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Dec 12, 2012

'Mad beyond the dreams of Tamburlaine': Rinehart book reviewed

Gina Rinehart's latest book is weirdly amateur, and portrays the mining magnate as delusional and blind to how she is being perceived, writes literary critic Cameron Woodhead.


“The rich regard wealth as a personal attribute. So do the poor. Everyone is tacitly convinced of it. Only logic makes some difficulties by asserting that the possession of money may perhaps confer certain qualities, but can never itself be a human quality. Closer inspection gives this the lie. Every human nose instantly and unfailingly smells the delicate breath of independence that goes with the habit of commanding, the habit of everywhere choosing the best for oneself, the whiff of slight misanthropy and the unceasing consciousness of responsibility that goes with power, the scent of a large and secure income.”

— Excerpts from rich people’s code of living, The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil

As a literary critic, I’ve reviewed over 2000 books in the course of my career. Only a tiny fraction of those have been self-published. Vanity publishing, as it’s known in the industry, is usually reserved for commercially unviable writing: poetry, truly bizarre fiction, and family histories written for the family.

It’s a funny thing to encounter in the vicinity of Gina Rinehart, the richest woman in the world, who happens to want the Fairfax newspapers as her plaything. Gina is no poet destined to remain obscure — though she does subject us to a bit of sub-Banjo balladeering of a right-wing variety — nor is she chronicling the kind of family history that could only interest the kinsfolk.

No, her recently released bookNorthern Australia and then some: Changes we need to make our country rich — is a big glossy bit of self-promotion by the great dynastic bogey-woman, who is monumentally proud of the more or less undeniable fact that she has made the country rich. What she has produced is a weirdly amateur book which is everywhere inscribed with the signature of someone accustomed to command but it is also — sometimes with a wildcard, unexpected poignancy — the work of someone who is blind to how she is being perceived.

The family history is, of course, steeped in mythology. Her father Lang Hancock’s plane being driven off course on the route from Pilbara to Perth and his consequent discovery of the iron ore bodies reads like a colonial romance, and his fight to create an industry out of his find is a quest narrative — a crusade on behalf of the God of Free Enterprise — which his daughter has continued.

Rinehart might be the inheritor of serendipity, but she’s also (with bells on) the inheritor of her father’s bull-headed genius in developing an industry. There’s a different temperamental inflection, though. Lang Hancock loathed government — he memorably describes it as “sawing sawdust” — and that was understandable given the “pegging ban” that was in place in the ’50s when it was thought iron ore was a limited commodity.

That’s a comprehensible chip on the shoulder to have inherited but Gina, unlike her father, hates the media. Does it come from her fractious dealings with the colourful Rose Porteous, or the way the press reported her falling out with her father and, more recently, some of her children?

Who knows. In practice, it means that she feels empowered to spin her own story. This leads to the somewhat inappropriate effect of the reader having to listen to Rinehart do five finger exercises of the classic neocon variety about trickle down effects and how they help the plight of the poor. It is bizarre to read about the vicissitudes of the have-nots and their desperate need for employment when such special pleading (whatever its partial truth) duplicates the financial interests of a woman of boundless industrial ambition and prowess.

Greed is no doubt too mean a word but only an empress of iron ore could have so little psychological insight into how to talk to and about working people:

“It goes back to something Australians used to understand well; almost every home understood that you had to earn the revenue before you could spend it. Then you had to make choice: it might be nice to have overseas holidays, but maybe we should renovate the bathroom and/or kitchen, fix the roof, do the extension, save for a granny flat, et cetera. Proper planning and allocation within the budget constraints had to occur. This may not be popular, but we need to get back to these basic understanding and, very importantly for Australia, so do our overspending governments.”

This is “let them eat cake” with a vengeance and there’s something a bit sad — and a bit monstrous — about the neat little encapsulation of petit-bourgeois virtue. Look, there’s a truth behind these pieties, but that doesn’t stop them from seeming threadbare slogans to live by when they come from the mouth of the Catherine the Great of the West.

You can see why the golden-cultivated plutocrats of Perth society say the money’s wasted on Gina — then again, something about the blind sincerity of all this (which goes along with the colossal tactlessness) reminds you of her true grit and perhaps of the loneliness that is part of such isolation.

