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Gina Rinehart’s quest for respect and gratitude

What Gina Wants

Gina Rinehart at the Alpha Coal Project, Central Queensland, 2011. © Patrick Hamilton
Gina Rinehart at the Alpha Coal Project, Central Queensland, 2011. © Patrick Hamilton  
May 2012May 2012Long read
 

Lang Hancock thought journalists were either “socialists” or “communists”. Gina, too, is deeply scornful of the press. Very few reporters ever get to speak to her, still less meet her face-to-face. In a testy email exchange in late 2010 with Tim Treadgold, the Perth-based resources reporter, she complained about “the established anti-mining journalists (and those who would prefer to do cheap inaccurate shots instead of considering important issues to Australia’s future)”. She went on to grant him an interview, of sorts, by emailing him the questions as well as her answers.

When I asked her friend, John McRobert, a one-time adviser to Pauline Hanson, whether she considered all journalists to be socialists, he laughed: “She hasn’t found many journos who aren’t.” Among the few exceptions are Sydney talkback host Alan Jones, Herald Sun economics columnist Terry McCrann and his stablemate, Andrew Bolt.

Of the dozens of people I interviewed about Gina, most chose to speak off the record, out of fear of legal or commercial repercussions. “She considers even nice things defamatory,” says a one-time confidante. When the financial journalist Adele Ferguson pitched her proposal to write Gina Hancock’s unofficial biography (released in July), at least one major Australian publisher was deterred because of the potential for costly litigation. Little wonder there is a wall of silence around her.

By pure chance, having just spent an hour with a particularly well-connected contact trying to make sense of her recondite world, I spotted Rinehart lunching in a classy Sydney hotel. She was seated at a table with a view over Circular Quay, fingering a double string of pearls like prayer beads. Her thick mane of chestnut brown hair, greying at the sides, was swept back, and she regularly peered down at her iPad. She smiled genially at the waitress as she asked for the bill, and did not seem perturbed in the slightest when the hotel manager explained to one of her associates, in a profusely apologetic tone, that the rooftop suites of the newly refurbished hotel were not yet ready for occupancy.

As she crossed the lobby to the lifts, I stepped forward, half expecting one of her SAS-trained bodyguards to appear from behind a pot plant.

“Good afternoon, Mrs Rinehart, I’m Nick Bryant.” I hoped my British accent might be perceived as not so socialist.

“Hello, how are you?” she responded, her voice light as a feather. “What a beautiful Sydney day,” she added, reprising the role of the good-humoured hostess introducing a newcomer to her homeland.

I briefly explained how I was writing an article about her, and had spent the last couple of weeks poring over her speeches and opinion pieces. “Poor you,” she said with a dainty laugh.

I described how, by strange coincidence, I had just approached her communications director, Mark Bickerton, in the hope of arranging an interview, and wondered if she could spare any time. Rinehart explained she had just come from a board meeting at Channel Ten, and that the remainder of the day was packed with meetings. She couldn’t have been more polite. Then the lift arrived, and the doors closed behind her as if a drawbridge had been hauled up. Afterwards, I sent a follow-up email to Bickerton describing my pleasant encounter with his boss. He did not reply.

*

The story Rinehart wants told can be found at the ‘Hancock Timeline’, the meticulously curated centrepiece of her corporate website, which features scrapbook-style sepia photographs of Lang, his second wife, Hope, and a youthful Gina. The timeline starts in 1909 with the birth of her father, but could easily have reached back further. John Hancock, Lang’s grandfather, set off with his family from Perth for the then largely unexplored north-west in the 1860s, packing a chartered schooner with a Noah-like inventory of ewes, rams, cows, horses and servants. The aim was to reach Port Hedland, almost 1800 kilometres from the state capital, but violent storms – a recurring motif in the Hancock story – truncated their voyage. They sought shelter at a place they later named Mount Welcome, in the Pilbara. There they remained, a frontier family, to pioneer a 1.6 million hectare sheep station called Mulga Downs, where Langley George Hancock was raised.

The Hancocks’ great foundation story, however, comes from what is referred to as the “discovery flight”. In its constant retelling, the tale has taken on a quasi-religious feel, with echoes of the romantic nationalism of America’s westward manifest destiny. According to family lore, on 22 November 1952, Lang and Hope Hancock took off from their bush airstrip in a small Auster aeroplane en route to Perth. As they rose above the mighty Hamersley Ranges, they were encircled by heavy storm clouds and buffeted by violent winds, which prevented them from venturing any further but also from turning back. A skilled aviator, Lang decided to follow the path of the Turner River through a gorge that supposedly offered their only route of escape. As he battled with the controls of his aircraft, and the walls of the gorge came close to shearing off the wings, he could not help but notice the rusty shimmer of the rock face. Immediately, he recognised it as oxidised iron.

