If you're judged by the company you keep, Gina Rinehart – Australia's richest person and family trust expert – is a lot more complex than many may have previously expected. The allies, confidantes and paid help around the iron ore tycoon have emerged like a private army in recent days. Whether that army is mercenary is another question entirely, but it’s emerging as an extraordinary ring of influence.
Of course it would be reasonable to expect any leading business figure to have a ‘team behind them’ except in Rinehart’s case it’s more a like a team who stand beside her in the shape of fellow tycoons, politicians and a range of characters who are best described as eccentric.
Adman extraordinaire John Singleton, for example, has bounded from the blocks with supportive comments on Rinehart throughout her battles with everyone from Treasurer Wayne Swan through to her own children. But Singleton is no johnny-come-lately in the Rinehart ranks. His connection with the family goes back more than three decades to when Gina was a teenager: He was first a friend of Lang Hancock, Gina's father who laid the foundations – incomplete foundations as it turned out – for the empire that is Hancock mining today.
Retailer and professional patriot Dick Smith has also been a regular advisor to Rinehart over many years: In recent days he has gone so far as to support her controversial attempt to get a board seat at Fairfax – a move institutional shareholders such as Simon Marais of Orbis Funds Management are actively resisting.
Intriguingly, both Smith and Singleton are at their core ‘marketers’ – they have little in common with Wayne Swan’s lambasted troika of subversive miners which lumped Rinehart together with Clive Palmer and Andrew Forrest. Palmer, from his public comments, is clearly another supporter of Rinehart, especially in her efforts to ‘diversify’ the ownership in local media.
But Forrest and Rinehart actually vie for dominance in the Pilbara and there is scant evidence they support each other. Indeed, it's hardly a coincidence that as a Rinehart carefully constructs a financing package for her Roy Hill project, Forrest has moved first and soaked up a hell of a lot of Pilbara-poised dollars from the international investment community with a $2 billion Fortescue bond issue, announced on Wednesday, that was more than double what anyone expected.
It was Forrest after all who offered Rinehart's estranged son John Hancock a fantastic opportunity to join Fortescue in the early days – a move from which he would have made a fortune. Rinheart clearly saw this as sedition and thwarted the move: John Hancock, we hear, is now reduced to day trading.
One figure who is keen to stand outside the Rinehart ring of influence is Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett. Commenting on the miserable squabble facing John Hancock and his siblings where Gina Rinehart has changed the terms of a family trust, Barnett rightly refused to intervene in what he tagged a 'soap opera' that should be sorted out by the protagonists themselves.
In contrast Barnaby Joyce, the national party politician, stepped in to play a cameo part in that soap opera. Joyce offered advice in writing to the Rinehart family. Joyce is now urgently trying to distance himself from the letter but the incident is in the public domain. Joyce at the very least owes his constituents a full explanation as to why he would choose to offer his services in such a manner to a tycoon.
Mind you, Barnaby Joyce is by no means the most unusual supporter of Rinehart – Ian Plimer, the academic geologist and hard core climate sceptic wins that prize.
Plimer has recently ascended to the board at one of Gina’s key private companies.
In fairness to Plimer he gets berated as a figure in the climate debate who has 'links with mining companies' – while Ross Garnaut, climate change report author, does not get criticised for being the long-time chairman of trouble plagued PNG goldmine Lihir.
But Plimer is vilified by the climate change movement not for his links with miners, rather they castigate him because his arguments are poorly constructed and his written work is patchy and erratic.
Until very recently Palmer – an eccentric player if ever there was one – was deemed typical of Gina Rinehart's circle, but as her family fight escalates it's clear her connections run wider and higher than anyone might have guessed... you have to wonder who else is on her speed dial?