The COP26 climate conference in Glasgow is finally underway and one thing is certain: the nation of Australia will show its ass.
Since the country’s conservative government repealed a national carbon tax in 2014, climate change has driven Australia insane. In 2015, the man who is now prime minister brought a lump of coal into parliament and waved it around, yelling: “Don’t be scared! Don’t be afraid!” A prominent government MP regularly paints his face black to look like a coal miner and prints bumper stickers reading “Black Coal Matters.” The government’s policy to get Australia to net-zero carbon pollution by 2050, which was announced last week, is based on economic modeling that hasn’t been written yet.
For a country that regularly bursts into flame, this is a weird way to go about things. It only makes sense when know that Australia has a massive mining industry, which has created a crop of billionaires who are both near-omnipotent and unbelievably weird. They donate huge sums to nearly every political party, own stakes in the country’s biggest media companies, and get massive amounts of public funding to pursue their pet obsessions.
The fact that billionaires are freaks hasn’t been news since most of them got Twitter. But even by the standards of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, Australia’s mining magnates are something else.
Take Gina Rinehart, the head of Hancock Prospecting and one of the richest women on earth. She owns more than one percent of Australia’s total landmass, an area roughly the size of the Czech Republic. Over the last ten years, Rinehart has spent millions funding a think-tank dedicated to pumping out climate denialism, bankrolled speaking tours by high-profile denialists like Lord Christopher Monckton (who says he is a member of the House of Lords, despite the fact that he is not), and led the successful campaign to repeal the carbon tax.
All of which is pretty normal mining-billionaire stuff. Less normal is that earlier this year she published Jokes and Joys, a joke book to raise money for various charities. Why a person worth about $23 billion couldn’t just cut those charities a check aside, Jokes and Joys got a lot of attention when people realized it was just a collection of hundreds of memes about socialism that Rinehart had ripped from Facebook.
Rinehart’s conviction that all the world’s wisdom can be found in right-wing Boomer memes came up again a few weeks ago, when she gave a video presentation to students from her old boarding school. The version that the kids actually ended up watching was heavily edited by the teachers, but in the full 15-minute version, Rinehart fondly reminisces about the school and her childhood for a few minutes before abruptly launching into a spiel about Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth, and underwater volcanoes.
Towards the end of the speech, Rinehart warns against the media “undermining” Australia’s Special Air Service Regiment, which is under investigation for alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, before ending with three solid minutes of Margaret Thatcher quotes.
And then there’s the poem.
In 2012, Rinehart wrote “Our Future,” a poem summing up her political and economic outlook. She then had the poem inscribed on a brass plaque, which was mounted on a 30-ton piece of iron ore outside a shopping center in suburban Perth.
Somehow, that’s the least bizarre thing about “Our Future.” It’s too long to put here in full, but here’s a taste:
"Develop North Australia, embrace multiculturalism and welcome short term foreign workers to our shores
To benefit from the export of our minerals and ores"
Gina’s personal life is also unusual. She took over Hancock Prospecting from her father, mining titan Lang Hancock – a man who once floated the idea of wiping out Aboriginal people by spiking their drinking water to make them sterile.
When Hancock was 76, he married Rose Lacson, a woman 39 years his junior. Lacson and Rinehart quickly fell out, with Rinehart trying to have Lacson deported. The feud climaxed when Hancock removed Rinehart as an executive in the family business, spitefully addressing her as a “slothful, vindictive and devious baby elephant”.
After Hancock died in 1992, Rinehart had his heart, kidneys and liver preserved as part of a decade-long campaign for an inquest into whether Lacson had tried to kill him. When a coroner found Hancock had died of natural causes, Rinehart sued Lacson for control of Prix d’Amour (“The Price of Love”), the 16-block mansion Hancock had built for Lacson, complete with bullet-proof bedroom doors and separate baths for Lacson’s poodles.
In 2015 the whole thing was made into a TV miniseries, House of Hancock, which can never be aired again after Rinehart sued the production company and TV channel that made it. For the last ten years, Rinehart has also been locked in a sprawling court battle with several of her children over the $3 billion family trust, as well as a rival mining empire.
So. That’s one of them.
Then there's Clive Palmer, the head of several coal, nickel, and iron ore companies with a net worth of just under $10 billion. About ten years ago, Clive was a pretty by-the-book megalomaniac, regularly announcing grandiose projects that inevitably went to shit.
Palmersaurus, the animatronic dinosaur theme park Palmer opened in 2012, shut down after just two years following a spectacular run of disasters culminating in Jeff, the park’s showpiece T-rex, burning down. His tenure as the owner of a professional soccer team ended when Australia’s soccer governing body revoked his license because he insisted on a team jersey with the words “FREEDOM OF SPEECH” plastered on it. Every few years, he re-announces his plans to build a working full-scale replica of the Titanic.
Then he decided to enter politics. In 2013 Palmer formed his own political party, recruited some high-profile candidates and won several seats in Australia’s parliament, including one for himself. The party lasted less than two years before imploding, with most of its representatives quitting rather than continue to work with him.
One of them, Jacqui Lambie, is still in parliament today. A painting of her dressed as Princess Leia strangling Palmer, depicted as Jabba the Hutt, hangs in her office. Prints are on sale.
Palmer left parliament after one three-year term, his biggest achievement during that time was being photographed having a nap on the parliamentary benches. After a brief stint as a kind of bizarre anti-politics meme generator, during which his official Facebook meme page was overrun by neo-Nazis, Palmer has launched another political party and is contesting Australia’s next election as a full-blown COVID conspiracist. His main campaign tactics involve spending millions of dollars on mass spam texts and buying views for shit like this:
Finally, there's Andrew Forrest, the head of the Fortescue Metals iron ore empire with a personal net worth of around $20 billion.
Ironically for someone in charge of a massively profitable company that pays negligible amounts of tax, Forrest’s passion is philanthropy, only on a Bond-villain scale. Earlier this year, he tried to scare the Taliban into banning child marriage and slavery by threatening to withdraw Fortescue investments from Afghanistan. There has been no word from the Taliban on this, which presumably means they are taking it very seriously.
Besides stopping global slavery and ending deaths from cancer through his network of charities, one of Forrest’s more modest goals is to close the gap in employment rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. In 2014, Forrest wrote and published a report to the Australian government proposing how to do this. His main recommendation, which has since been rolled out in many remote Aboriginal communities, involves a special form of debit card that restricts what Aboriginal people can spend welfare money on, including alcohol and gambling.
Amazingly, this has not worked. Besides being humiliating for many people, the card took away peoples’ ability to buy groceries and other basic items from many stores, as well as making it harder for women to escape domestic violence. In some communities, the card has been nicknamed “the White card”.
Whenever he's questioned about the card’s failure, all the Aboriginal sacred sites and cultural heritage that Fortescue Metals has destroyed, or on his lack of actual expertise on subjects beyond digging up iron ore, Forrest points to the fact that he had Aboriginal friends when he was a child. Either that, or he accuses his critics of being apologists for pedophilia.
At the G20 a few days ago, Australia was one of the countries that blocked a United Nations proposal to phase out coal-fired power. Christiana Figueres, the UN’s former climate chief, has described Australia’s approach to climate change as “suicidal.”
But it’s not all bad news. Whatever the manner of Australia’s demise, its mining billionaires will sail on – probably on a newly built Titanic.
Alex McKinnon is a writer based in Sydney.