Monday, 29 October 2012

GINA RINEHART (Adele Ferguson) and THE HOUSE OF HANCOCK (Debi Marshall)

THE HOUSE OF HANCOCK: The Rise and Rise of Gina Rinehart
William Heinemann, 2012, 367 pages, $35.95 (pb)

Gina Rinehart: The Untold Story of the Richest Woman in the World
MacMillan, 2012, 490 pages, $34.99 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

How do you become the richest woman on the planet?  First, choose your parents well and then pursue wealth with ruthless greed.  Gina Rinehart, the Australian mining billionaire ($29 billion net wealth), did just that and two new books on Rinehart explore her world of privilege, profits and power.

Rinehart, both authors agree, is a “carbon copy” of her father, Lang Hancock, whose chance discovery in 1952 of the world’s biggest iron ore field in the Hammersley Ranges near his vast (inherited) sheep station in Western Australia saw him amass enormous wealth from selling the mining rights to Rio Tinto from which the “royalties flowed like Bollinger” (2.5% on every tonne of iron ore) to the Hancock family company - $20 a second, every second, in perpetuity, totalling hundreds of millions of dollars to date.

As a child, Rinehart “wanted for nothing”, and on Hancock’s death in 1992 she inherited his wealth and mining assets without a pick or shovel swung in sweaty effort.  Father and daughter also shared a belief that, as Hancock put it, ‘the greed of capitalism is the only driving force there is’ whilst Rinehart’s business acumen (“rat cunning”, Marshall calls it), plus Rinehart’s obsessive guard over her wealth, has turned daughter, like father, into a wealthy, right wing, politically influential mining magnate.

Rinehart does not like to share her wealth – with governments (through mining or carbon taxes), with asbestosis victims (from Hancock’s old asbestos mine at Wittenoom), with charities (she is a philanthropic tight-wad) or with her employees (she wants to turn the top third of Australia into a low tax, low regulation ‘special economic zone’ with cheap, imported African and Asian ‘guest’ labour).

To protect her riches, Rinehart has taken to court a string of business partners, her own accountants, managing directors, engineers and geologists, many lawyers, her deceased second husband’s former mistress, the billionaire children of Hancock’s original business partner, and, in bitter rifts over the family inheritance, her own father, children and stepmother (Rose Porteous).

Porteous, Hancock’s housekeeper and third wife, was seen by Rinehart as ‘that Filipina prostitute’ (‘she was no cleaner’, said Rinehart) who “snared a multi-millionaire twice her age”, spending the family fortune and threatening Rinehart’s inheritance and status as heir apparent.  The “personal feud between two very rich women” over Hancock’s estate extended to a coronial inquest into Hancock’s death during which Rinehart paid six-figure sums to witnesses to dish dirt on Porteous for allegedly hastening Hancock’s death through harassment and dodgy cooking.  Although Porteous waltzed off with a $50 million haul of assets, Rinehart won the main prize – control of the company and ownership of the mining royalties.

The dynastic soap opera continued when Rinehart, as sole trustee of a $3 billion family trust for her four children, sought to shift their inheritance vestment date by half a century to 2068 when they would be in their nineties, and thus retain the trust money for future investments and their profit streams for herself.  The children’s court case to remove Rinehart as trustee saw Rinehart, with no apparent irony, lecturing her privileged children on their display of ‘greed, jealousy and a selfish sense of entitlement’, reminding the ungrateful offspring that ongoing trust dividend income ‘could have kept you in expensive homes, endless holiday travels, and [your] increasingly very privileged lifestyle for life, without you having to work’. 

Rinehart’s litigious vigilance over her wealth, aided by soaring iron ore prices and massive growth in Asian demand for iron ore, made Rinehart a billionaire in 2006 with much more to come - Marshall cites business commentator, Alan Kohler, on how, for example, the Hope Downs iron ore deposit will produce ‘a royalties income stream of $45 million … a week’ for Rinehart from Rio Tinto.  The Roy Hill iron ore deposit will also funnel $2 billion a year in royalties to Rinehart and make her the richest person in the world.

Rinehart is devoutly right wing, inheriting Hancock’s Thatcherite conservatism as well as his wealth.  She shares Hancock’s disregard for the health dangers of asbestos mining, his promotion of nuclear power (and nuclear explosions to mine iron ore), and his contempt for trade unionists, ‘eco-nuts’, welfare recipients and Aboriginal land rights.  Rinehart, like Hancock, believes that “meddlesome governments” with their ‘red and green tape’ are a threat to the capitalist religion of free enterprise. 

Rinehart funds climate change denialists and puts them on company boards.  She believes that all journalists are card-carrying communists and, whilst her wealth “ensures the ear of those in power”, she seeks to further her agenda through media share ownership.  Rinehart has bought governing board positions at Fairfax Media and Network Ten, with the aim of publicly influencing politicians who are sensitive to right wing pressure from traditional media.

Although Rinehart cooperated with neither biographer (she could not ensure they would echo the Gospel according to Gina), both books usefully add visibility to the reclusive Rinehart, showing, between heavy fillings of dynastic saga and ‘human interest’ padding, Rinehart as having the lavish lifestyle, selfish arrogance and demanding nature of the spoilt, born-to-rule aristocrat of money.

Both books, however, also share an almost fond fascination, and a business reporters’ awe, for a super-wealthy business woman, with Ferguson justifying it as catering to the “public’s insatiable appetite to know everything about the rich and famous”, a hunger more manufactured than real.

Although both books tread lightly around the political issue of whether Rinehart, as symbol of capitalist success, is a good thing for society, they concur that, on a personal level, Rinehart, surrounded by “scheming business rivals” and bought or ideologically slavish politicians, is “a lonely figure”, virtually friendless.  If Rinehart, for whom ‘beauty is an iron mine’, were ever to stop living and breathing money and power, what would be revealed would be the massive emptiness at the heart of the billionaire capitalist.

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