Although Lang initially suspected it was “low-grade rubbish”, it turned out to be one of the largest high-grade reserves in the world, a “1000-mile iron ore horizon”, as one journalist called it. Yet it took almost a decade to persuade mining companies to take the find seriously. Eventually, in 1961, the London-based company Rio Tinto agreed to carry out an inspection. Two years later, Lang and his then business partner, Peter Wright, signed an agreement that guaranteed them 2.5% royalties from the discovery in perpetuity – now gushing in a bank-busting torrent estimated at being $266 million a year.

For Lang and Gina, the significance of the discovery flight could not be overstated. The legend nourished their view that the Hancocks had bestowed great wealth upon Australia, rather than the other way round. After all, at the time of the discovery flight it was widely believed that the country would run out of iron ore by the mid 1960s, necessitating an export ban to prevent the resource from going overseas. It also fuels Gina’s sense that she should get the kind of respect, recognition and influence that is commensurate not so much with her wealth but rather her contribution to the nation’s prosperity. Australia is lucky, the Hancock thinking goes, because they have made it so. The discovery story sustains a powerful sense of entitlement: the view that the federal government should express gratitude to the likes of the Hancocks rather than slugging them with additional taxes. The notion that minerals automatically belong to the state was the cry, harrumphed Lang, of “slogan-slinging windbags”.

“This country has never looked back, as they say,” Rinehart declared in 2002 at a dinner to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the discovery flight.

 

But it’s high time we did so. That flight changed my parents and our lives, and initiated a great wave of prosperity, which flowed to the state of West Australia, to the federal government, directly to companies and their employees involved in the industry and, invisibly, to every person in Australia. 

In a long, impassioned multimedia presentation, including film clips of her father describing his epic flight, Rinehart sought to secure his place in Australian history. Various guests had arrived at her Perth home expecting a dinner for a dozen or so friends. It was packed with over 700 people. As her eulogy drew to a close, she offered a toast to “the individual who has contributed more to this country than any other single person I know of – to Lang Hancock”.

The foyer of Hancock Prospecting’s head office in Perth features a silver-plated sculpture of Lang’s Auster J5 Autocrat set on a lump of iron ore. Rinehart has previously campaigned to erect a statue of her father in the state capital, a project blocked by Perth City Council and also the state Labor government. When Geoff Gallop, the former Western Australian premier, ran into Rinehart a few years later, she gave him what he described as a “30-mile stare”. Rinehart has reacted with similar fierceness to longstanding claims that her father greatly embellished the discovery story. Researching Man of Iron, an otherwise neutral biography of Lang published in 1974, the journalist Neill Phillipson trawled through the meteorological records of north-west observation posts and found that there was no rain that day, nor indeed that month. “Unless Hancock has made a gross error in time,” Phillipson surmised, “the only conclusion that can be reached is that he has deliberately permitted the propaganda of the myth to give added mystique to the discoveries.” Nor was Lang the first man to hit upon iron ore in the Pilbara. A team of geologists did so in the 1880s, but there was not much demand for it back then, and therefore not much excitement.

Partly, one suspects, to produce an account more faithful to her father’s original story, Rinehart has opened up company records to her friend John McRobert, who is now completing an authorised biography of Hancock. “Lang wasn’t prone to making up stories,” says McRobert, whose draft of the discovery flight story is already available on the Hancock Prospecting website. And a ripping tale it is, too: “A superb bush pilot in a fragile, basic flying machine had done what no major company in the country had been able to achieve.”

For all her efforts to have her late father venerated, however, Rinehart has also been at pains to point out that she deserves the credit for rescuing the company after his death in 1992. In an email to Tim Treadgold, she spoke of the “the mess and debts and liabilities I was left with”. Lang might have been the discoverer, but Rinehart has been the company’s developer. Her hatred of being labelled an ‘iron ore heiress’ is well known, precisely because she regards herself as a self-made businesswoman. Similarly, she never describes her father as the ‘King of the Pilbara’, because it would imply hers is a privileged inheritance. She is nobody’s princess.

Gina’s development story has a much stronger grounding in fact than Lang’s discovery story. It is true she inherited an underperforming company, and that at the time of her father’s death, when she was just 38, few would have predicted that she would become the wealthiest Australian. When in 1992 she appeared for the first time on the BRW ‘Rich 200’ list, after taking over Hancock Prospecting, she was worth $75 million. Now she has an estimated net wealth of US$18 billion, making her the world’s 29th richest person, according to Forbes magazine, and the fourth richest woman. Citigroup believes she will eventually top the global rich list, with more than US$100 billion in assets.

The development of the Hope Downs iron ore mine in the Pilbara, a project she first proposed shortly after her father’s death and which was named after her late mother, was the key to the company’s turnaround from its reliance on royalties. Initially, it was a troubled venture, largely because Hancock Prospecting could not gain access to BHP Billiton’s rail infrastructure, her father’s old bugbear. But Hope Downs eventually moved into production in 2007 after Rio Tinto agreed to become partners. It meant that Hancock Prospecting could finally claim to have brought a mine project to fruition, albeit as a joint venture, a lifelong ambition that eluded Lang. The profits for Rinehart from Hope Downs alone are around $1.9 billion annually and climbing.