“… there is a terrible cognitive impoverishment which seems comic but then becomes so singular it just seems sad.”

The ideas are mad beyond the dreams of Tamburlaine. Let’s have a special economic zone, Rinehart tells us, where normal labour, immigration and taxation laws don’t apply. Let’s be compassionate to the poor beleaguered Japanese victims of the tsunami by getting the skilled ones to work in our mines. God Almighty, as they used to say when I was studying law, Cui bono?

Rinehart, of course, would say we would all benefit along with her, but it’s not hard to detect the total delusional inability to grasp any feasible politics.

Those who come to scoff at this book will get off on the rat-a-tat doggerel of Rinehart’s poetry. Here’s a poem proffered in honour of that model of civic probity, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen:

You travelled far and earned great fame, but always you stayed loyal
To family and friends who supported you with time and love and toil.
You spread decency and honour, pride in family and Queen.
And when others wavered from their path, your conscience remained clean.
We can admire the Sir Joh legacy just by looking around your state.
Parkinson’s has laid you low, but you will always be
The very best Queenslander, especially for me.

Well, tell that to Tony Fitzgerald and his royal commission. In fact, if you overlook the Genghis Khan-like sentiments, Gina’s verses are the kind of naïve art — articulate, with some command of metre — that might arouse the admiration of neighbours in the local paper.

The book’s language is at its most alive when it is talking about business. You can hear the seductiveness when it speaks about “ferruginous manganese” and “greenfields explorations” and sometimes, when she’s talking about Lang, she writes with flawless clarity: “He explored in the heat, with snakes as companions …”

There are all sorts of flickers of sympathy in this far-out, unlovable book. Good on her for quoting Longfellow and depicting her mother, Hope, flying a light airfcraft when Lang suffered an allergic reaction to penicillin. The sad thing about Rinehart, for all the fierce majesty of her achievement, is that it has left her so paranoid and so distrustful. She has created such a limited mythology around herself and she is incapable of engaging in a meaningful way with her enemies. This diminishes her in the process of diminishing them.

But the mockery this book positively invites by the heat of its propagandist self-exultation is, in the end, inappropriate to the reality of Rinehart.

The woman is not blind to the fact of her inheritance but she thinks she deserves it and (grudging though we all are) she’s not exactly wrong. That vertiginous belief in the divinity of the work ethic is the mythology that sustains the woman, but there’s no doubt she is a great captain of industry. She has comprehensively expanded and developed and enriched what was given her by her father.

And, yes, she does want to invest in Australia with an impassioned patriotism that goes hand in glove with her self-interest. Of course she wants to keep the country out of recession.

At the same time there is a terrible cognitive impoverishment which seems comic but then becomes so singular it just seems sad. What on earth is this great Australian bunyip of a woman doing embracing the policies of the American Right and saying that we should have a referendum on every new tax law? The fact that she can’t see this as self-interest is what gives her such a blind, infatuated quality, with more than a hint of tragedy.

Well, I’m also a drama critic. Before it bombed like the end of a mineral boom, the Melbourne Theatre Company was talking up Robyn Nevin’s Queen Lear with reference to Rinehart. I think, too, of that great sardonic modernist Robert Musil in The Man Without Qualities: the rich come to think of wealth as a personal attribute, a moral virtue the dispossessed lack, they allow themselves the faint whiff of misanthropy.

We are all like this about whatever qualities we have. Rinehart has the keys to the wealth of the nation, and she’s mad as a snake about the power and glory of her right to run it all.

This is a book that reveals a woman for whom love, work and money are indistinguishable, a woman who has so much, and yet so little.

*Cameron Woodhead reviews books and theatre in Melbourne for The Age



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32 thoughts on “‘Mad beyond the dreams of Tamburlaine’: Rinehart book reviewed

  1. MJPC

    Thank you for an amusing analysis of a book I proudly admit will never grace my bookshelves.
    I am certain many a LNP bookshelf it will grace (they love tomes that advocate shafting the working class) however, even when it shortly gravitates to the $5 bargain table, ordinary Australians will not be tempted to buy such drivel.
    The poem (and your Fitzgerald comments) about Bjelke says it all, as does the quote regarding Lang exploring in the heat with snake companions; a bit cruel to the memory of Rose.

