RICH PICKINGS: A wealth of influence

Gina Rinehart's new stake in Ten Network is believed to be an attempt to buy influence, but media investment is just one of many ways billionaires gain access to the halls of power.

That faint sound you've been hearing this week was the sound of thousands of entrepreneurs, analysts, executives and commentators scratching their heads at Gina Rinehart's decision to purchase a 10 per cent stake in Ten Network.

It's baffling move. Rinehart has a history of avoiding the spotlight, and sticking tightly to the mining sector, and particularly iron ore and coal. She has no track record in the media sector, and no real background in public company investing.

But the consensus of most commentators is that Rinehart isn't interested in Ten as an investment play. Instead, what she is buying – or at least what she hopes she is buying – is influence.

The debate over the mining tax placed entrepreneurs like Rinehart and Andrew Forrest into the political spotlight like never before, and sources who have talked with Rinehart recently suggest she remains deeply concerned about the damage a mining tax could do to Australia, and particularly her home state of Western Australia.

While Forrest has shown himself to be a savvy political operator throughout the mining tax debate, Rinehart has been less prominent. But not anymore – the Ten investment has thrust her clearly into the spotlight of the business world.

While there must be questions about exactly how much influence she could exert from a 10 per cent stake in Ten – particularly next to heavy media hitters such as James Packer, Lachlan Murdoch and Bruce Gordon – Rinehart's investment should at least get her more access to the corridors of power than she had last week.

Let's face it: The next time Gina Rinehart speaks, everyone from the media to business leaders and particularly politicians are more likely to sit up and take notice.

Of course, the media is only one way to gain influence. Rich list members exert influence through their businesses, their social and commercial networks, their philanthropic endeavours and affiliations with various groups.

With this in mind, we've compiled a snapshot of Australia's most influential billionaires – a list of the names that are likely to open the doors of politicians, regulators and other business leaders.

As this is such a subjective exercise, we'd love to hear your thoughts on who we've missed, or who shouldn't have been included. Please comment below.

Rupert Murdoch: You might question whether or not he should be on a list of the most influential Australian rich entrepreneurs (he's a US citizen) but you cannot question his influence in this country. As the biggest media owner in the country and one of the biggest in the world, Murdoch's organisation shapes opinion at a local and national level.

Frank Lowy: There are few Australians that wouldn't pass through one of Frank Lowy's Westfield shopping centres over the course of a year, but that's not where Lowy's influence comes from. His various positions as chairman of the Football Federation of Australia, former Reserve Bank board member, prominent philanthropist and backer of independent think tank the Lowy Institute gives him an incredible network and a unique level of influence in a number of spheres.

Kerry Stokes: While Kerry Stokes may have arguably transformed Seven Group into more of a mining play than a media play, his position as the
owner of Australia's top-rating television station ensures his influence is far reaching.

James Packer: James Packer's large stake in Consolidated Media (owner of a 25 per cent stake in Foxtel) and his new stake in Ten Network mean he remains one of Australia's most influential billionaires. Few families would have enjoyed the level of influence that the Packer's have had
over three generations.

Andrew Forrest: Being Australia's richest man brings with it a certain amount of influence, but the way Forrest has fronted the campaign against the mining tax has meant his a regular visitor to Canberra, and one of the most influential individuals in that sector. On top of this, Forrest's philanthropic work with the indigenous community has brought him into contact with business and political leaders outside of resources.

Bruce Gordon: As the owner of the WIN Television network, and a 13 per cent stake in Ten Network, Gordon remains one of Australia's biggest media owners and as such his ability to influence public opinion is substantial. While he may lack the clout of a Murdoch or Packer, Gordon's wealth and reach mean he still ranks as one our most influential billionaires.

Clive Palmer: As a former journalist and political party operative (with the Queensland National Party) mining baron Clive Palmer knows how
the system works. His wealth and his diverse range of interests (including sport, through soccer club Gold Coast United, philanthropy
and education) make him a prominent figure, particularly north of the Tweed. His influence is further underline thanks to his status as one of
Australia's biggest political donors, to the conservative side of the fence of course.

Gina Rinehart: The late entrant to the list by dent of her Ten Network stake and her apparent interest in defending the position of the mining
sector make her an influencer on the rise.

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