The sale of her coal and infrastructure assets in Queensland to the Indian conglomerate GVK for $1.26 billion in September 2011 vastly increased her personal fortune. But an even larger leap in her wealth came in January, when the South Korean steelmaker, Posco, agreed to pay $1.5 billion for a 15% stake in another major iron ore project, the Roy Hill mine, which is due to become operational in 2014. The transaction saw Rinehart’s personal net worth valuation double in the space of a few days.

“What Lang brought to the table were prospecting skills,” says a senior figure in the Western Australian resources sector. “What she brought to the table were project development skills.” Though hardly the first to spot its potential, she was quick to grasp how China’s rapid growth would transform the iron ore business. More recently, she has targeted coal-hungry India. What is striking about the rise of Hancock Prospecting, according to industry insiders, is that its success has been achieved without taking major risks. Methodical and cautious, Rinehart is a not a buccaneering entrepreneur in the mould of her rival, Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest. Hancock Prospecting, for instance, tends to drill more holes during the preliminary exploration phase than other mining companies, to accumulate more data and thus diminish risk. In another sign of her watchfulness, she prefers partnerships with elite companies, like Rio Tinto and Posco, which again offer more security. “She has never done anything to jeopardise her fortune,” notes a former employee.

It clearly needles Rinehart that her personal role in transforming Hancock Prospecting has not been recognised more widely. Her corporate website tries strenuously to advertise her achievements. The logos of recent awards, such as the 2009 Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year, are displayed prominently in a kind of online trophy cabinet on the homepage. Her biography on the site also features a long list of lesser gongs, including her induction into the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels (a curious who’s who that embraces Bill Clinton, Pope John Paul II, Winston Churchill and Barry Manilow). More impressive to the ear is her 2011 Global Leadership Award for Masterclass CEO of the Year. She travelled to Kuala Lumpur to receive it in person, even though its sponsor was a bi-monthly Malaysian business magazine with a circulation of just 15,000. The website also links to a speech delivered by Tony Abbott that appears to be there because, in a room packed with her peers, he singled Rinehart out for special praise.

*

The company website, of course, shines little light on Rinehart’s vexed private life. In any event, a linear timeline could not adequately do it justice. It requires something much more elaborate: a graphic showing shifting Venn diagrams, perhaps, to illustrate her overlapping feuds at any given moment. Over the years, adversaries have included her father, her Filipino stepmother, her first husband, the children of Peter Wright (her father’s business partner), former employees, and a long line of sacked lawyers. In the late 1990s, she also settled out of court with a former security guard, Bob Thompson, who had filed a sexual harassment suit against her. “She’s just incredibly lonely and isolated,” Thompson told Woman’s Day.

Another acquaintance tells me she lacks emotional logic. Conflict is the recurring theme of her life. “People who spend time with her end up falling out with her,” says a former colleague. “Writing a cheque is her only way to advance things.”

The latest feud involves her three eldest children, John Hancock, 36, Bianca Rinehart, 33, and Hope Welker, 26, who last September brought an “urgent legal action” to remove her as a trustee of the family trust set up by Lang Hancock for his grandchildren. The trust, which owns 23.6% of Hancock Prospecting and is conservatively valued at $2.4 billion, was due to vest when Lang’s youngest grandchild, Ginia Rinehart, turned 25 in September 2011. Determined to remain the sole trustee, and thus retain absolute control of Hancock Prospecting, Gina allegedly tried to push back the date that her children could become trustees until 2068 – by which time she would be 114. With what Rinehart claimed was a crushing $100 million capital gains tax bill hanging over each of them, the trio were given a single business day to agree. “Sign up or be bankrupt tomorrow,” Gina threatened. “The clock is ticking. There is one hour to bankruptcy and financial ruin.” Rinehart did not want to starve them of money – the court documents show that she offered each of them about $300 million a year to sign away their rights to the trust – but to deny them any power.

Rinehart went on to fight an initial six-month legal battle, all the way to the High Court, just to suppress details of her children’s claims. When that failed, in March, the family schism became one of those rare news stories that dominated the front pages of the broadsheets, the tabloids and the business press. There were the needy emails from a cash-strapped Hope, addressed affectionately to “Mem”, requesting a cook, a housekeeper and a bodyguard. “It’s hard enough being a kid, let alone the peer pressure that comes from being the wealthiest one in the country,” she implored. There was John Hancock’s vulnerable boast that, armed with his MBA from Notre Dame University in Fremantle, he could become independently wealthy working as a day trader. There were revelations from Bianca – the one-time Rinehart favourite who completed a year-long stint in the Pilbara, where she learnt to drive a house-sized Haulpak truck – alleging that her mother had offered quarterly lump sums to get her to betray her brother and half-sister. Then there was the counterattack from Ginia, who claimed her older siblings were “not fit and proper persons to be trustees”. Finally, there was the great matriarch herself, delivering a scathing character evaluation of John, Bianca and Hope, who had neither “the requisite capacity or skill, nor the knowledge, experience, judgement or responsible work ethic” to become trustees.

