By Ellen FanningJune 25, 2012
It was easy to dismiss Lang Hancock as an old rogue. A prospector with some mad ideas. But he was brutal when politicians wouldn’t bend to his will. Will his daughter use the same approach?
Some 25 years ago as a young journalist in Brisbane, I seem to recall being sent along to cover a press conference in Brisbane featuring the peanut-farming Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, seated alongside his friend the 'Man of Iron', 'King of the Pilbara', West Australian mining magnate Lang Hancock.
The two were keen to go into business with a brutal communist dictator in Europe, Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu.
Even those in the room with perfect shorthand struggled to keep up with the details of the plan which involved sending Queensland coal to Romania and an iron ore handling facility on the Black Sea. More big ideas from the sort of characters only frontier Australia can produce.
You know the type. They usually wear big hats even if they don't have cattle, and simply don't exist in Sydney or Melbourne. You still find them in Western Australia and Queensland to this day. Mining entrepreneur Clive Palmer springs to mind, even without the hat. During a recent press conference to announce he wants to run for Parliament, journalists were left wondering which story to file, after he mentioned in passing that he was rebuilding the Titanic.
Unlike his reclusive only child, Gina — today the world's richest woman — Hancock found such media conferences great sport.
Invited to recount some of his more fanciful suggestions, he'd happily detail his plan to have indigenous Australians, particularly "no good half castes" lured to a central location, where he would dope the water to render them sterile, so they would "breed themselves out in the future". (One can only imagine the dismay of the children he's said to have sired with indigenous women back home in Western Australia. If true, Gina has up to eight half brothers and sisters, all of them indigenous. One indigenous woman who claims to be Hancock's daughter looks so like Gina, she says she was mistaken for the white tycoon at a mining conference in the mid-1980s.)
It was easy to be distracted by such lunatic ideas as poisoning aborigines. Just as Joh Bjelke had publicly championed Milan Brych (a quack with a fake cure for cancer who was jailed in the United States in the 1980s), so Lang had his long list of eccentric characters and causes. It's worth remembering that Hancock was passionate about a proposal to use nuclear blasts to create deep-water ports in Western Australia.
While all this made great copy and generated mirth and outrage in equal proportions among sophisticated city types, it camouflaged a frontier-style political philosophy, which has less in common with the agrarian socialism ofrespectable old Australian Country Party types in their tweed jackets and knitted woollen ties than with the cowboys of the wild west of America. In those frontier lands beyond the reach of government, the biggest man in town calls the shots; what is best for him is best for everyone.
For Hancock, this philosophy allowed him to place himself in the centre of a world in which a bold, visionary entrepreneur could only look upon governments and the idea of the common wealth with disdain. Forced therefore into constant battle with the state to preserve what he considered was rightly his, the frontier philosophy for Hancock could be summed up as, "I've got mine, you go get yours."
Hancock's dealings with Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen were the exception. One of Queensland's most distinguished public servants, Sir Leo Hielscher, recalls that such was the influence of Hancock on the Premier, it was pointless trying to dissuade Sir Joh from pursuing the Ceausescu deal; instead Sir Leo was forced to board the "Joh Jet" and fly to Romania with the Premier and Hancock to meet "the little dictator".
Hielscher found the whole episode farcical.
"We should have been able to go to him [Joh] here [in Brisbane] and say it's a load of baloney. But he was too far in Lang's pocket," he recalls in an archival interview for a Queensland government website. Then he corrects himself. "Well, not in his pocket but under his influence."
Already Gina has followed in her father's footsteps in exercising political influence. In one of the most vivid political images of recent times, in June 2010, she joined fellow mining billionaire Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest, climbed onto the back of a flat bed truck outside the Prime Minister's hotel in Perth, crying "Axe the tax!", a reference to Kevin Rudd's proposed mining "super profits" tax which sought to claw back for all Australians more of the benefits of the greatest mining boom in the nation's history. Within two weeks of that protest, Rudd had been deposed as PM.
As respected business reporter Adele Ferguson writes in her new book, Gina Rinehart: The Untold Story of the Richest Woman in the World, to be published this week: "It would become one of the most effective campaigns to blindside an Australian federal government since the sacking of Gough Whitlam as prime minister nearly 35 years earlier."
Now, as many Australians worry and wonder about just how Rinehart will seek to extend her influence over the media through her interests in Australia's Ten Network television company and the Fairfax newspapers, it's perhaps timely to remember what Lang Hancock considered acceptable behaviour in pursuit of his own commercial interests.
The legendary example of this was the long-running, bitter dispute between Lang Hancock and another larger-than-life Australian premier, who unlike Sir Joh would not bend to the mining magnate's will.
Sir Charles Court endured a vicious, personal campaign against him which he attributed to his refusal to allow Hancock carte blanche in his efforts to develop the iron ore deposits he had discovered in the Pilbara region, in the north of the state (a task that was achieved only by Gina Rinehart, following her father's death).
For his part, Hancock considered that Sir Charles - who should have been a like mind: pro-development, anti-Aboriginal rights, parochial and right wing - was persecuting him and deliberately obstructing him.
Lang and Sir Charles had been friends. Both were bull headed and driven," according to former ABC journalist Bob Pride, who would later make an epic documentary on Hancock's life and times, funded to the tune of $180,000 by the mining magnate.
"As a minister dealing with Hancock, Court took the view that resources belonged to the State. He was effectively saying, 'It's not yours, it's ours.' And that's where the roads divided," says Pride.
Pride recalls the feud became so bad that as Premier, Sir Charles refused to have any business relating to Hancock cross his desk. Hancock and Court lived in the same Perth suburb of Nedlands, and Pride says Hancock resorted to walking around to Court's mail box to hand-deliver letters pleading his case.
