“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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