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What it's like to interview Australia's richest woman

As Gina Rinehart gears up for an appearance on Australian Story, The Weekly remembers what it was like to interview Australia's richest - and most private - woman.

By Caroline Overington
Ahead of tonight's episode of ABC's Australian Story, we remember what it was like to interview one of Australia's richest - and most private - women, Gina Rinehart.
A notoriously personal person, interviews with a woman like Gina Rinehart are just about as rare as they come - but when they do, they are as illuminating and fascinating as any.
In her interview for our 80th anniversary issue in October 2013, Gina agreed to meet with Women's Weekly senior journalist, Caroline Overington, for what was one of her most open insights into her life - and her thoughts.
As we wait for another one of her famously scarce interviews, Caroline Overington recounts what it's like to interview Ms Rinehart - and what she learnt.
THE river was a muddy brown, the earth a striking red, and then along came Gina Rinehart, wearing hot pink shoes.
Such was the scene when The Australian Women’s Weekly went to see Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart, in the Pilbara for our 80th birthday celebrations.
To this day, it remains one of the most extraordinary shoots ever conducted by this magazine, right up there with spending time with White House candidate Hillary Clinton in New York in 2014; and David Leser’s famous interview with Rupert Murdoch’s second wife, Anna, in the 1990s.
Part of the thrill was simply gaining access to Gina, because she is perhaps the most notoriously private of all Australia's billionaires.
Her appearance on next week’s Australian Story on the ABC is being promoted as a rare insight into Gina’s life precisely because she so rarely ventures into the public eye.
The Weekly’s own interview took place in the Pilbara, after Gina agreed to have our team join 70 investors, including ANZ’s boss, Mike Smith, on a tour of her Roy Hill mine site.
Gina's staff somehow managed to put on what may have been Australia's most remote BBQ lunch. The meal was served at long tables covered by linen cloths, under ancient trees by the Fortescue River, thousands of kilometres from the WA coastline.
Waiters came out of nowhere, carrying silver platters with chilled watermelon juice. Chefs produced slow-cooked lamb, grilled asparagus, and pavlova.
Gina herself showed up in pink sand shoes, tan pants and a blue Roy Hill shirt. She was then – as now – embroiled in legal action with two of her children, John and Bianca.
Gina was at pains to tell The Weekly how hard she had worked to get the Roy Hill mine off the ground.
‘I had to pay off debts. The private jet was sold. I lived frugally for many years on a small salary and no bonuses,’ she said.
At the same time, ‘I made sure that the children went to the best private schools, both here and later overseas, had private tutors, extra swimming and tennis lessons and so on.’
She seemed perplexed by the legal action taken by her children, telling The Weekly that she had always acted in ‘the best interests of the children and grandchildren.’
The NSW Supreme Court did not agree. Earlier this year, it handed control of the $4 billion Hancock family trust to eldest daughter, Bianca.
The decision was the latest in a series of blows to fall upon Gina this past two years.
Unbeknownst to many people, she endured the loss of her long-time partner, former NSW businessman, Robert Sparke, who was 80 when he died in Perth.
Gina's wealth has been diminished by the falling iron ore price; and she was upset by a Channel Nine program about her life, House of Hancock, which showed her dad, Lang Hancock, referring to her as a baby elephant.
Australian Story will include interviews with one of Gina’s closest friends, John Singleton; and with Fairfax Media journalist Adele Ferguson, who wrote Gina’s best-selling, unauthorised biography.
The two-part program - due to air on 6 and 13 July - comes just as the Roy Hill mine is due to open for business.
Gina has always said that she pegged the land for this mine herself, and that the discovery is not one of her father’s legendary finds. She has built the mine, the port and the rail that goes with it, all in the years since Lang died.
John and Bianca are now fighting through the courts for access to some of the Roy Hill profits, saying Lang and not Gina discovered Roy Hill.
It’s a crushing blow for Gina, who regards the development of Roy Hill as the most difficult, most expensive, and most rewarding achievement of her working life.
She described the development of the site to the Weekly as something of a David and Goliath effort, as her 'tiny team scoured the world for partners, working very long hours, often through the night. Some in media think that all you do is sit on the tenements and somehow mines are developed but that is far from reality.’
Read our full piece, as piece in the 2013 October issue of the Australian Women's Weekly, below.
It is noon on a Saturday in the middle of June, and we are guests in what may be one of the most beautiful places on earth.