  2. Coaltopia

    “The very best Queenslander, especially for me.”

    Well, it’s tempting to say “archetypal” instead of best. But really “base” is perhaps the “best” word.

    (And really there’s nothing wrong with suggesting that people should avoid rushing to credit and should reign-in debt, even for the sneering super-rich – there’s a bunch more wrong with Gina than that – e.g. her funding of climate change denial).

  3. zut alors

    The Sir Joh tribute is cringeworthy.

    I want to read the stuff Rinehart didn’t include in the book.

  4. Andybob

    Gah, there is poetry after all; has she no mercy ?

  5. mikeb

    If SBS want someone to feature in a new “In their shoes” type program about living as the working poor I’d invite Gina to particpate. Difficult choices regarding the os trip or renovating might take a back seat…..and Sir Joh had a clear conscience because he was delusional as well.

  6. Christopher Nagle

    This was a difficult review to do and must have been done as an extreme call-of-duty. And somehow it was crafted so as not to play caricature to caricature. I could imagine that if her name had been Imelda Marcos, it would have been no easier. There is an almost exquisite relationship between her lack of self awareness, her ideological narrowness and her immense power and wealth; like Don Qixote in an Abrahms tank and on steroids. The combination is both fascinating and appalling.

  7. Holden Back

    You left out the important stuff: what are the mustache-drawing and tooth-blackening opportunities like?

  8. CML

    At least we had one great lady of wealth in this country. Pity Gina didn’t follow the example of Lady Elisabeth Murdoch, instead of Joh BP.
    Then she could have written a book worth reading!

  9. Microseris

    Still waiting for someone to explain how she can make $50M per day digging up and shipping out our non renewable resources and we are not entitled to a greater share.

    Its still not enough for her though.

  10. Malcolm Street

    You would probably find that Gina’s ideal household would be servicing a mortgage and quite possibly a car loan as well. IOW, they’d have significant debts for long-term infrastructure. This is where the Right wing lauding of household finances as a model for government breaks down.

  11. IC-1101

    I think people attack Rinehart simply because she’s rich. There is a lot of hostility towards wealth in this country and it is concerning. The young have this mentality that greed is exclusive to capitalism, which is far more narrow-minded than Rinehart’s beliefs as to economics and policy.

    “What on earth is this great Australian bunyip of a woman doing embracing the policies of the American Right and saying that we should have a referendum on every new tax law? The fact that she can’t see this as self-interest is what gives her such a blind, infatuated quality, with more than a hint of tragedy.”


    So wait: a person of wealth is not allowed to advocate for a system that allows private ownership and capital growth? Also, you’re generalising: just because she’s rich, doesn’t mean her thoughts on policy are driven by intentions of enhancing well. You’re assuming, and it’s dangerous.

    I get frustrated when support for conservative fiscal policy is considered self-interest and greedy.

    It has nothing to do with that.

    She is not advocating for more money. She’s advocating AGAINST something. This is not about making lots of money. It’s about making sure individuals have the freedom to one day be as rich as her. Yes, only 1% of us will rich that mark, but the capacity, the freedom do it is what she advocates.

    The Left is ruthless towards the wealthy in this country. It’s a little sad. Kind of akin to the hostility towards intellectuality in Weimar Germany. Both sides are capable of such hostility. We’re seeing it in Australia now.


  12. Gungaroo

    I enjoyed reading this review, and I don’t think it would be unkind to assume that Gina won’t understand a word of it. Unless of course she hires someone to translate it for her.

  13. baabaablacksheep

    Poetry in motion
    She needs no improvement

  14. Limited News

    She kind of has a point regarding household debt – Australia’s private debt-to-GDP ratio is unsustainable. However she seems to be approaching the problem from a moral standpoint rather than identifying the main beneficiaries – the banks. Also Australian governments are not highly indebted at all, so her imported Tea Party analogy is pretty poor.

  15. Patriot

    Have you even asked if you can go and dig up your share, Microseris? You might get a surprise. I can lend you a pick, a shovel and a wheelbarrow but you’ll need to arrange your own boat to get your ore to China.