As well as revealing her obsessions with secrecy and security, the case highlights the lengths Rinehart will go to in litigation. For instance, she commissioned a series of risk assessments from security firms to persuade the court that her family would be more vulnerable to kidnapping if the documents were made public. She has also launched legal action against Steve Pennells, a senior journalist with the West Australian, in an attempt to reveal the anonymous source (presumed to be one of the older children) who informed him about the Hope Downs Deed, the supposedly secret agreement that she’d signed with her children to bind them to confidentiality.

Several conservative friends, including Senator Barnaby Joyce and the federal MP Alby Schultz, also weighed in to pressure the children. “It is already making you look like a member of the Rose Porteous family,” Schultz wrote to Hope Welker, “not your mother’s wonderful and beautiful daughter.”

The documents confirm the long-held suspicion that she does not believe her estranged children have worked anywhere near hard enough to join the billionaires club – that they are the undeserving rich. Gina is renowned as a 24/7 workaholic who fires off emails to staff members at all hours of the day and night, and who expects total commitment from colleagues. As a young mother trying to juggle work and family, she had a thick-walled room constructed in her father’s Perth headquarters so that she could bring her baby to work and not be absent from the office. Now she has come to look upon her children as classic third-generation ‘trustafarians’, leading a rarefied existence of “endless holiday travels”.

“You won’t find many people who describe the kids as business geniuses,” says a senior figure in the resources sector. “And the kids can’t criticise Rinehart for frittering their money away. She’s grown their nest eggs. From that perspective, she’s done an extraordinary job.” Others take a wholly different view. Says Tim Treadgold: “Maybe the kids don’t deserve it, but that’s what Lang wanted. She’s changed the rules and moved the goal posts.”

One of the few friends prepared to speak on the record is Gloria Schultz, the wife of the Liberal MP, who got to know Rinehart in the early 1990s when she advised her about setting up a breast cancer foundation in honour of her mother, Hope, who had died of the disease. “She’s a really lovely person,” says Schultz. “Really gentle. Always very dignified. And a very good mum.” Schultz, who was like an auntie to John and Bianca when they were growing up, tells me her friend has been greatly saddened by the dispute, but was wounded most by the lack of contact with her grandchildren, all of whom live overseas. “Yes, it’s taking its toll, very much so,” she says. “It hasn’t been easy for Gina. I ring her when I see things in the paper. ‘That’s OK, Glo,’ she says. ‘That’s OK.’”

Schultz, who says she generally speaks with Rinehart about “girly things” like family, clothes and shoes, is adamant that the children are at fault. “Money does funny things to people,” she says. “She’s tried to be an exceptional mum. We all have little bumps along the way. Gina’s bumps are more costly, emotionally and financially.”

Yet money may not be at the root of the dispute. Gina Rinehart has been surprisingly indifferent to the blandishments of super wealth. Visitors to her home in Perth are often struck by its lack of artworks, for example, and the corporate headquarters in West Perth is fairly austere. Its boardroom features a few framed photographs of Gina and Lang, and a landscape of the Pilbara that was a gift from Sam Walsh, the head of Rio Tinto Iron Ore. “We’re not the type of family that displays our wealth,” Rinehart said during a speech at a mine opening in Queensland last year. “We don’t drive around in Rolls Royces.” (Although her youngest daughter does.) She even went as far as to suggest that she had deprived herself of various billionaire pleasures to serve the national interest. Why, she could have bought “a luxurious private jet and two pilots” or a couple of “beautiful yachts like many of my friends have”, but instead she invested in new mines. It is a common Hancock refrain. At the discovery flight commemorative dinner, she boasted that Lang, who had never gone in for racehorses, art or antiques, “could have taken his hard-earned money and retired to the good life wherever he chose in the world”, but instead he “chose to invest his wealth and his life in this country”.

What the family trust dispute reveals above all is her unbending determination to retain absolute control of Hancock Prospecting, and to pursue her single-minded vision for the company. Rinehart feared that disclosure of the details of the case would jeopardise the development of her flagship project, the Roy Hill mine. Senior executives at Hancock Prospecting had expressed concern that investors might be “unsettled” by the family feud, with costly knock-on effects. The scheduled 2014 opening date for Roy Hill is already ambitious and any delay would have “extremely serious consequences”, in the words of her lawyer, Paul McCann, and “could be fatal”. Roy Hill would be her crowning achievement, the one project more than any other that would demonstrate irrefutably that Gina, not her father, had transformed Hancock Prospecting into a global mining giant. Roy Hill is her discovery flight, the moment that could seal her place in mining and national history. The quarrel with her children threatens to prevent it from getting airborne.