This is the Pilbara. It’s a vast and ancient landscape, unlike any other in the world - a place of searing heat and spinifex, of mighty gorges and clear rock pools, of the Sturt pea wildflower, and the white-trunked gum.
Standing in this extraordinary setting, with blue skies above and red earth beneath her feet, is one of the most determined and successful women in the world: Mrs Georgina Hope Rinehart, better known as Gina Rinehart. She has flown in just this morning, on a charter flight with some of Australia’s most senior bankers, to attend a barbecue lunch by the Fortescue River, near the site of her latest (and, in some ways, one of her greatest) projects: the Roy Hill mine, more than 1000 kilometres from Perth.
The Weekly requested an interview with Mrs Rinehart, 59, as part of the celebrations marking the 80th anniversary of this magazine. In response, we were given a rare opportunity to take some portraits of Mrs Rinehart in the land of her childhood, and so, here we were, invited onto Mrs Rinehart’s turf to share the beauty of the landscape - and, despite the tight timetable, and Mrs Rinehart’s obligation to the 70 bankers who also travelled long distances to meet her in the Pilbara - she proved a polite and considerate host, giving the Weekly not only her time, but a rare insight into one of our most fascinating and successful Australians.
Of particular concern to Mrs Rinehart was the mismanagement of the Australian economy by the previous government – in particular, the massive debt that built up over six years.
‘The previous government spent the Howard government’s savings and then delivered one deficit after another, leading us to a record debt approaching $300 billion,” she said. ‘They increased regulation, bringing in more than 21,000 new regulations. How can businesses - especially small businesses - cope with that?
‘Our industry – the mining industry – now faces some of the highest costs in the world, and it’s about to encounter the strongest competition in Australia’s history, especially from very low-cost African nations, which have vast, untapped mineral resources. Yet the government seemed to think they could keep adding costs to the mining industry and still treat it like an ATM.
‘We need our businesses to be able to compete with the rest of the world. The aim of the new government should be to reduce government spending, pay off Australia's debt, cut red tape and green tape (excessive regulation) and let business get on with business, creating the revenue, sustainable jobs and opportunities Australia needs.’
Mrs Rinehart comes to the debate armed with personal experience of what can happen when governments ‘think they know best.' Her father, Lang Hancock was born into a prosperous, land-owning family (such families were then called the ‘squattocracy’) in WA and spent much of his childhood on the remote Mulga Downs station in the Pilbara, as well as at boarding school in Perth, before serving in the Second World War, via the country's essential industries in rural Australia program, where he quickly attained ranking.
Two years after the war ended, Lang married the love of his life, Hope Margaret Nicholas, who was the daughter of James Nicholas of Cobb and Co fame. Their lives – and Australia's future, as a mining power - changed forever in November 1952, when Lang decided to fly his tiny Auster plane to Perth.
Bad weather forced Lang to fly under the clouds, through the gorges of the Turner River. Through the rain-splattered windscreen, he noticed that the walls of the gorge were rust-coloured. Quite by chance, he had discovered the keys to Australia's economic future: it was a bounty of iron ore.
Lang returned to the area many times over the next decade, landing his plane in the spinifex, walking more than fifty kilometres to collect samples of the iron ore to send to laboratories in Perth. The analysis clearly showed that Lang had found ore that was two per cent higher than the ore being fed into the giant furnaces in the USA at the time – but he could do nothing with it. The federal government had imposed an embargo on the export of iron ore. The WA state government had also imposed a pegging ban, preventing anyone from taking title. Their argument was that Australia was iron-ore deficient.
Lang argued for the bans to be lifted, on the grounds that he’d found a reserve big enough to supply the whole world but Canberra had little interest - or passion for - the Pilbara. It took eight years to get the export ban lifted – and another almost two years for the pegging ban to be lifted by the State government.
“Dad tried to convince the federal government to change its decision, to lift the export embargo,” Mrs Rinehart said. “He tried to convince the state government to lift its ban on pegging tenements. But the West had a minister with no experience in starting major projects and he couldn't grasp the issues.
“Maybe that doesn’t seem important for those in the inner city areas with all the city conveniences, but think about what it meant for those people in the northern region. Try living for 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, hospital or the shops.