  16. Bob the builder

    I’m glad you didn’t give in to the temptation to make jokes about Vogons and poetry.
    Seriously though, isn’t it time someone looked into the Hancock myth? The legendary Don McLeod, prominent organiser of the bizarrely forgotten 1946 Pilbara Strike, gives details in the fascinating book How the West was lost (detailing the decades of rip-offs perpetrated against Aboriginal people – the people who started the mining industry in the Pilbara until, after many decades, the big multinationals finally succeeded in forcing them out).

  17. Moira Smith

    Re Sir Joh …. ‘your conscience remained clean’ ha ha ha LOL etc.

    She has the right idea re fundamentals of household management, many of us do it all the time, obsessively (whereas she doesn’t have to). But anyone who can write “it might be nice to have overseas holidays, but maybe we should … fix the roof” clearly hasn’t the faintest idea about what it’s like to live on an income that not only rules out overseas holidays but forces people to choose between medicine and food.

    I have no hostility towards the well-off, just towards the incredibly well-off who have no idea what it’s like to live on an impossibly small income and then pass judgement on those who do . That’s not me any more thank goodness (I can fix the roof but still shop at Vinnies). What really gets my goat is the idea that if people can’t manage financially, it’s *their* fault. Whereas basic arithmetic says that if rent plus electric plus bus fares plus medicine plus food (if we really want to push the boat out) is more than income, you can budget as much as you want and it just won’t work. Ask any Newstart recipient.

    CML said the right stuff.

  18. Rohan


    I have zero problem with wealth per se and great respect for highly successful self-made entrepeneurs, but what grates about Rinehart is her inability to provide clear evidence of having amassed her wealth through “hard work”.

    Her reluctance to argue her case in the public spotlight (unlike Clive Palmer or Twiggy Forest), and the poorly explained, half-baked ideologies she puts forward on the rare occasions she does pop her head up really set my bullshit meter off.

  19. Tom Jones

    That is not poetry – it is pure doggerel. Cruelty to poetry in fact.

    IC1101 – Gina is not advocating that one day we all can be as rich as her – she is advocating that the workers take far less to give others like herself more. The mathematics absolutely rule out everyone being as wealthy as Gina.

  20. pat drane

    Ahhh Winston (who worried about solvency most of his long life) had it when he famously rejoindered – “but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly”.

    Gina definitely won’t pass through the eye of a needle.

  21. pat drane

    And who was it said:

    “What is prudent for the individual cannot be folly for a great nation!!”

    Gina is really saying the same thing – as a plumpish versifier.

    Don’t be so hard on the lady – why are you all afraid of strong independent (if somewhat dowdy) women who inherited and built on great wealth, and had trouble with their children? The Queen anyone?

    Cameron’s piece is just sexism & misogyny — sexism….misogyny….call it out whenever you see it.

  22. MJPC

    Ic-1101: Not certain the historical facts of anti intellectualism in Weimar Germany, but will comment on why distrust of wealth in Australia.
    It’s patently simple in my mine; at every opportunity certain weathy (usually mining magnates) take the opportunity to increase their wealth (read greed) at the expense of the normal populace, being it attempting to pay less tax (or no tax), advocating industrial reform (read lower wages/conditions), or cut backs on welfare.
    At this point, they then decry a socialist government for wasting money in social and environmental reforms (carbon tax/mining tax) when they sre doing quite nicely because they operate in a stable democracy, where the populace have free healthcare, school education and a comfortable standard of living. The populace is not in revolt like many other parts of the world.
    The Gina Rineharts of this world, to paraphrase Goldfinger, see the world and want it all providing someone else pays for all of the other trappings that make a civilised society.
    The greatest counter to those “paramounts of virtue” is democracy because without it they could have the best politicians that money can buy. Having said that, the current enquiry in NSW is showing just what can happen when the system fails, the grestest crime of the whole affair being it was ALP government ministers and others who have been corrupt. Once again, the ugly face of capitalism and greed.

  23. Geoff England

    La Reinhardt is a puffed up moral vacuum. No more no less. She is not fit to make any kind of moral statements of any kind. While she is the inheritor of her father’s vast empire she is neither responsible for it not it’s continuing success. She is merely the current vessel of that wealth. And in my view an unrepentant elite with no regard for anything or anyone that does not turn a profit for her.