*

For all the rancour that has attended her adult years, Rinehart’s early life seems to have been happy and loving. Though starting a family had never been a priority for Lang Hancock and Hope, the couple doted on Georgina Hope, their only child, from the moment she was born on 9 February 1954 in Perth. Rinehart once revealed that growing up she’d wished she were a boy, but Hancock always rubbished suggestions he would have preferred a male heir. “A son?” he scoffed. “Who cares when we’ve got Gina?”

Hancock’s unbridled pride in his daughter meant Rinehart never had to prove herself in the way, say, James Packer did. John Singleton, a long-time family friend, recalls “little Gina” sitting in on business meetings from the age of eight or nine. “I didn’t question it,” he says. “They had a terrific relationship.” Rinehart has described her father as “nearly perfect” and her mother as a “saint”.

Worried that her only companions at their outback station were kangaroos and lizards, Hancock decided that his daughter should attend boarding school in Perth, just as he had. His choice was St Hilda’s Anglican School for Girls, or ‘Snilders’ as it was colloquially known, an establishment that catered for the Perth blue bloods as well as the more rough-hewn offspring of the new entrepreneurs dominating the emerging minerals sector. Rinehart picked up her refined, English-sounding accent quickly. Overcoming her shyness, she made friends and performed well enough academically to stay in the upper stream throughout her schooling. Classmates recall that she was reserved but not moody. Her headmistress remembers a young girl who knew her mind. “Gina won’t be overruled on things she thinks are right,” Una Mitchell told a BBC film crew working on a documentary about her father. Still, Gina went on to look back on her school years with ambivalence, describing herself as “not exactly a trapped bird, but something like that”. When her class held a reunion last November she did not attend.

After St Hilda’s, Gina studied economics at the University of Sydney, an experience that appears to have hardened her outsider status. She had little in common with fellow students, who devoured the fashionable theories of John Kenneth Galbraith, the left-leaning economist described by her father as one of America’s “greatest fiction writers”. “I thought economics was about producing things,” Gina later complained. “When I found out they were teaching the wrong things, I quit.”

As a teenager she had befriended Greg Milton, an Englishman who had followed the ‘jackaroo trail’ to Australia and ended up working at the Hancock-owned hardware store in Wittenoom. Their relationship blossomed when Gina bought a can of paint and Greg drove her back to the family cattle station. In 1973, when she was 19, they married in Sydney’s St Andrew’s Cathedral, far from the Perth social set. Eager to start a family so that her children might get to know and admire their grandfather, she was a mother by her early twenties.

Lang Hancock once claimed he never expected his daughter to work full-time in Hancock Prospecting. Yet on her return to Western Australia, she joined the family firm as an ‘administrative assistant’. Soon she was accompanying her father on business trips abroad, where she met heads of state, captains of industry and Arab sheikhs – sometimes becoming the first woman to penetrate their male-only sanctums. Hancock and Rinehart were almost inseparable, and she spoke of the “uniqueness of a father–daughter team at those topmost levels”. In 1977, the pair lunched with the then British opposition leader, Margaret Thatcher, a meeting that appears to have inspired Rinehart to shed her puppy fat, wear smarter clothes, seek the services of a new hairdresser and use more make-up. Around this time family members noticed a hardening in her, which they ascribed to her battle, like Thatcher’s, to succeed in an environment so thoroughly dominated by men.

By now, Rinehart’s relationship with Milton, with whom she’d had John and Bianca, was under strain, and the couple separated in 1979. He was ostracised from the family and made ends meet by hauling meat and driving taxis in Perth. “If you’re not a Hancock, born of blood, you’re not in,” he told Debi Marshall, the author of a biography of Lang Hancock published in 2001. “You’re not in, and you’ll never be in. You’re an outsider.”

Gina’s second marriage, to Frank Rinehart, a New York tax lawyer almost 30 years her senior, lasted seven besotted years, until his death in 1990. Rinehart described him as “the finest gentleman I’ve ever known”. Hancock, perhaps resenting her affection for a man so close to his own age, spurned his new son-in-law and refused to attend the Las Vegas wedding. He came to believe that the couple were trying to wrest control of the business and he was incensed that they went to live in America. Rinehart said she did not want her children to have a conventional Australian education, and that in America they had more chance of being taught by the free-market economist, Milton Friedman. For all her expressions of love for Frank Rinehart, however, she has never sought to memorialise him. Her mother, by contrast, has a mine named after her, along with a hall at St Hilda’s.

It was Lang Hancock’s choice of life partner, more so than his daughter’s, which drove the pair to the point of litigation. Nineteen days after Hope’s death, Rinehart hired a Filipino housekeeper, the sultry Rose Lacson, setting in motion a tumble of events that for years became a staple of current affairs shows. Persuading him to dye his hair, wear trendy clothes and throw lavish parties at their garishly decorated mansion, Prix D’Amour, Rose made her employer-turned-husband a laughing stock. According to Rinehart, Rose Hancock was also burning through the family fortune with her fondness for the high life and her taste in Liberace-style home furnishings. Hancock, for his part, accused Gina of sabotaging his efforts to secure permanent residency for his third wife.

