Real Life

Gina Rinehart’s family feud explained

The billionaire is in the middle of a legal battle with her family, and others, who want a slice of her fortune. Here's what you need to know.
Gina Rinehart

Not even the scriptwriters of drama-charged Succession or Game of Thrones could dream up the war of words and wits playing out in the Western Australian Supreme Court right now, as two of Australia’s richest women, Gina Rinehart and Angela Bennett, fight out a clash-of-titans legal battle.

Accusations and allegations. Lies and betrayals. Fear and loathing. Fraud, theft, power and corruption. Friends turning on friends, children and parents turning on each other, heirs and heiresses at war. Legacies in dispute. Family empires feuding.

In one corner of this billionaire boxing ring is Hancock Prospecting executive chair, Gina Rinehart, 69, Australia’s richest citizen with an estimated worth of $38 billion. In the opposite corner is Angela Bennett, 78, Australia’s fourth-richest citizen with a $4.6 billion fortune, the daughter of Peter Wright, Gina’s father Lang Hancock’s one-time business partner.

Lang Hancock and Peter Wright
One-time business partners Lang Hancock (right) and Peter Wright (left).

Their face-off is for the lands the Indigenous Banyjima people call Karijini – home to Hope Downs, the most state-of-the-art mining complex in the Pilbara. Owned and run by Rinehart’s Hancock Group and Rio Tinto, it produces 30 million tonnes of iron ore annually, a payload worth $4.8 billion with more due in future royalties and equity.

Who found Hope Downs? Who owns it? Who has rights to it? Who cares? With most of us grappling with the cost-of-living crisis, a story on the rich trying to get richer shouldn’t matter. But when it’s Gina Rinehart and her family involved, Australia can’t get enough.

“Gina is one of the most polarising characters in the world.”

So says leading business journalist Ross Greenwood. “Thirty years ago, she inherited her father’s empire and found it on the verge of collapse. Some people might have wilted under that pressure but not Gina. She stood up. She saved the empire and grew it – and kept control.”

It has made her one of the richest, most powerful and feared women on the planet. Rinehart is notoriously private, famously sensitive and infamously litigious – roughly one-third of the people I call for this story dare not go on record for fear of offending her, a familiar refrain being: “Be careful – she’ll take your house and everything in it.”

LANG HANCOCK
West Australian mining magnate Lang Hancock.

“When we look back on the great industrialists, Gina Rinehart will be right up there,” says her former advisor, Jason Morrison, one of the few happy to talk on the record.

“She’s Australia’s richest person but she pays for the privilege of that title by putting 10,000 people on her payroll and paying more tax than anyone else in the country.”

Jason, an ardent defender of Gina in his former life as a radio broadcaster, reckons heartland Australia sees Gina Rinehart for what she is: A patriot trying to give back to the land she loves. “Gina cops a lot of rubbish in the media for being an outspoken woman of conservative values. If she toed the line and self-promoted, she’d get a ‘rails run’ in the media. But she’s private and doesn’t want the limelight.”

Now, with family secrets spilling into the media and skeletons rattling from closets, Gina is under siege from all sides, most dangerously from within her own family. “Money, ego, legacy, control – Gina’s got a huge fight on her hands,” says Ross Greenwood. “She’s resilient and tough but when you’re fighting blood relatives it gets … bloody.”

Gina Rinehart and her father

Georgina Hope Rinehart, like her father, has never been afraid to get her hands dirty. She was raised in the red-sand country of the north-west and her heart is still there. “Gina is most at ease in the bush, in the outback homesteads and on the mine sites, talking to salt-of-the earth people,” says Jason Morrison, her advisor from 2013 to ’15.

“Some mining magnates put on the hard hat and reflective gear just to look the part. But not Gina. When you grow up in remote Australia, you see the enormous hardship Aussies go through battling the elements and trying to tame them to make a life. That’s the authenticity of Gina. She loves places people don’t want to know about.”

Like Wittenoom. The 2016 census had the tiny town’s population at 18. But back when Lang was raising his daughter nearby it was closer to 800, most of them workers at the deadly blue-asbestos mine he had run since 1938 (more than 2000 mine workers and residents died from asbestos-related diseases).

Lang Hancock and Hope Hancock with daughter Gina Hancock.
Lang Hancock and Hope Hancock with daughter Gina Hancock.

In November 1952, so the legend goes, bush pilot Lang and his second wife, Gina’s mother Hope, ducked under storm clouds in his tiny Auster aircraft and glimpsed Pilbara gorges shimmering with oxidised iron. Later investigation led to the realisation he had stumbled on enough iron ore to supply the entire world.