  24. Coaltopia

    Misogyny? Hardly. Anyone should be called out for being a miser to their children and charity, a climate change denier and major contributor (GVK) and contributor to The IPA. Is that the same with Clive except his children who he gives boats?

  25. Christopher Nagle

    I know it is a bit ‘rich’ for someone like GR to advise the poor on their financial conduct. However, she is nevertheless dead right, and the petite-bourgoise apologists for ‘the poor, dispossessed and the marginalized’ are simply excuse makers for their ‘consistituency’.

    My Greek migrant wife and her family lived together in a single room in a shared house until the daughters were 13 and 15 respectively. Their father was an alcoholic, but mum, who worked as laundress, squirrelled away enough money to buy a cheap house. It took her nearly ten years of freezing in winter and sweating in summer, working on a laundry press, to put the money together. And then she put both her girls through tertiary institutions in the days when it cost up front.

    So I say to the petite bourgeoise indulgentsia, don’t give me too much bullshit about what the poor can and can’t do. They are as capable of iron discipline and resolve as anyone else. Nor are they any less capable of grasping the golden opportunity that an affluent society can deliver to people with will to take it.

    Beneath the veneer of empathic good will that is exercised by the petit bourgeoisie, is a contempt that embodies itself in a belief that the people they feel sorry for are helpless incompetents.

  26. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    OMG. I really have to resist temptation to photoshop that poetry onto a photo of sunset/waterfall/opencut mine and replace my facebook banner with it. MOAR!!!

  27. Bo Gainsbourg

    the analogy about prudent households is dumb and doesn’t work. Most average households in Australia are in debt most of their lives. ITs called a mortgage, and its sensible debt to invest in security for later on, in a lot of cases lucky kids get to pay it off or turn it to cash rather than having to start from scratch. By contrast our government has much less debt that the average aussie. oh and by the way, Joh Bielke Pietersen was a crook, as the Fitzgerald inquiry clearly found, people who idolise that kind of behaviour we should be very wary of.

  28. Christopher Nagle

    Bjelkes may have been a corrupt tropical fascist bastardo, but he left his state solvent, which is more than could be said for the ideologically sound good guy social democrats in the progressive south of the country at that time.

    Queenslanders never had to endure the unedifying spectactle of the Kirner government selling off the Kew mental asylum site to Central Equity (which made a squillion out of the deal)for a miserable $15 million, just to pay the wages of the bureacracy, because it and its predecessors didn’t know how to recognize and manage crooks.

    Bjelkes did. Bless is miserable rotten heart.

  29. bjb

    GR’s wealth is entirely built on the gift of the State. She didn’t create then minerals, or the demand for them. Lang Hancock didn’t own the land at Hammersley, he only had a State granted right to explore. According to Adele Ferguson’s excellent book, LH (and subsequently GR) get a 2.5% royalty, while the traditional owners get an execrable 0.05%. Fair ?

  30. gomaxwell

    Good Comment,
    Of course Ms Rinehardt actually believes in the Right Wing solution to the Australian and the world’s problems for that matter. The Right wing is indeed an Ideology, but it does not meet My Expectations.

  31. Christopher Nagle

    I hear people talking about GR as a ‘right winger’. This doesn’t really tell us anything much other than the writer doesn’t like or approve of her politics. It is a stereotype based on an ideological cliche that saves on having to think very hard.

    I think notions of ‘left’ and ‘right’ and ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ are way past use-by date. I am dead certain that previous generations of Marxist thinkers would have regarded the modern self styled ‘left’ as a petite bourgeoise disorder with a labelling fetish.

    She is ‘only’ demanding that we do what the Communist Party of China is doing as an economic success mechanism. In the short term, if we ignore what she is saying, there is a fair chance we will rapidly find ourselves with nothing else to do outside the mining industry, except sell each hamburgers.

    In the slightly longer term, it would make much more sense to characterize GR et al as radical fantasists with lemming tendencies, as she and her international oligarchic mates collectively frog jump us on the last march of consumer capitalism, over an existential and economic cliff, and into post-modern times.

  32. dropBear

    considering the quality of gina’s poetry i believe it is necessary to update the “hitchhikers guide to the galaxy”.

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