The argument over the new visa led to a much-quoted venomous exchange between Rinehart and her father. Hancock had become “the subject of dirty old man jokes from one side of Australia to the next”, wrote Rinehart, and risked being “wiped out financially by a manipulating Filipino”. Hancock responded:

 

As for the children being ashamed of me, I think they are more likely to feel more embarrassed by being picked up from school by a young mother who has let herself go to the point where she is grossly overweight … If you won’t consider my well-being, at least allow me to remember you as the neat, trim, capable and attractive young lady of the Wake Up Australia tour, rather than the slothful, vindictive and devious baby elephant that you have become.

 

He concluded mercilessly: “I am glad your mother cannot see you now.”

A rapprochement of sorts only came in the final weeks of Hancock’s life. As the ailing 82-year-old lay on his sickbed, with failing kidneys, a weakening heart and congested lungs, Rinehart came to believe that Rose was trying to kill him, and Hancock took the extraordinary precaution of taking out a restraining order against his hot-tempered wife. John McGlue, who conducted what became known as the deathbed interviews, was the last journalist to speak to Hancock. “He just wanted peace between the women in his life,” McGlue tells me. “Obviously, it was not a wish that was granted.”

After Hancock died, the women held separate funeral services, and Rinehart campaigned for years for a coronial inquest that she believed would establish foul play. They also fought a legal battle that lasted 14 years, the prize being the same as it is now in the feud with her children: the undiluted control of Hancock Prospecting. “When the Rose Porteous [Rose Hancock’s remarried name] thing was in meltdown, she was obsessed by it,” recalls a colleague from those years. “Every day it would be, ‘What are we going to do to get Rose?’ It had such a paralysing effect.”

*

“Most people pass their days with no thought for the role mining plays in their lives,” wrote Lang Hancock in the first line of Wake Up Australia, his 89-page book that reads more like a political manifesto. “In fact, it never enters their heads that without mining they would not live.” The gist of Hancock’s thinking jumps from every page in the headings introducing each new argument: ‘Government Crippling’, ‘Free Enterprise Pilbara’, ‘Develop the North or Die’. With bark-stripping prose, Hancock warned of the “disease of environmentalism” and the threats posed by “eco-nuts” and “do-gooders”. To resist federal encroachment, he urged his compatriots to mount a “tax revolt” to starve Canberra of funding. “All economic meddling by government has proved to be counterproductive,” he harrumphed, “and a menace to the nation.” The book’s final line offered a recapitulation of the opening: “Man must mine – he must dig or die.”

Were Gina Rinehart to publish her own version of Wake Up Australia, much of it would read like a photostat. Like her father’s views, Rinehart’s have been reinforced through her friendships with like-minded academics and scientists, although whereas Hancock had an intellectual crush on nuclear experts like Edward Teller, Rinehart has sought out climate change sceptics like Professor Ian Plimer and Christopher Monckton. Monckton was invited to deliver the Lang Hancock Memorial Lecture in 2011. Plimer has been appointed to the boards of three of her companies, and is also a member of her pressure group, Australians for Northern Development and Economic Vision (ANDEV). “She’s a great romantic,” he tells me. “She has a love of the red dirt, the big skies and the spinifex that was rusted on to her in her youth … To me, she’s a great Australian.”

The very few views of her father’s that she doesn’t share concern the secession of Western Australia and indigenous affairs. Hancock advocated dealing with Aborigines who were “no good to themselves” through eugenic elimination – to “dope the water up so that they were sterile and would breed themselves out”. He was particularly scornful of half-caste Aboriginal people, even though it has long been asserted that he is the father of Hilda Kickett, the now 68-year-old daughter of his part-Aboriginal chef at Mulga Downs, who grew up in a Perth orphanage and was originally christened Georgina.

Nor was Lang prone to expressing himself in verse, as his daughter has done recently. In a poem entitled ‘Our Future’, which has been engraved on a plaque affixed to a 30-tonne boulder of iron ore that Rinehart donated to a shopping centre in Perth, she opines:

 

Is our future threatened with massive debts run up

by political hacks,

Who dig themselves out by unleashing rampant tax,

The end result is sending Australian investment,

growth and jobs offshore,

This type of direction is harmful to our core. 

 

She has even taken to praising favoured employees, like Tad Watroba, the executive director of Hancock Prospecting, in verse:

 

With the faith of St Barbara and the heart of a Lion,

Tad has made his mark exporting our

Western Australian iron,

He’s worked through great difficulties and earned

this Lady’s trust,

They say that when he touches steel it will never rust! 