An empire was born and Gina entered it in 1954. Expecting a son, Lang nonetheless called Gina “my right-hand man” and they became inseparable. As a child, she flew all over the world with him as he wheeled and dealed with bankers and sheiks. Gina was still in her teens when her “Iron Man” father said: “She’s a lot tougher than me.”

Lang Hancock struck a royalty agreement with multinational mining corporation Rio Tinto in the late ’60s and the riches flowed, first in a trickle then a torrent. They moved to Perth, where Gina boarded at a private girls’ school as her mother received treatment for breast cancer.

Gina remained a devoted daughter but also became fiercely independent. At 19, she quit a Sydney University economics degree early to rejoin the family firm. In 1976, a newspaper profile on the “richest girl in Australia” said she “tries to be nice to everybody” but “if they disappoint her, annoy her, or in any way seem to threaten her, the friendly filter on the opal-clear eyes drops to reveal a more steely blue.”

That year, she married Englishman Greg Hayward and, at age 22, became a mother, despite few even knowing she was pregnant. “A baby is a very private thing,” Gina explained to The Weekly, which noted, “14 days exactly after John was born, Gina was back at her office desk with Lang. ‘I’ve got to pick up a whole fortnight’s work!’”

Asked to explain that work ethic – she had worked until the day before the birth – Gina said matter-of-factly: “If I’m an unfrustrated person, I’m an unworried mother.”

Gina with her first husband, Greg Hayward.
Gina and her first husband, Greg Hayward.

The soap opera years

Rinehart’s work ethic is indeed legendary but it pales beside her desire for control. “Gina works 24/7, and she runs that empire hands-on, like a large small business,” confirms Jason Morrison. “She’s no ‘poor little rich girl’ either. Gina felt an obligation to carry on her father’s work, learning from his talents and building on his discoveries.”

She also began striking out on her own. After another baby, Bianca, in 1977, she and Greg separated. In 1983, Gina married again, to American lawyer Frank Rinehart, 37 years her senior. That same year, Hope Hancock died. When Gina chose to contest her mother’s will, the once-close father-daughter bond broke and bled out.

The sweeping House of Hancock saga then became a soap opera. Lang married Rose Lacson, his Filipino housekeeper, and built her a castle, Prix d’Amour (Price of Love). Father and daughter exchanged angry letters, later to surface in court. She called him a laughing stock. He called her a “slothful, vindictive and devious baby elephant”.

Lang Hancock and Rose Lacson.
Lang Hancock and Rose Lacson.

When Lang Hancock died in 1992, he left a hot mess of a broken empire behind him. “Gina didn’t sell out her birthright or allow it to be spent or snatched away,” explains Jason. “She sustained it, protected it, then built it up bigger, turning a company with severe financial difficulties into the largest private company in Australia.”

Gina (who had been widowed in 1990) and her stepmother fought in the courts for 11 long years. The press ate up every lurid allegation of adultery, witchcraft and murder-for-hire. Gina alleged Rose was somehow responsible for her father’s death, but a coroner found, twice, that Lang died of natural causes. In the end, Rose kept Prix d’Amour and Gina got sole control of Hancock Prospecting and its burgeoning royalty stream.

Gina’s rise to power

The average Australian salary is $90,000. Gina Rinehart makes that every two minutes. Ross Greenwood says her capabilities as a businesswoman can’t be underestimated. “Gina is tough as nails and pragmatic in her decisions, so justly proud of her achievements. She has battled to maintain control of a very precious portfolio of assets as crooked geologists, greedy governments and every shark in a suit tried to wrestle control.”

In public, she plays the philanthropist. Gina Rinehart has donated an estimated $60 million over the last decade to Australia’s Olympic swimming, volleyball and rowing teams, more than any other sole benefactor in the world. But not everyone wants her money.

In 2022, Diamonds players united behind First Nations team member, Donnell Wallam, asking Netball Australia to reject Gina’s $15 million sponsorship. It was in protest against racist comments made by her father in the 1980s. In the end, Gina withdrew the donation herself.

Gina Rinehart

“Gina has done extraordinary things with the money and teachings her father left her,” says psychologist Tim Watson-Munro. “But what some call philanthropy, others call manipulation.” Tim worked with another WA billionaire, Alan Bond. “I asked: ‘Why didn’t you just stop, travel the world and enjoy it all?’ He told me: ‘It’s not about the money, it’s about the deal’. Money was just sport to him.”

Gina’s own success “is as much a matter of luck as skill,” reckons Ross Greenwood. “The rise of China’s economy sparked the greatest building program the world has ever seen, where a billion people moved to the city and needed iron ore for steel. Gina rode that enormous wave of social change to amass her astonishing fortune.”