“Most people living in the Pilbara had no means of phoning family members overseas or interstate, unless they travelled to the hottest town in Australia, Marble Bar. They could see the need for better facilities but the government was not interested, and the refusal of government to lift those bans not only wasted ten years of my father’s life but delayed the revenue that would have been flowing, to build new towns, new shops and roads, police stations and airports, and jobs for the Pilbara.’
Mrs Rinehart says her father “risked his life as he flew the Pilbara in frail, small aircraft that many of us would not want to fly in, landing in spinifex or on tracks. He explored in the heat, with snakes as companions, but he made money over the years, and it made people jealous. There was nothing stopping others from taking risks and working hard but jealousy is easier.’
Now, when she looks back, she says ‘the lifting of the bans initiated a great wave of prosperity that spread over the state of West Australia, to the federal government, and indirectly to every person in Australia.
‘Mining in the Pilbara - and elsewhere - helped Australia escape from the global economic downturn. It kept people in jobs, and it meant that we did not suffer the way other economies suffered.’
In her book, Mrs Rinehart noted that her father ‘could have taken his hard earned money and retired to the good life, thousands of miles from any destructive media and the jealousy, but he instead decided to invest his wealth mainly in Australia ’
His example has rubbed off. Mrs Rinehart joined the Hancock Group as personal assistant to her father after studying economics at the University of Sydney. She became chairman of the Hancock group of companies upon her father’s death in March, 1992.
Many people wondered if she had the skill to run the business, but Mrs Rinehart took the bull by the horns, leading the company to new heights. Her first step, she says, was to limit expenditure and ‘pay off debts. The private jet was sold, and money-losing ventures offshore Australia were disposed of. The company was not in good shape and I needed to save it.’
‘I lived frugally for many years on a small salary and no bonuses,’ she says, ‘although I made sure that the children went to the best private schools, both here and later overseas, had private tutors, extra swimming and tennis lessons and so on. I stayed focussed on resource projects, exploring with our limited means and then investing in feasibility studies, initially mainly for Hope Downs, which now has three mines operating.
‘We were a tiny team, and we scoured the world for partners, as we were too small a company to develop the Hope Downs mines by ourselves. Some in media think that all you do is sit on the tenements and somehow mines are developed without work, risk, investment or effort, but that is far from reality.’
The first partners that Mrs Rinehart signed for her Hope Downs project was a company called Iscor, which in the late 1990s was the largest on the South African stock exchange. The plan was to have the project up and running by 2002, but Iscor later unbundled, becoming a smaller company known as Kumba, which then became the subject of a hostile takeover by Anglo, which decided to concentrate its efforts not on Australian mining, but on South African projects, delaying Hope Downs.
Mrs Rinehart says ‘the pressure was on. The agreement we had with the State government required us to submit a financed development proposal by June 30th, 2005, or risk the project being lost and handed to competitors after we had done all the work -and spent considerable money. It was a very busy time of my life, that last part of 2004 and first half of 2005 especially, with no weekends off, constantly very long hours, even sometimes working all through the night, very long hours all the way through to early 2006.’
Mrs Rinehart hung on, striking a deal with Rio Tinto at the last moment - and with support from Australian and overseas banks - to get the massive Hope Downs project – (which now comprises three, world class profitable mines) – off the ground.
‘It was very, very difficult,’ she says, and she was delighted when her efforts were rewarded with the ‘Diggers and Dealers Deal of the Year’ prize (she’s since won it a second time, the first company to do so.)
The Hope Downs deals secured Rinehart’s future, and that of her children and grandchildren. She acknowledges that she could have retired, and just lived the good life, away from the publicity, saying ‘much of it is inaccurate or distorted anyway, and just people talking out of jealousy, or bias, and usually with little knowledge’ but she chose instead ‘a more difficult path, to continue to invest heavily in Australia and particularly in an industry important to Australia's economy and Australia's future.
Which brings us to the Roy Hill project. During her first field trip as chairman of Hancock Prospecting in 1992, Mrs Rinehart visited the Roy Hill area with her chief geologist, Richard, and directed her company to apply for tenements over the site, which in 1993, a year after her fathers death, were granted– and it seems that Mrs Rinehart’s eye for a good ore body is similar to that of her father: studies clearly suggest that Roy Hill is one of largest undeveloped open cut mine sites in Australia.
‘We are looking at a site (Roy Hill) that is 1000 kilometres from Perth, and it will require thousands of government approvals, permits and licences to be achieved,’ Mrs Rinehart says.
