RICH PICKINGS: Gina Rinehart versus the future

As Gina Rinehart's attempts to exert more influence on Australian society via the media largely fall flat, will the magnate consider political donations to return the nation to a 'better era'?

In the wash-up from America’s presidential election, much is being made of the hundreds of millions of dollars that conservative billionaires spent trying to secure a Republican victory. Reports suggest casino mogul Sheldon Adelson spent somewhere in the vicinity of $US150 million, while arch conservatives David and Charles Koch are believed to have spent a similar amount.

That these billionaires’ money failed to affect the election result is obviously been cheered by Democrats and jeered by large sectors of the media, including the business press, which in most instances has categorised these donations as investments gone bad.

The role that these billionaires played in the US political process, both in front of and behind the scenes, raises some interesting questions as Australia heads into an election year.

What role will Australia’s wealthiest political donors play in the lead-up to next year’s poll? Will our most prominent billionaire donor, Clive Palmer, kiss and make up with the Coalition and throw big dollars at a LNP win? And what of those billionaires like James Packer and Frank Lowy, who like to have a bet each way, donating roughly equal amounts to Labor and the Coalition?

And perhaps most importantly, what role will Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart, decide to take in the political process?

It’s a question that has been rattling around my brain in the past week since I got my hands on a copy of Rinehart’s new book, which is called Northern Australia and then some: Changes we need to make our country rich.

It’s closer to a family scrapbook than a weighty tome – partly a compendium of speeches and articles; partly a timeline of her family’s empire; partly a tribute to her parents; partly a collection of her much-maligned poetry; partly a chance for her friends and supporters to say nice things about her in print; partly a collection of cartoons.

It’s also a bit of a mess. There’s a foreword, a preface, a preamble, three dedications and an introduction before you hit the guts of the book.

However the introduction, written by Rinehart herself, is without doubt the key to the entire book. It’s the only really new piece of writing and it’s perhaps the best encapsulation of Rinehart’s view of the world we’ve had yet.

Beyond our means

Rinehart starts the introduction with an extract from Andrew Bolt’s television show, where her favourite journalist interviews David Murray about the state of the Australian economy and what he sees as the Labor government’s profligate spending.

For Rinehart, Labor’s spending has not been matched by the investment or policy necessary to establish a platform for entrepreneurs to grow their business and create wealth.

These are, she argues, simple values that Australians used to hold dear in a better time.

"It goes back to something Australians used to understand well; almost every home understood that you had to earn the revenue before you could spend it. Then you had to make choices: it might be nice to have overseas holidays, but maybe we should renovate the bathroom and/or kitchen, fix the roof, do the extension, save for a granny flat et cetera.

"Proper planning and allocation within the budget constraints had to occur. This may not be popular, but we need to get back to these basic understandings, and, very importantly for Australia, so do our overspending governments.”

A lifetime of government interference

But it’s not just current governments that have thwarted Australia’s development. Rinehart goes on to tell the story of the early career of her father Lang Hancock, who in her view had his attempts to start iron ore mining in the north of Western Australia thwarted by bureaucratic bunglings of federal and state politicians.

"So with the government combination of Perth and Canberra ‘looking after us’, the opening of the major Pilbara iron ore industry was delayed by around 10 years...Try living 10 years without much more than a few rough roads and being 100 miles or more on long, bumpy roads from the nearest post office, or adequate hospital.”

Never mind that Rinehart’s family had a plane they could use to fly to town, or that she spent many years at a prestigious boarding school in Perth – the people of the north had to endure "10 years of federal and state governments ‘knowing best’”.

Jealousy and the northern answer

Rinehart – with reasonable justification – paints Hancock as the godfather of the Pilbara and the man who helped turn Western Australia from a state that lived off the tax "handouts” of the rest of the country into an economic powerhouse.

"But he made money and he made people jealous. There was nothing stopping others from taking the risks, facing the many hardships and working hard like Dad did, but jealousy is easier, and jealousy leads to detractors, vitriol and hatred.”

(Not surprisingly, Rinehart omits that part of the reason Hancock was so heavily criticised was his extreme views on topics such as Aboriginal rights. This, after all, was the man who once suggested Aboriginals be made to collect their welfare cheques at one central location so that the water nearby could be poisoned "so that they were sterile and would breed themselves out in the future.”)

Rinehart sees herself being attacked as her father was.

"Today, sadly, jealousy of those who have worked hard to earn money continues. With it comes vitriol and hatred, with so little thought given to the fact that Australia really needs people to invest in and grow businesses that lead to opportunities for others, and help to pay for the spending of our governments.”

The way Rinehart believes Australia should "invest in and grow businesses that lead opportunities for others” is through the creation of a special economic zone in the north of Australia, where investment would be encouraged with relaxed labour, environmental and presumably native title laws.

"Our vision is to aim for policies to invigorate our sparsely populated north, with people, investment and businesses being made welcome; to become an essential contributor and engine for growth, revenue and opportunities.

"When such polices of encouraging investment and businesses are better understood I Australia, I would hope they’d be extended south.”

The fact that Rinehart would surely be one of the biggest beneficiaries of such a zone does not rate a mention.

The past versus the future

Interpreting what Rinehart really wants is not an easy task. While much of what she talks about is around Australia’s future, her heart could be seen as belonging to the past.

It’s a past where a simpler Australia, based on traditional values – living within your means, an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, opportunity for those willing to take risks – celebrates the achievements of its great captains of industry.

It’s a past where the grand idea her father cooked up decades ago – that a great chunk of the nation could be set aside by a government and turned into a utopian free-market mining playground – hasn’t been discounted as the musings of an eccentric miner.

It’s a past that she must know is almost completely unobtainable. No government, state or federal, would support the idea of a hiving off one of the most valuable iron ore regions in the world.

Why someone with as much business acumen as Rinehart would cling to this fantasy is frankly hard to understand. But Rinehart doesn’t just cling to it – as this book demonstrates, it is at the core of her beliefs.

So to return to the question we started with: What might she be prepared to do to prosecute those beliefs?

In the introduction to Rinehart’s book, she acknowledges a slew of mostly small lobby groups and associations including the Small Business Association of Australia, The Sydney Mining Club, The Pastoralists and Graziers Association, The Mannkal Economic Education Foundation and the Institute of Public Affairs.

While Rinehart’s support for these groups brings to mind the support that the Koch brothers give to a myriad of small non-for-profit interest groups, their cumulative political clout is tiny, with the exception of the IPA.

But that doesn’t mean clout is out of Rinehart’s reach. Like the Republican billionaires of the US, she could pour money into Conservative politics in a bid to influence the election result.

Would it get her any closer to her dream of a utopian north? It’s hard to see. Could it make Rinehart’s voice even stronger in Australian public life and spread her vision of a new, old Australia? Absolutely.

I doubt Rinehart would plough tens of millions of dollars into the Coalition’s coffers – her lack of faith in politicians would surely stay her hand.

But the possibility – and the potential consequences – are nothing if not fascinating.

James Thomson is a former editor of BRW’s Rich 200 and the publisher of SmartCompany and LeadingCompany.

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