Gina became Australia’s richest woman in 2010, our richest person in 2011, and the world’s richest woman in 2012. But did that money buy happiness? “Money changes people,” says Ross. “It changes how you live, where you live, who you live with. Money makes you visible, vulnerable and sometimes paranoid.”

Gina may yet pay a high price for her riches. “Immense wealth often comes with internecine conflict and relationship breakups,” observes Tim Watson-Munro. “Whether it’s a generational fortune or a sudden windfall via Lotto or Powerball, it’s all too easy to blow it all. Vast wealth is hard to manage and it can turn into a horror story.”

Angela Bennett
Angela Bennett (left), daughter of Peter Wright.

The legal battle

This latest court battle is about a deal that is 85 years old and a feud spanning four decades. The legend is that old schoolmates, Lang and Peter, shook hands in 1938 on a deal to share the Hope Downs tenements they had pegged as prospectors in the Pilbara Hamersley Range. That handshake stood firm for almost 50 years.

In 1984, the men moved to divvy up Hanwright assets between families and partners. The story goes that Lang drew two columns on a piece of paper, filling each with assets and told Peter to take his pick. But within three years, Peter was dead and their agreement and asset allocation was entering the first of five decades in dispute.

This year, the old scar reopened in a four-way legal showdown between their families. Although Angela Bennett’s Wright Prospecting is leading the charge in her father’s name, her nieces, Leonie Baldock and Alexandra Burt, also want a piece of the pie. Joining the fray is family company DFD Rhodes, representing the interests of late Pilbara pioneer Don Rhodes, claiming a 1.25 per cent royalty from Hope Downs.

Alexandra Burt and
Leonie Baldock.
Alexandra Burt and Leonie Baldock (with their solicitor), nieces of Angela Bennett.

Hope Downs is very personal to the Rineharts. It is named for Hope Hancock and Gina took title over the site in one of her first actions as executive chairman after her father died. She has spent billions making it a money-making behemoth. Its website also boasts of pumping $300 million in royalties into local First Nations communities.

But the real pain is the fact that Gina is waging war with two of her children. John Hancock, 47, (who adopted his grandfather’s name by deed poll), and Bianca Rinehart, 44, claim to be the rightful owners of Hancock Prospecting’s 50 per cent stake in Hope Downs, as left to them in 1992 by their grandfather in the family trust.

Although Hancock Prospecting accounts detail over $1 billion paid to family members in 2021-22, they have reserved the $4.8 billion in Hope Downs due to the legal dispute. John and Bianca want it now, and accuse their mother of “fraudulent and dishonest design” in denying them the transfer of assets – allegations rejected by their mother.

John Hancock, son of Gina Rinehart.
John Hancock, son of Gina Rinehart.

The WA Supreme Court has heard that, when John Hancock confronted his mother, he was met with a “barrage of lies, threats and intimidation” to prevent him finding out she had “defrauded” him and his siblings of the inheritance, and that she sought to “devalue and destroy” the family trust to “increase her personal wealth at expense of her children”.

John Hancock’s lawyer, Christopher Withers, added that: “This fraud was subsequently covered up by Gina with a false narrative to her children and the public generally, that [Hancock Prospecting’s] success and her own personal success was simply the product of hard work rather than dishonesty.”

Until recently, the arbitration between Gina and her children was confidential due to deeds Bianca and John had signed agreeing to deal with family disputes out of the public eye. Now, it’s coming out as odious proof of what Benjamin Franklin, face of the US $100 bill, once said about money: “Instead of filling a vacuum, it makes one.”

“When money is given, not earned, you don’t get an appreciation of what it’s taken to acquire,” Tim Watson-Munro says. “You’re trading on the fortune of others. With Gina, it evoked a sense of duty. For others, a sense of entitlement.”

Jason Morrison isn’t as tactful: “There’s this army of freeloaders who think they deserve a slice of Gina’s success and this court case is ungrateful people in a feeding frenzy.”

Ross Greenwood says Gina’s reluctance to share or transfer power is understandable. “Whether it’s a family chicken shop or an iron ore empire, kids, as they get older, want a bigger say in how things run. Gina
is a matriarch saying: ‘I need total control for us to survive and prosper’.”

Bianca Rinehart, daughter of mining magnate Gina Rinehart.
Bianca Rinehart, daughter Gina Rinehart.

Gina herself once told the ABC’s Australian Story:

“They say that if you give your children too much, they don’t get the joy out of work. They just want the unearned things to keep falling from the sky … ”

But at 69, she might be hanging onto the reins too tightly.

“Empires have to evolve to survive generational change,” says Ross. “Many family businesses fold because they don’t move with the times. Smart ones trust the next generation to use existing wealth to generate greater wealth.”

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