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April 20, 2024

How to keep Gina Rinehart off Fairfax board

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Crikey’s Stephen Mayne has a crafty plan to keep Australia’s richest person out of the Fairfax boardroom… for 56 years.

As the Fairfax Media board ponders how to respond to Gina Rinehart’s request for a board seat, maybe it should consider suggesting she wait another 56 years.

After all, the situation at Fairfax and Hancock Prospecting both come down to the same question: how much power and influence should go to minority shareholders?

However, if Fairfax chairman Roger Corbett wanted to apply the ‘do unto others’ principle to Australia’s richest person, he would tell her that the board had unilaterally resolved to lock her out until 2068, when she would be 113 years old.

There are many reasons Rinehart should not be appointed to the Fairfax board and top of the list is the question of her integrity.

If Lang Hancock created a trust with specific instructions that a minority portion vest to his four grandchildren in September 2011, then how on Earth could his daughter secretly extend this by 56 years without even telling the beneficiaries she is meant to represent?

There is every chance a judge will savage Rinehart to the point where Fairfax would be highly embarrassed to have such a person on its board.

Paul Keating quietly told Frank Lowy he needed to sort out a dispute with the tax office before he could join the Reserve Bank board and the same applies with Rinehart and Fairfax. Besides, how does the Fairfax board know that it will be Rinehart who ends up controlling the 14 per cent stake in Fairfax after the dust has settled?

As Rinehart continues to absorb massive reputational damage and inches ever closer to legal embarrassment in court, the most likely scenario is a commercial settlement with her four adult children. A reasonable outcome would be each getting $500 million in cash or assets. Seeing as Rinehart’s adventures into the media business have achieved nothing except truckloads of bad publicity for an obsessively private and security-conscious family, the kids should insist she either sells up or hands over the Ten and Fairfax stakes as part of the settlement.

It seems pretty bizarre that Rinehart has ploughed $460 million of her family estate into Fairfax and Network Ten over the past 18 months, yet she believes her four adult children will be bankrupted if a 23 per cent stake in Hancock Prospecting is allowed to vest as originally envisaged by her late father. The basis of this claim is some work allegedly done for Rinehart by PwC suggesting that each of the adult children would cop a $100 million capital gains tax bill on vesting.

However, if Rinehart really is worth $US18 billion, as Forbes magazine claimed last week, each child would get shares worth about $1 billion and a $100 million tax bill would be comfortably absorbed. And wouldn’t Treasurer Wayne Swan, on behalf of all ordinary workers and taxpayers, be pleased to receive a $400 million revenue boost for his troubled budget?

Faced with losing control over $4 billion worth of assets, it would be far easier for Rinehart to buy her children out than have all the private details of Hancock Prospecting revealed to the public. Given that she has reportedly refused to show the accounts to some of her own children, whose interests she is meant to be protecting, Rinehart would clearly not enjoy seeing an information memorandum on Hancock Prospecting hawked around to potential investors by her adult children.

However, before the children agree to settle, you would expect they would want to see Hancock Prospecting independently valued.

The other reason that Fairfax should reject Rinehart’s request for a board seat comes back to her position on the Network Ten board. Ten and Fairfax compete for scarce advertising dollars and journalistic talent. It’s no different from the high-roller casino wars, in which Echo Entertainment told suitor James Packer to go away because he controls a competitor organisation.

If Rinehart is prepared to quit the Ten board, then Fairfax should consider her request seriously, but she can’t double dip with board representation on two competing companies.

Even if she did this, the Fairfax board would be wise to tell Rinehart that she won’t be considered for a directorship until after her bitter family dispute has been resolved.

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