The world’s biggest family feud

If asked to name the world’s biggest family feud in terms of bust-ups, acrimony - and money - then the battle between Australian mining billionaire Gina Rinehart and a number of her children must take poll position.

At the heart of the feud is control of one of the biggest mining operations in the world, called Hancock Prospecting, which holds more rights to mine the world’s biggest iron ore reserves located in the state of Western Australia than any other company.

The battle and the characters involves, especially that of Rinehart, have not only consequences for Australia’s biggest family business, but also for politics and the environmental movement in the country and beyond.

Rinehart controls Hancock and that makes her Australia’s richest person with a fortune estimated by Forbes at US$15.9bn. The 60 year-old executive chairman of Hancock also has four children – John and Bianca from her first marriage, and Hope and Ginia from her second.

With the exception of the youngest, Ginia, who appears to have stayed loyal to her mother, the three other children have contested at one time the empire their mother controls and a trust set up by their grandfather, Lang Hancock, where the empire began. It’s worth billions, independent estimates say as much as AUS$7bn.

What’s at stake isn’t just billions of dollars but also control of Hancock  - and what member of the third generation is likely to take over the business when Rinehart either retires, or dies. Rinehart once said that nothing would get in the way of the House of Hancock, but it appears increasingly that her kids are, or at least three of them.

The latest episode in the saga involves Rinehart’s two eldest children John and Bianca launching a case against their mother and their two younger half-sisters, Ginia and Hope in Australia’s federal court. Reports in the Australian media say the two eldest children have made “serious allegations” about their mother in relation to her ownership of mining empire. Hancock has also been named as a defendant in the case.

Rinehart’s legal team has responded that the accusations “are very grave allegations against my clients”.

This latest twist in the inter-generational feud is on top of a case involving appointments of trustees to the Hope Margaret Hancock trust, which is still being deliberated on by one of the country’s state supreme courts.

Rinehart and her legal team have attempted with some success to keep all these court cases out of the public domain. Her eldest children aren’t so shy and want more public disclosure, saying it is in the interest of “open justice”.

The ongoing feud has helped to raise Rinehart’s profile in Australia - and indeed abroad. In Australia, she is a divisive figure, with support from many sections of the country’s big mining lobby, but hated in equal measures by environmentalists and those arguing for more taxes on the big mining interests in the country.

In recent years she has attempted to influence the media to take a more favourable line towards mining, buying stakes in a number of media companies. This has only fuelled her opponents’ ire towards her.

Her father once said:

"Mining in Australia occupies less than one-fifth of one percent of the total surface of our continent and yet it supports 14 million people. Nothing should be sacred from mining whether it’s your ground, my ground, the blackfellows' (aborigines') ground or anybody else’s.”

For two generations of Hancocks mining - and control of those mines –-is everything. It remains to be seen whether any members of the third generation will be able, or indeed want to, take on that legacy.