Australia, thanks largely to the economic rise of China, has been in the throes of a mining boom. The “lucky country,” as it is called, has enormous deposits of the high-grade iron ore required by the steel mills of Asia. In Western Australia, where most of the iron ore resides, the boom has created unprecedented prosperity, along with a small tribe of billionaires.
Georgina (Gina) Hope Rinehart, who owns a company called Hancock Prospecting and has recently been buying up Australian media properties, is the best known of these new tycoons. According to BRW, a weekly business magazine, Gina Rinehart became the richest woman in Australia in 2010, the richest person in Australia in 2011, and the richest woman in the world in 2012, with an estimated net worth of nearly thirty billion dollars.
Rinehart, who lives in Perth—the state capital of Western Australia—is fifty-eight, a widow, and a mother of four. She shuns the press and rarely appears in public. She is sensitive, however, to the media treatment she receives, which is voluminous—she qualifies, by sheer quantity of ink, airtime, Web sites, pop songs, and pub conversation devoted to her, as a national obsession—and often rough. Two things seem to hurt her particularly: the stock news description of her as an heiress, and perceived failures of the press to acknowledge the achievements of her late father, Lang Hancock, whom she adored (when they were not feuding) with a rare intensity.
Lang Hancock was a piece of work. He started out as a rancher, asbestos miner, and prospector in the Pilbara, a vast sweltering wilderness in northwest Australia. (It is pronounced as two syllables: Pilbra.) In November, 1952, according to legend, he was flying in a flimsy little Auster aircraft with his wife, Hope, over the Hamersley Range, an extra-remote fastness in the Pilbara.
A storm arose. Unable to climb through the clouds, they threaded narrow gorges in lashing rain. Hancock, an expert bush pilot, managed to note the rust color, brought out by the rain, of the gorge walls, which, as he later told Australian television, “showed it to me to be oxidized iron.” He returned to the spot in better weather and started laying the foundation of a mining fortune.
He did this not by mining but by prospecting, along with an associate named Ken McCamey, and by tirelessly lobbying the state and federal governments to repeal an embargo on the export of iron ore and a ban on the pegging of claims. When the repeals finally came, in the early nineteen-sixties, Hancock staked his claims and, after more rounds of badgering, persuaded mining executives from Britain and the United States to invest in the Pilbara. His royalty agreement with Rio Tinto, a London-based multinational, soon made him a multimillionaire. The big customer in those days was Japan.
Unlike his daughter, Hancock actively engaged the press. He told his story to any reporter who would listen. He even started two newspapers, as megaphones for his political views. He was an ardent Western Australia secessionist. Historically a poor, backward, isolated state—Robert Hughes described it, in “The Fatal Shore,” as “a colony with a body the size of Europe and the brain of an infant”—Western Australia could become, with its new mining wealth, Hancock believed, a paradise of free enterprise if it could only escape the stifling grasp of the eastern establishment in Sydney and Melbourne. Hancock wanted to use nuclear weapons for mining and for dredging new ports along the northwest coast, but there was no bloody chance of getting such bold ideas approved by the timid federal bureaucracy, in Canberra.
He didn’t fear radioactive fallout any more than he believed asbestos exposure caused asbestosis or the cancer mesothelioma. The blue-asbestos mine that Hancock ran in the nineteen-thirties and forties at Wittenoom is thought to have caused hundreds of asbestos-related deaths, many of them among its largely Aboriginal workforce, but Hancock never accepted the medical connection, let alone responsibility. He held an extreme version of a common attitude among white Australians of his generation toward native people. He once told a television interviewer that the “problem” of “half-castes” could be solved by luring people to a central welfare office, to “dope” their water in order to sterilize them and thus wipe out the race.
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