‘Billions of dollars are required for the investment. We had to build an airport capable of landing a 737, and we have to build 344 kilometres of heavy-gauge rail to link the mine to the port, and a new remote operations centre, or ROC, in Perth. We will need accommodation for more than 5000 workers.
‘People seem to think that you just turn up and open the mine and revenue flows, but it’s not like that. You have to invest billions before the first dollar even flows.’
Roy Hill is expected to produce around 55 million tonnes of iron ore a year, with a mine life of 20 years (with the option to mine lower grade material into the future) and it was in order to show investors exactly what is needed to get such a massive project off the ground that Mrs Rinehart flew 70 of them to the site in June.
They visited the construction sites, and the mine site, and Mrs Rinehart herself arrived for lunch dressed smartly in the Roy Hill uniform of blue shirt, and pants, rocking a pair of bright pink shoes. She spoke to every guest, and to the Weekly, explaining that it was important, in her view, for Australians to understand ‘the years of exploration, the expensive studies, the time-and money consuming approval process, the partnering and financing efforts, construction of roads, mine , rail and port – all the work and effort that is required, before any mine can see its first revenue flow.
‘City people do not see the major risks that mining people take,’ she said. ‘They don’t understand that not all tenements eventually become profitable. Enormous amounts can be spent on exploration, studies and approval processes, only to find that the money has been wasted because the projects are not good enough.
‘City people think of the Pilbara as one long mining pit but when you actually visit the Pilbara, you see that it’s nothing like one big continuous mine pit. You can travel for miles and miles, searching for the mines. They are miniscule in terms of the vast outback. We have kangaroos visiting the mining areas. The local grass, the spinifex, grows and regrows without needing to be planted.
‘The reality in the north is very different, to what people in the cities think.”
The differences between Australians who live in the cities, and those who live in remote and rugged areas, is a constant theme in Mrs Rinehart’s thinking. Like many people from ‘the bush’ she believes that the best of the Australian character – the grit and determination that marked the early settlement of the country – can still be found in rural folk.
‘I grew up with the honesty and friendliness of country people,’ she notes, ‘and I’m very fond of such Australians wherever they live. I have coal projects in North Queensland and the people I find there are similar to the people I grew up with in the north. I went up to North Queensland to speak to people after the floods in 2011 and there was a small businessman, around seventy years of age, who had a bakery, and he got up very early in the morning to wade through the flood waters in his street, and stood knee deep in dirty water to bake the morning bread because he didn't want people in the community trying to get through the flood without fresh bread. Everyone was trying to help each other. Half the town had to be evacuated without any government help. People put each other up, and helped each other clean up the damage. There were people who had loved their gardens, and were devastated by the loss of their gardens, and they worked together to get the towns looking beautiful again.’
Caught up in the spirit, Mrs Rinehart offered a prize to the community later that year for the best garden in the town, with the winner flown to Bali. She also sponsored a Christmas lights competition.
‘People were driving hundreds of miles to find lights, and they spent hundreds of hours installing them, maintaining them and taking them down,’ she says. ‘The results were incredible (the winners received a trip to Singapore to see Singapore's Christmas lights.)
‘Country people tend to be proud of their forebears, too. It’s the same for me. I am very proud of my forebears. Three members of the Hancock family were some of the first non-Aboriginal settlers of the Pilbara and, together with the Withnell family, they helped open up the pastoral industry in the region.
‘My mother’s family were also pioneers: my mother’s father, James Nicholas, ran Cobb and Co for years, and he was one of the largest landowners and pastoralists in West Australia. I think it’s very important not to forget the people who came before us.’
Mrs Rinehart started the process that led to the naming of the Hancock ranges after her father and earlier Hancock pioneers, and she started Australia’s first breast cancer foundation in honour of her mother (Hope Hancock developed cancer when Gina was just a year old, and struggled with the disease for many years before her death in 1983.)
‘Cancer is a terrible disease, and as I have three daughters, I would never want them to fear cancer. I wanted to do some good with the foundation, but it’s also meant that I’ve met some people that I wouldn’t have otherwise met, and I treasure them now, as wonderful friends.’
There has often been intense media interest in Mrs Rinehart’s life, including a current legal dispute with her two eldest children regarding a trust she prevailed upon her father to set up, to include her mother’s shares in Hancock Prospecting (Mrs Rinehart requested to be named the Hope Margaret Hancock Trust in honour of her mother.)
