Gina Rinehart was so vocal in her opposition to the mining tax she lost her voice at this 2010 rally. Photo: Sharon Smith
IN THE late 19th century, in an essay entitled Gospel of Wealth, American industrialist Andrew Carnegie offered advice on how the rich should behave: Provide moderately, give generously and live modestly, shunning display or extravagance. Clearly, based on their recent poor behaviour, Australia's super-rich don't share his views.
Their petulance, squabbling and ostentation has me wondering if great wealth is a curse, not a blessing. Certainly their actions will do nothing to curb that great Australian tendency to cut down tall poppies; in fact, some of our wealthiest are almost inviting it.
Gina Rinehart and her family's ongoing battle over trust fund monies has dominated front pages and electronic news bulletins for months. The mining magnate, who is Australia's richest woman, had hoped to keep the story out of the news through suppression orders, but failed spectacularly, only ensuring more coverage, not less. At stake is a couple of billion dollars, which sounds like a lot until you realise Ms Rinehart is estimated to be worth almost nine times that amount. Even a dodgy union official would have trouble spending that in 100 lifetimes. So, why bother fighting family in court over it?
Another billionaire, retailing magnate Solomon Lew, has also been arguing over a trust fund and also tried to have the whole sorry saga suppressed. When his bid failed and details of his suits against the former spouses of two of his children became public, lawyers for Lew complained that he'd been portrayed as a ''greedy ogre''. He may not be that, but he's probably not father-in-law of the year either. (Or, for that matter, neighbour-of-the-year: last summer it emerged an infinity swimming pool had been built at the Mount Eliza holiday home owned by his private company Shuttlehall Pty Ltd without permits and on crown land.)
Both Rinehart and Lew might feel they're fighting for a principle, but if you're like me you're probably struggling with why you'd ever put family, estranged or otherwise, through such stress. While I acknowledge the pair have every right to spend their money any way they want, in court, only the lawyers would be laughing.
Clive Palmer makes lawyers happy too. Indeed, he must have an army of them on his speed dial because he sure likes a squabble. He has traded blows with Football Federation Australia over its axing of his Gold Coast United A-League club, sued Hyatt over their management of his recently purchased Coolum resort and tried to link the Greens to the CIA. Last week the mining billionaire announced he'd like to contest Treasurer Wayne Swan's Queensland seat of Lilley at the next election. He'd be an interesting addition, but how on earth would Palmer have time to sit in Parliament? Then again, maybe he has too much time - and money - on his hands.
Trucking magnate Lindsay Fox doesn't appear to have the same fondness for litigation as Palmer, Lew and Rinehart but he certainly likes a party. We know this because we saw his recent 75th birthday celebrations on the TV news - three nights in a row. Now, don't get me wrong, Mr Fox has achieved great things in his lifetime, having gone from truck driver to transport mogul, and maybe the cameras gate-crashed, but a three-day party? So much for shunning display or extravagance.
There are those who believe we have a problem in this country celebrating wealth creation. I'm not sure that's true. I think that, like Carnegie, we expect the rich to behave in a certain way. We'll accept all the privileges that go with wealth if those who have it accept the attendant responsibilities. Flaunting wealth, or, for that matter, flouting normal standards of behaviour, are the quickest ways to alienate Australians.
Of course, not all the super-rich lose perspective. I'm fortunate to have met Warren Buffett and to have interviewed Bill Gates. They are two of the world's richest men, but more grounded individuals you're unlikely to meet. Both are busy giving away large chunks of their fortunes and both, I suspect, would sooner surrender the rest than fight family in court. That said, they won't be writing blank cheques for them either. As Buffett has famously said of his kids: ''I want to leave them enough so they can do anything, but not enough so they can do nothing.''
Author Stephen King weighed into the rich versus poor debate last week. About the time yet another of our mining billionaires, Andrew Forrest, was sounding off at the National Press Club about the resource tax, King was volunteering to almost double the tax he pays in the US on his annual income, estimated at about $45 million. This was quite an offer, given, as he says, the majority of rich people ''would rather douse their dicks with lighter fluid, strike a match, and dance around singing Disco Inferno than pay one more cent in taxes''. Carnegie would almost certainly have objected to King's language, but not the sentiment. And he might have wanted a quiet word with one or two of our billionaires to set them straight.
■Bruce Guthrie is a former editor of The Sunday Age, The Age and the Herald Sun.