vice presidential choice and Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin has not yet revealed her net assets, but she appears to be at the Biden end of the wealth scale than the McCain end. She has been a public servant most of her working life and does not appear to have built much of a fortune. Her husband Todd Palin is an executive at oil giant BP.

So does the wealth of a presidential candidate have any impact on their prospects at the ballot box?

Logic says that being extremely rich would make it hard for a Democrat candidate to appeal to the party’s left-wing, working class roots, although Republican voters would be expected to be less concerned about the wealth of their leader.

But McCain has copped plenty of flack about the size of his fortune after being unable to tell an interviewer how many houses he owned (apparently he has seven). The answer – or lack thereof – was seized on by Obama.

“I guess if you think being rich means you’ve got to make $US5 million, and if you don’t know how many houses you have, then it’s not surprising you might think the economy is fundamentally strong,” he told a rally last week.

“But if you’re like me and you’ve got one house, or you are like the millions of people who are struggling right now to keep up with their mortgage so they don’t lose their house, you might have a different perspective,” Obama said.

Being seen as out-of-touch is one of the biggest fears of any politician, and McCain was forced to spend the best part of five days defending his family’s fortune. The choice of Palin might have helped distance McCain further from wealth criticism. He had chosen Senator Mitt Romney – who has a fortune valued between $190 million and $250 million, plus a blind trust for his children and grandchildren of at least $70 – he might have been spending a lot more time explaining his thoughts on wealth.

Of course, McCain is a long way from joining the ranks of the richest politicians in the world.

The richest senator in American is one-time Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry, whose net worth is estimated at $US750 million thanks mainly to his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry, heiress to the Heinz family fortune.

But Kerry pales into insignificance when compare to the mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg – his fortune was put at an amazing $US11.5 billion by Forbes magazine earlier this year. Bloomberg, who part-owns the extensive publishing network that bears his name, spent $US85 million on his re-election campaign.

A clear second on the list is Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose net worth is put at $US9.4 billion. Berlusconi, who started out as a crooner on cruise ships and is reported to be planning an album of love songs, has interests in media, life insurance, movie production and the soccer team AC Milan.

The other notable billionaire politician is Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister of Thailand. His $1.7 billion fortune was built around Thailand’s biggest mobile phone provider, but has now expanded to include ownership of the Manchester City soccer team in England.

Australian politicians are not forced to declare their wealth to the extent of their American counterparts, although they must declare investments to Parliament.

Malcolm Turnbull is Australia’s richest politician. He was last listed on BRW’s Rich 200 in 2005 with a fortune of $133 million and would still be worth well over $100 million.

Victorian Liberal leader Ted Baillieu is a member of the Melbourne establishment family the Baillieus. Their combined fortune is valued at $387 million by BRW, but how much of that can be actually attributed to Ted is not clear.

The politician with the next biggest family fortune may well be Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. The bulk of that fortune comes from Rudd’s wife Therese Rein, who owns a large slice of international recruitment firm Ingeus. Media reports have put the value of the firm as high as $60 million, but getting an accurate picture of the current value of the company is difficult, given it sold its Australian interests last year to prevent Rudd facing allegations of conflicts of interest.

Turnbull’s wealth has always been seen as a big impediment to his leadership aspirations, but perhaps Kevin Rudd has proved Australians are comfortable with a multi-million dollar prime minister.

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