 

Hancock, for all his truculence, was a very effective communicator, with a vivid and sometimes elegant turn of phrase. Rinehart, by contrast, is nowhere near as fluent. Though a desire for privacy and secrecy are commonly cited as the main reasons for her public reticence, acquaintances say it is also indicative of her lack of intellectual self-confidence. “She has an extraordinary will rather than intellect,” says a leading businessman who has spent time in her company. “Certainly, there is no hinterland.”

Much more sure of himself, and much more of a self-publicist, Hancock was prepared to engage with the media, and for a long while was the darling of the Perth press corps. In the late 1960s, however, he started receiving more negative press from the stable of titles owned by West Australian Newspapers, just at the moment when he wanted their backing in his ongoing fight with the premier, Sir Charles Court, and the “Melbourne mandarins” running Australia’s mining giants, over his plans for an operating mine. Rather than simply talk to the media, he decided to own a chunk of it himself. In 1969, Lang founded a Perth weekly paper, the Sunday Independent, and recruited Maxwell Newton, the inaugural editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Australian, to run it. Even with excellent sports coverage, the dirge of editorials on tariff reduction and the like was seen as a little too esoteric, and the paper struggled to find a readership. Though a new editor was brought in to give it a more popular mix, Hancock decided to close the paper rather than take it further downmarket.

Undeterred, he launched a second weekly newspaper in 1974, the National Miner. It was also a loss-making venture, but profitability was never central to Lang’s media ambitions. Rather, he wanted clout, and saw his papers as an investment in the education of his fellow Western Australians. As he wrote in Wake Up Australia, Canberra-ism could be resisted by “obtaining control of the media and then educating the public”.

With her stakes in Channel Ten and now Fairfax, Gina has revived the Lang playbook. She has never been a portfolio investor, and the profit motive is irrelevant. Her $165 million investment in Channel Ten is now only worth some $80 million, but this is chump change. “She could buy the east coast media out of her petty cash,” according to a senior media figure, who explained that the unwritten tenet of the super rich was never to invest more than 10% of their personal net worth in a new yacht, which may be the rule that Rinehart is now applying to her media acquisitions. Like her father’s, her investments are part of her ongoing quest for influence and respect, both personally and for the mining sector. What is perhaps most surprising, then, is not that she has bought into Channel Ten and Fairfax but that it has taken her so long to do so.

For Rinehart, the political possibilities of media ownership became more apparent after the Rudd government proposed a mining super profits tax in the 2010 budget. When Kevin Rudd visited Perth in June that year, she joined Twiggy Forrest, her fellow “billionaire activist”, at a boisterous rally in parkland directly opposite the hotel where the Prime Minister was attending an event. With a flatbed truck serving as a makeshift stage, Forrest addressed the crowd wearing a fluoro mining shirt. Rinehart arrived with a string of pearls the size of gobstoppers. Over her cries of “Axe the tax!”, a reporter from the Fairfax-owned WA Today thought it was possible to hear her gold bracelets jangling “a note-perfect version of ‘Money, Money, Money’ as she pumped her fist”. For all the jibes, however, the billionaires’ campaign showed how easily and relatively cheaply modern-day Canberra-ism could be halted in its tracks. Within two weeks of the Perth rally, Rudd was being referred to in the past tense.

If the mining tax debate demonstrated the power of the media, it also showed that Rinehart could no longer rely on peak bodies in the resources sector to do her bidding. When the Gillard government climbed down, the deal it struck was with the three major mining companies, Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Xstrata. Smaller players, like Hancock Prospecting, were treated as outliers. Part of the impetus for buying into Channel Ten and Fairfax, say industry observers, was that she could no longer rely on groups such as the Minerals Council of Australia to represent her interests. Increasingly, she would have to freelance. The advent of minority government following the 2010 election brought a new urgency to her media acquisitions, since the rise of the “eco-nuts” needed to be countered. Bob Brown struck his deal with Gillard in early September 2010. Rinehart made her move on Channel Ten in November.

That she first targeted Channel Ten appears to have been influenced by an event held at Darling Harbour in Sydney in early November 2010, to mark Alan Jones’s 25 years on radio – an extravagant celebration organised by John Singleton and attended by more than a thousand well-wishers, including John Howard. Among those paying tribute to Jones was James Packer, whose voice cracked as he described his father Kerry’s advice to Jones: “What do you want to be, son – the prime minister or a millionaire?” After the Jones event, the Australian reported that Rinehart sent a letter to Packer praising his emotional speech. Its evocation of the Australian billionaire’s creed, combining profits and political suasion, evidently had resonated. She also congratulated him on his recent acquisition of an 18% stake in Channel Ten. Just days later, in a move that took media analysts completely by surprise, Rinehart herself bought a 10.1% share, and the following month was given a seat on the board.

