The heiress and billionaire Gina Rinehart is not a woman to pick a fight with.
In the moments when she has not been battling her children over control of the family coffers, penning odes to mining or sponsoring national tours by climate change deniers, Gina Rinehart has spent the past year quietly tripling the size of her towering fortune.
The soft-spoken but notoriously steely Australian mining magnate earned more than £12 billion in the past 12 months – that is £32 million a day, or almost £400 a second. She has now acquired the title – which she would almost certainly shun – of the world’s richest woman. With a fortune estimated to be almost £20 billion, she has overtaken the previous richest woman, Christy Walton, of the American Wal-Mart retail dynasty, worth some £16 billion, and is on track to replace Mexico’s telecommunications mogul, Carlos Slim Helu (£44 billion), as the richest person in the world.
Though Mrs Rinehart, 58, avoids the limelight and long ago stopped doing media interviews, her strange antics and two spectacular family feuds – one with her stepmother, the other with her children – have ensured she has never been far from the public eye.
The long run of allegations and unusual behaviour is virtually endless. She has been accused of sexual harassment by a former live-in security guard, Bob Thompson, who claimed she became abusive when he refused to marry her; an out-of-court settlement was reported to have been made, though the terms were not disclosed. She jumped on to the back of a truck to wail against a proposed mining tax at a protest, chanting “axe the tax” while wearing a glittering pearl necklace.
The headquarters of her firm, Hancock Prospecting, in Perth, has a fingerprint-recognition security system and her family compound overlooking the city’s Swan River is surrounded by electric fences. Her recent ode, described as “the universe’s worst poem”, was a pro-mining, anti‑government rhyming creed fixed to a 30-ton iron ore boulder.
The attention has only increased as her wealth has soared in a dizzying ascent that could soon bring her fortune as high as £65 billion. According to Australia’s BRW magazine, which compiled an estimate of Mrs Rinehart’s worth for its latest annual rich list, she tripled her wealth last year, mainly due to foreign investment in new projects, increased production and a rise in iron ore prices. When she inherited her father’s fortune in 1992, she was worth just under £50 million.
“If demand for natural resources remains strong… there’s a real possibility that Rinehart will not be just the richest woman in the world but the richest person,” said Andrew Heathcote, a BRW editor.
The China-fuelled mining boom has increased interest in Mrs Rinehart and a new breed of Australian tycoons who have gained notoriety for their excesses, squabbles and political meddling. Dubbed the “feral billionaires” for their somewhat wild and unbecoming public behaviour, the rising wealth, ostentation and power of the Australian mining magnates has been likened to the rise of Russia’s oligarchs.
Dr Michael Rafferty, from the University of Sydney Business School, describes the new moguls as feudal-style “rentiers” who, unlike the media and property tycoons of previous eras, have never “developed anything in their lives”.
“These billionaires like Gina [Rinehart], Clive [Palmer] and Twiggy [Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest] have accumulated vast wealth, without having done anything,” he told The Daily Telegraph.
“They just sit back and cash starts coming in. Their quirkiness or wackiness is largely a product of the fact that their business is simply about owning the property, not building a workforce.”
Outside the nation’s financial pages, Mrs Rinehart mainly makes headlines for her long-running, poisonous feud with her children. Though she inherited her father’s iron ore company, she has been locked in a battle to prevent her three eldest children accessing their share of the family trust. She has not held back from publicly deriding them, saying earlier this year that if they were unhappy with the “very privileged lives” she has provided for them, they should go and find jobs.
It was not the first time she has fought her family to protect the wealth built by her father, Lang Hancock, whom she idolised. Mr Hancock, a fiercely conservative Second World War veteran who believed Western Australia should secede from Australia, is credited with discovering the enormous iron ore deposits in the state’s harsh north-west Pilbara region.
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