It was Mrs Rinehart’s hard work that caused the value of these shares to skyrocket and consequent problems with capital gains tax if the trust vested and the children called for their shares. She feels that she cannot comment on the case while it’s before the courts.
She does, however, make the point that she is regarded by those who know her as a very loving and devoted mother to her children, and believed that her sacrifices to defend, and build the company were in her children's and grandchildren’s interests.
She was also criticized for her campaign against the Rudd government’s planned mining tax, but tells the Weekly the tax made no sense to her.
‘You don’t highly tax a person, or a company or a country to make them rich. she says.
‘I see how much drain there is on hospitals from people smoking and drinking and I would support higher taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, and it might even help towards paying off the record debt.’
She would happily see more tax dollars spent on supporting defence families, and hospitals and elderly and disabled, and shares with the honorable Alexander Downer an innovative but successful idea, first championed in the US state of Texas, to have non-violent criminals work off their debt to the community, instead of going to prison.
‘Texas was faced with finding billions of dollars for more prisons, but its taxpayers declared no, they don't want to pay more taxes for that,” she says, ‘so they developed a plan to allow non-violent prisoners to work and pay more taxes, all of which saved the cost of building more prisons, and helped with revenue, and it had other benefits, such as lowering the crime rate. Something like this could be utilised in Australia, to save expenditure, wherein non-violent prisoners could be asked to pay back the cost of their crime, and another penalty to the state if they preferred to spend their time working outside of prison. However if they weren’t able to do this, other ideas could include giving up their passports and their voting rights for a certain period of time, depending on the extent of the crime.’
Another of her passions - perhaps surprisingly given the scale of her own projects – is small business (she is patron of the Small Business Association of Australia, whose founder, Anne Nalder, describes Mrs Rinehart as “remarkable, for having turned a small business into a large corporation. She’s an example to all business owners, especially women in business.”)
“Small business have more to fear from government than big business,” Mrs Rinehart says. “It’s one thing for the large companies to devote several office floors, with staff and resources, to seeking to comply with government approvals, permits and licences, but small businesses have to go through the same approval process. How can they cope? Regulations and their expense to both business and taxpayers must be reduced '
She was delighted to see both parties commit themselves to the concept of a special economic zone for the north pre and during the recent Federal election campaign. After all, it was Mrs Rinehart who established the volunteer organisation known as ANDEV (Australians for Northern Development and Economic Vision) in August 2010 as a think tank and to campaign for tax breaks, and reduced regulation for northern Australia.
“Australia cannot afford to neglect this region any longer,’ Mrs Rinehart said, ‘especially given our need to find ways to earn more revenue to repay our debt.’
In her book, Mrs Rinehart says that “almost every home once understood that you had to earn revenue before you could spend it. You had to make choices: it might be nice to have overseas holidays but maybe we should fix the roof, save for a granny flat? We need to get back to these basic understandings, and so do our overspending governments.”
One of Mrs Rinehart’s dearest long-term friends, the larrikin Aussie businessman, John Singleton, agrees that many politicians cannot fathom the scale of investment - and the nerve required - to take on risks of the type that Mrs Rinehart has taken on while trying to build her business.
‘Gina’s book puts our future under the brightest light I have ever seen,’ Mr Singleton said, in the forward.
To this end, the book also includes a cautionary tale from the president of the Atlas Economic Foundation, Dr Alejandro A Chafuen: “I was born in a country, Argentina, which for many decades was as rich, if not richer than Australia,” he says. “Unfortunately, government intervention from left and right drove most business leaders such as Gina Rinehart into exile, or oblivion. Argentina’s economy is now a basket case.
“Mrs Rinehart’s message is release untapped human and economic potential, through respect for the human right to free enterprise. If Australia listens, it still has a chance to shine.”
In an effort to share the central messages from her book – it is subtitled ‘Changes We Need to Make Our Country Rich” - Mrs Rinehart gave the Weekly permission to use these photographs, from her personal archive. She’s particularly fond of the one with her youngest daughter, Ginia, of whom she says, ‘she’s the most like me’ – and of those with her parents, Lang and Hope. “I was lucky to grow up in a close, stable and loving family,’ she says, ‘It may sound unusual in today¹s culture to say that I was privileged to know my parents, but I know I was. And this country has never looked back from Lang Hancock’s flight - but it’s high time we did so.”

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