Rich, ruth­less and the ruler of a bit­ter house di­vided

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

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.

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: 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 lon­glast­ing 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.’’

Ross Fitzger­ald is emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of

Tough and de­ter­mined, Gina Rine­hart

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