Last week his son Richard Court, who describes himself as a friend of Gina's, was reluctant to recount the details of Hancock's campaign against Sir Charles. Instead, he referred The Global Mail to a biography of his father, written by Ronda Jamieson and published late last year.
Richard Court suggested reading chapter 15, entitled "Power versus Wealth". It recounts in intricate detail the two decades of bitter warring between Sir Charles, who held the power - first as a minister for Industrial Development and the North West in the Brand Liberal Government and later as the long-time Premier - and Hancock, who had the wealth.
It should serve as a reminder that if its interests were threatened, the House of Hancock was willing to turn its power on anyone, even a giant on the conservative side of politics.
According to the biography, Hancock and his partner, Peter Wright, "ignored the basic principle that mineral deposits belonged to the state and had to be applied for and then developed according to imposed conditions". Court is quoted as saying that Hancock thought he could "take over the Mines Department. It was as blatant as that."
When Court resisted, Hancock made it clear that he loathed him and wanted to see an end to his political career. Court notes that Hancock and Wright were "quite unscrupulous" in their efforts to achieve that end.
Along the way, even Rupert Murdoch was a casualty.
He had talked with Hancock and Wright about working with them to develop some iron ore deposits. Hancock claimed that, in an effort to get Court to negotiate, Murdoch warned Court that he would get "a headline a day or a bucket of shit every day" in his newspapers. Murdoch and Court denied any such conversation.
Murdoch wrote to Sir Charles in 1993, saying, "I often look back with regret at allowing myself to be tempted into involvement with them."
By 1970, still unable to get his own way, Hancock convinced the hapless Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton to take a secret trip to the Pilbara.
Court remembers that afterwards, the PM hinted that if the state government blocked Hancock’s plans, Canberra would step in — a position that left Court in an untenable political predicament until Gorton was deposed as Liberal leader by Billy McMahon.
In a development that has powerful resonances today, two years prior to the 1971 West Australian election, Hancock and Wright had set up a Sunday newspaper, The Independent, which campaigned against Court and the Brand Government.
Longtime Perth talkback radio host Howard Sattler was a reporter on the paper.
"It was set up exclusively to have a shot at Charlie Court and his Government.
"They found the [iron ore] deposits. They wanted to open mines and get licences and Charlie wouldn't give them to 'em. So they thought the way to go about this — this is pretty ironic [given Gina's increasing media ownership] — was to open a newspaper and use the newspaper to push the barrow.
"Their editorials were almost exclusively having a shot at him [Sir Charles]."
The Labor party emerged victorious with a one-seat majority.
While the Court biography records "it is impossible to judge whether these attacks influenced the election result," the documentary-maker Bob Pride recalls, "I think it was a important factor in the outcome of the election."
After the election, a psychiatric study of Court's mental state circulated among journalists, which concluded that Court was "emotionally and otherwise psychiatrically unsuited to be a minister or to have a position of responsibility".
The report was dismissed by the head of WA's mental health services as "quite unethical, stupid and off the point"; the biography notes at least one journalist offered to testify that he had been shown the report by Lang Hancock.
Hancock later put out a 27-page booklet called The Great Claim Robbery in which he raised the issue of Court's mental fitness for office and other imagined political and personal faults.
Court's lawyers advised that if he sued he could expect damages as high as $2 million dollars, and they noted that "the subsequent discussion [of the matter] in Parliament made people realise with a certain revulsion, the lengths to which Hancock and Wright were prepared to go in their lust for power and money."
Court didn't sue, telling his biographer he instead decided to "swallow hard and press on in the interests of the State."
The year 1970 also saw an effort by one journalist to suggest that Sir Charles was corrupt and had half a million dollars stashed away in banks in Hong Kong and Singapore, a completely unfounded claim.
The biography reveals that Court believed Hancock was behind the claims.
Sir Charles won two separate defamation cases over the claims, the legal action dragging on until Christmas 1976.
Even after the claims were completely discredited, they were revived in a pamphlet headed "Court in the Act" which was delivered to personal letterboxes throughout metropolitan Perth 11 days before the 1974 election.
The biography notes that Hancock was thought responsible for the pamphlet.
Court won the 1974 state election with a convincing majority.
He won a second term in 1977. Afterwards, Court believed that Hancock was trying to discover whether he was cheating on his wife, which, according to the biography, left Sir Charles "mighty angry" and his wife, Rita, "not amused".
As Court's long Premierships continued, the Hancock camp even hatched a plan in 1977 to influence the pre-selection of sympathetic National Party candidates in the hope they might "neutralise" the Liberal Court. Court eventually retired in 1982 at the age of 70.
In an interview in 2005 he said that Hancock's objectives were "essentially selfish and personal".
"Always at the end of the road it was what was in it for him, not for the state. He used the words, he was doing this for the good of the state and the nation but when it came down to the final nitty gritty, it was always his over-riding interests."
The chapter concludes, "even though Hancock and Wright's contributions to the iron ore industry were significant, the innuendo and untruths Hancock used to try to discredit Charles Court were a constant distraction... Nevertheless, he won the battle over rational resource development to benefit all Australians, rather than the few."
Gina Rinehart grew up amid all this, being inculcated with her father's view of the world.
Clearly, she is not an identikit of her father. As her biographer Ferguson has noted, these days influence is peddled much more quietly, behind the scenes. But she does appear to have inherited his doggedness. Rinehart's epic legal disputes with her step-mother, Rose Porteous, and her current legal battles with her own children are testament to that.
The lesson from the West might be that fighting for the national interest — if it conflicts with the private interests of the House of Hancock — can be brutal. Like Sir Charles, those dedicated to the public interest should always be ready for a fight.
Court eventually retired in 1982 at the age of 70, and died in 2007, aged 96.