RICH PICKINGS: Gina's prospects for influence

When it comes to buying influence, there's more than one way to skin a cat if you're a rich list member, as Gina Rinehart and Graeme Wood have shown.

Let’s start this week’s column with something different – a little game of "name that rich list member”.

Here are the clues:

- I am a rich list member from one of Australia’s resource rich states
- I have been an outspoken critic of Labor government policies
- I am vocal on issues in my growing sector
- I am outspoken on climate change
- I have investments in several media operations
- I have donated heavily to a political party

After this week, it has to be Gina Rinehart, doesn’t it?

Wrong.

The answer is Queensland rich list member Graeme Wood, founder of online travel giant Wotif.

On the day that Rinehart was dominating the headlines thanks to her surprise decision to try to buy another 10 per cent of Fairfax, official data on political donations confirmed Wood as the largest individual political donor in the country in 2010-11.

He handed over almost $1.7 million to help the Greens achieve what was their most successful federal election result ever in 2010, where they won enough seats to form a minority government with Labor.

Since stepping down as chief executive of Wotif in 2007, Wood has been a keen participant in politics and the media.

He’s harangued the Labor government over the NBN (colourfully describing it as a potential "$43 billion hi-tech babysitter") and climate change (he accused the government of being "scared” on the issue) and has been highly critical of the way Tourism Australia has been run.

He’s campaigned long and hard on environmental issues and invested alongside fellow rich list member and environmentalist Jan Cameron to buy a pulp mill in Tasmania. The pair plan to turn it into an eco-resort.

Wood is also an active media investor. In 2008 he grabbed a 50 per cent stake in news aggregation site Plugger, which was quickly renamed Wotnews.

Last year, he emerged as the backer of a soon-to-be-launched website called The Global Mail, which is being led by former ABC journalist Monica Attard. The site, which promises "independent journalism for independent minds” has Wood’s backing for at least five years. Given the site does not intend to take advertising, that’s likely to cost Wood at least a few million dollars.

The point of this is not to compare Wood and Rinehart. They have vastly different bank balances, very different styles, different ways of interacting with the public and particularly different ways of approaching their involvement in the media.

On one hand, Rinehart has grabbed a board seat at Ten and appears to want one at Fairfax. But Wood has a formal agreement that he will not be able to influence editorial. He told Crikey last year that his investment "is about journalism … I think that the quality of public interest journalism is at the lowest ebb that I’m aware of.”

Where Wood’s media investments appears to be about furthering a strong and vibrant media sector, Rinehart’s investments appear to be about furthering her interests. Of course, in their own way they are both investing to promote their own view of the world.

But while Wood and Rinehart are poles apart, the way they have been thrown together in the headlines in the past week does highlight the fact that there are different ways to exert influence.

Political donations are a tried and true strategy, although for all the talk about Rinehart’s desperate drive to spread her views, her name and that of her company Hancock Prospecting do not appear in the 2010-11 political donation filings.

But Wood is not the only rich list member to use his fortune to have some direct involvement in the political process.

Paul Ramsay, whose Ramsay Health Care can be affected greatly by changes in government health policies, gave $263,000 to the Liberal Party and $50,000 to Labor. Fellow health care sector player Edmund Bateman, who has been lobbying hard for changes to pathology payments, also gave $50,000 to the Liberals.

Queensland coal billionaire Clive Palmer gave more than $1 million to the Queensland Liberal/National Party, and Dick Honan’s Malindra Group gave $250,000 to Labor, $160,000 to the Liberals and a bit over $115,000 to the Nationals.

Both the Pratt family and the Kirby family (who own Village Roadshow) also continued their long-standing policy of hedging their bets. The Pratts gave $215,000 to Labor and $150,000 to the Liberals, while Village Roadshow gave about $435,000 to the Liberals and $420,000 to Labor.

Of course, none of the rich list donations were as large or as effective as that made by Wood. It could be argued that his financial support for the Greens helped them run them strongest campaign ever and secure the balance of power.

Which raises an interesting question as to what is more influential: a seat on a media company board or a well-placed, million-dollar donation to the right political party at the right time?

At this point, it’s hard to argue that the hundreds of millions Rinehart has spent on her media investments have had nearly as much influence as Wood’s support for the Greens, which arguably helped shape the result of the 2010 election.

So would Rinehart be better off donating money to a political party? Maybe, but she probably knows there isn’t a political party in Australia that would back some of her more out-there ideas, such as the establishment of a northern economic zone in Australia which would have different tax rates and labour laws to the rest of the country.

Given that, investing in the media is Rinehart’s better bet.

This week we’ve been reminded of that famous theory from Rinehart’s father Lang Hancock, who wrote in 1979 that media was the best way to break the power of governments.

"It could be broken by obtaining control of the media and then educating the public," Hancock wrote in a book called Wake Up Australia.

Does Rinehart want to test this theory? It’s hard to imagine she has the time or the inclination, given her burgeoning mining empire.

But Rinehart has the fortune to do anything. That’s what makes her so fascinating.