As for her longer-term motives, perhaps a clue comes from a meeting held in July 2011 at the Mannkal Economic Education Foundation, a libertarian think tank whose Perth headquarters is located, tellingly, at ‘Hayek on Hood’. (The foundation was the brainchild of Rinehart’s trusted friend, Ron Manners, who delivered the main tribute speech at the 50th anniversary dinner of the discovery flight.) The central participant at the meeting was Christopher Monckton, who said that Australia needed an equivalent of Fox News, so that commentators like Andrew Bolt and Jo Nova, the author of The Skeptic’s Handbook, could have a daily platform and reach a much wider audience. “You have to capture the high ground of what are still the major media,” said Monckton, adding that it was worth “encouraging those we know who are super rich to invest in perhaps even establishing a new satellite TV channel – it’s not an expensive thing – and then get a few Jo Novas and Andrew Bolts to go on and do the commentating every day.” Though she was not present, few listening were left in any doubt that the “super rich” he had in mind was Rinehart.

Interestingly, she has since sought to learn more about the Fox News model from no less an authority than its owner, Rupert Murdoch. A reliable source told me she met the head of News Corporation earlier this year largely to discuss his cable news channel – or ‘the Fox News dimension’, as I have heard it described. Apparently the meeting was linked to Rupert Murdoch’s effort to reinstall Lachlan Murdoch, who Rinehart has come to know through his chairmanship of Channel Ten, as his successor at News Corp.

If there is a ‘Foxification’ strategy, its flaw is the notion that Channel Ten and Fairfax will bend to her will. Unlike Network Nine and Seven, which have more rigid top-down management structures, Channel Ten is a far more freewheeling and democratic organisation. Moreover, its target demographic is younger viewers, the majority of whom would reject her right-wing agenda and climate change scepticism. To chase those viewers, Channel Ten has invested in an early evening show, The Project, whose agenda is bleeding heart. Although Andrew Bolt has been given his own Sunday morning talk show, he is hardly a prime-time presence; nor does he appear to have the talent to become one. Besides, according to Bolt, it was Lachlan Murdoch rather than Rinehart who pushed for him to get his own show.

Fairfax, where Rinehart’s 12.6% holding makes her the largest single shareholder, has a much stronger tradition of journalistic independence. In 1988 a charter of editorial independence came into force to protect the content of the group’s five newspapers against would-be interventionist proprietors. Its newsrooms are packed with famously feisty journalists. “It is impossible to control Fairfax,” says a key media figure. “You could napalm the entire newsroom and it would not make a spot of difference.” John Singleton, who owns the Macquarie Radio Network, the home of Alan Jones and Ray Hadley, is in fierce agreement. “People have a picture that you can get people to do what you want. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Given Singleton’s vehement opposition to the carbon tax – he considers it “a load of shit” – and his shared mistrust of what he calls the “born-to-rule media”, it has been reported that Rinehart bought into Fairfax partly to assist his efforts to buy the company’s influential talkback stations in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. But Singleton says that’s laughable. “Fantasy-land, mate,” he tells me. “Fantasy-land. Gina isn’t going to buy me a radio station for Christmas.” Though he recently told Good Weekend magazine that he and Rinehart “have been able to overtly and covertly attack governments”, he says the notion that they are part of some right-wing conspiracy is ridiculous. He has not spoken to her for more than a year, and the only time they have had a detailed discussion about media ownership came when he was trying to buy eight regional radio stations in Queensland that broadcast in mining towns. Ian Plimer also thinks that her media ambitions are being exaggerated. “I don’t think there are any plans for a Fox News,” he tells me. “In the business proposals that I see the comment is always ‘stick to your knitting’.” Which, in Rinehart’s case, means mining.

Yet no one I spoke to thought Rinehart would readily give up her drive for influence and acknowledgement. Last June, in a faint echo of the ‘Hancock Benefit Tours’, Rinehart flew on a private jet to attend the Bollywood-style $20 million wedding celebrations for the granddaughter of GV Krishna Reddy, the Indian industrialist who acquired her coal mines in Queensland three months later. Accompanying her were the Liberal Deputy Leader, Julie Bishop, Liberal MP Teresa Gambaro and Senator Barnaby Joyce. (The resources minister, Martin Ferguson, had turned down her invitation.)

Persistence is the word that best summed up Lang Hancock, according to his friend Ron Manners, and it is also true of his daughter. “She’ll fight the umpire [to win],” a business associate tells me. “She’ll fight her fellow players, she’ll fight the crowd.”

But it is a persistence borne of grievance. When Wake Up Australia was launched aboard a hired jumbo in 1979, its foreword posed a simple, rhetorical question: “Are Australians grateful to Lang Hancock?” Rather ridiculously, given the grand gesture of the eponymous two-day PR tour, the foreword went on to claim: “That is a subject of profound indifference to him.” Gina Rinehart, at least, appears to have dispensed with the artifice of not caring.

About the author Nick Bryant
Nick Bryant is a senior correspondent for the BBC. He is the author of The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality and the recently published Adventures in Correspondentland.
@nickbryantoz