31/08/2011 - 11:19

Feuding families set to lock horns again

31/08/2011 - 11:19

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Gina Rinehart may not like it, but she’s about to come under the spotlight again.

LIFE is never boring for Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart, though a number of recent events indicate a looming period of extra excitement, including the potential revival of a long-running legal dispute, and an unwelcome boost to her global profile.

The Supreme Court of WA is where the most interesting action could take place because it involves a return bout of the dispute with the Wright family, which was once close to her father, the late Lang Hancock.

New York is where Mrs Rinehart kicked off her return to the headlines, with the Perth-based multi-billionaire attracting the attention of two of that city’s leading publications.

Forbes magazine fired the first shot in the latest game of Rinehart watching when she was named the world’s 19th most influential woman, four places ahead of the prime minister, Julia Gillard.

The New York Times is expected to be next media cab off the rank with plans to publish a major feature article on Mrs Rinehart, with or without her cooperation.

The fact that The New York Times sent a team to Perth is flattering. The fact that Mrs Rinehart apparently declined to be interviewed – and that several people in Perth asked for opinions about the state’s richest person also shied away from an opportunity to talk – adds a touch of spice to what might be written about her, and the power elite of Perth.

There is a suspicion that we are about to cop a blast for small-town attitudes despite being the epicentre of a global resources boom. Perhaps that’s the price of fame and, in Mrs Rinehart’s case, fortune.

How the international media views Western Australia might be interesting, but it is also largely irrelevant compared with the importance of the never-ending debate that swirls around a disputed deal between Hancock and his long-time partner Peter Wright.

It is a two-page agreement the two old men drafted 28 years ago that lies at the heart of what’s been happening, and what might happen. Intended to be a way of preventing families falling out, the document has become the centrepiece in a feud of Shakespearian proportions.

Last year, the Hancock/Rinehart and Wright/Bennett families had a big day in the Supreme Court when the Wright/Bennett crew had confirmed in their names a 50 per cent stake in the disputed Rhodes Ridge iron ore deposit, a lump of the Pilbara worth squillions of dollars in the current boom.

Until that decision was made, Mrs Rinehart was claiming that she owned 25 per cent of Rhodes Ridge, the Wright/Bennett families 25 per cent, with mining giant Rio Tinto owning the residual half.

Appeals on the Rhodes Ridge decision will undoubtedly make their way to the High Court, eventually.

In the meantime, it seems the Supreme Court win for the Wrights/Bennetts has encouraged them to take a bold step closer to Mrs Rinehart’s cash machine by arguing that they are also entitled to a share of the producing Hope Downs mine.

An iron ore prospect in the bush is one thing. A producing mine is on a completely different scale and Mrs Rinehart can be expected to fight fiercely to keep anyone away from Hope Downs, which, apart from the cash, is named after her mother, Hope Nicholas.

To put Hope Downs into perspective, it is rising to an annual output of 45 million tonnes of ore worth an estimated $7.6 billion a year, with about $4 billion sticking as profit and $2 billion (a year) of that flowing to Mrs Rinehart.

Unknowns in this emerging situation are many, such as whether the Wrights/Bennetts simply want a royalty on Hope Downs production, or half of Mrs Rinehart’s 50 per cent.

Given several years of media silence it is unlikely that Mrs Rinehart will be speaking publicly. Even placing calls to her office requesting a comment has become a waste of everyone’s time.

However, if the Wrights/Bennetts pursue their claim to a slice of Hope Downs, especially after playing a game of document discovery with Rio Tinto, Mrs Rinehart might have to find time to make an appearance in court to defend the current centrepiece of her empire.

Heave ho

BETTER news for Mrs Rinehart, a famous climate-change sceptic, is the continuing reluctance of Australians to embrace the proposed carbon tax, and a report that global warming (man-made or a part of a natural cycle) is being treated as a welcome development in the far north of the world.

The warmest months in the Northern Hemisphere have witnessed a revival of attempts to forge a new shipping route linking Europe with Asia.

Best known of those is the North West Passage, a tricky trail that weaves its way around Canadian islands linking the Pacific Ocean (via the Bering Straits) and a channel between Baffin Island and Greenland into the Atlantic.

A dream of explorers for centuries the famous ‘passage’ has proved notoriously difficult, and deadly in some cases.

The latest thinking about opening the northern route linking Europe and Asia has expanded beyond the ‘passage’, with shippers planning a fresh attack on a direct route, aided by ice-breakers, to sail over the top of the North Pole, cutting 7,000 kilometres off the distance between Tokyo and Rotterdam, saving time and millions of dollars in shipping costs.

Who said global warming was bad?

Not hot stocks

A SECOND example of the climate-change argument failing to gain traction can be measured (on a daily basis) on the stock exchange, where companies that stand to benefit from proposed government investment in so-called clean power technologies are failing to fire.

A basket of clean-power stocks tracked over the past few years shows that, since early January, when Ms Gillard changed her mind about a carbon tax, all such companies have continued to slide lower.

In theory, stocks such as Geodynamics (hot rocks), Infigen Energy (wind), Quantum and Dyesol (solar), and Ceramic Fuel (fuel cells), should be magnets for investors. They’re not.

Geodynamics is down from 37.5 cents at the start of the year to around 25 cents. Infigen is down from 55 cents to 26.5 cents. Quantum is down from 7.5 cents to 3 cents. Dyesol is down from 73 cents to 46 cents and Ceramic Fuel is down from 16.5 cents to 15 cents.

Perhaps, with government funding, they will all do better, and might even work as promised one day. Maybe.

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“When fortune smiles, what need of friends.”

Euripides


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