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The Rise and Rise of Gina Rinehart

19 June 2012 1,756 views No Comment

GINA Rinehart, the daughter of mining magnate Lang Hancock who now runs Hancock Prospecting, is, at 58, the wealthiest woman in the world. According to the latest BRW Rich 200 List, Rinehart’s personal wealth stands at $29.17 billion, putting her ahead of Christy Walton, widow of Wal-Mart heir John Walton, who has $26bn.

Yet although she owns an almost 13 per cent share in Fairfax Media, the struggling company last month deemed her not worthy of being appointed to its board.

About the same time, federal Immigration Minister Chris Bowen approved the importation of up to 1715 migrant workers, mainly Chinese, to build and establish Rinehart’s new Roy Hill iron ore mine in the Pilbara in Western Australia’s northwest. This, it seemed, happened without the knowledge, or approval, of Julia Gillard.

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Debi Marshall is a journalist and true-crime author who has written several biographies, including one of Lang Hancock. For this new book, she did not have access to his daughter. So her documentation of Rinehart’s rise and rise spends quite a lot of time dealing with the protracted, vitriolic and salacious legal battles between Rinehart and her father’s former housekeeper — and third wife — Rose Porteous. Marshall also deals in detail with the interfamilial difficulties that Rinehart faced and still faces.

One of the keys to understanding the complex psychology of Rinehart, who was conceived in the rugged Pilbara and born in 1954 in Perth’s St John’s Hospital, is that her father had expected her to be a boy. Indeed Hancock was certain his first and, as it eventuated, only acknowledged child, would be male. Rinehart certainly understands her father would have much preferred a son. As she has put it, “I wish I’d been a boy. I’m not ashamed of being a girl, and since I’m a girl, I will do what a boy would have done had I been a boy.”

As Marshall reveals, Rinehart (who was never mollycoddled as a child) was always regarded by her father as his “right-hand man”, who he always openly addressed in company as “young fella”. Unsurprisingly, Gina turned out to be like her father in many ways: tough, stubborn, plain speaking, obdurate, proud and extremely determined. Yet, as Marshall explains, unlike her acerbic father, sometimes when she is stressed her voice is “barely audible”.

Like her father, Rinehart (who learned to fly at 10, travelled overseas on business with her father at 12, and hated school and university) was highly distrustful of any media she did not control, and especially of trade unionists, public servants and politicians in general — with the conspicuous exceptions of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Margaret Thatcher and Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Rinehart also highly respects Rupert Murdoch. Also like her father, the woman who boasts vastly more wealth than the Queen has had few sustainable, let alone intimate, relationships in her life.

Although The House of Hancock is well researched, Marshall’s writing style is rather cliched, gushy and breathless and, in many ways, redolent of the romance sections of some women’s magazines. For example: “Gina Rinehart doesn’t just move in the big end of town. She is the big end of town.” The same applies to many of the quotations in the book. One of Rinehart’s many enemies, who had previously worked loyally for her father and for Hancock Prospecting, says: “I wouldn’t give that woman a drink in the middle of the desert if I was in a position to do so.” And another: “It’s her way or the highway.”

Infuriatingly, the book has no maps, no index, nor any photos or illustrations. Which is indeed a shame.

Despite all her wealth and power, life has not been smooth sailing for Rinehart. As Marshall demonstrates, Rinehart is widely known as a relentless and indefatigable litigant. The combination of her ruthless determination and her vast wealth ensures, as Marshall puts it, “that she can — and does — run litigation seemingly without end”.

Last September three of her four living children — John Langley Hancock, Bianca Rinehart and Hope Rinehart Welker — launched a lawsuit to oust her as trustee of the multi-billion-dollar family trust established by her father. Rinehart’s other living child — the youngest, Ginia Rinehart — has steadfastly sided with her mother.

Although it now seems possible that, legally, this dispute may be partially solved, personally and emotionally the house of Hancock remains in disarray, and the long-lasting family feud and estrangement appears unlikely to be solved.

Yet, for her peace of mind and perhaps even for the wellbeing of Hancock Prospecting, it seems the ball is essentially in Rinehart’s court.

As she approaches the big 60, Rinehart may do well to heed the advice of Abraham Lincoln, who in a historic speech in Illinois in 1858 stated: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

The House of Hancock: The Rise and Rise of Gina Rinehart
By Debi Marshall
William Heinemann, 367pp, $34.95

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 35 books