The $18bn family feud that is a real-life Australian soap opera

A messy court case has shed light on Australia's richest and most secretive family.

Sydney

Already Australia's richest woman, Gina Rinehart has been tipped to overtake Carlos Slim and Bill Gates as the world's wealthiest person in years to come. But her billions – the proceeds of vast iron ore deposits – have not brought her happiness, judging by a bitter family feud that was exposed this week.

Ms Rinehart, 57, is being sued by three of her children – John Hancock, 35, Bianca Rinehart, 31, and Hope Welker, 26 – who want her removed as head of the family trust. Details of the dispute remain sketchy, thanks to a court order but the latest twist of the legal battle has led to the release of emails in which the mining magnate's daughters beg her for money, bodyguards and domestic staff, with one complaining of being "down to my last A$60,000 [£40,770]".

Dubbed the "Iron Lady", Ms Rinehart – whose fortune was estimated by Forbes magazine this week to have doubled to US$18bn (£11.38bn) in the past year – has a reputation for penny-pinching. Hope, Bianca and John are said to have grown tired of waiting for their inheritance. Her youngest daughter, Ginia, 25, who has sided with her, has reportedly been anointed to take over the vast minerals empire.

The emails – which date from July and August last year, just before the legal action was launched – were submitted to the New South Wales Supreme Court, to support Ms Rinehart's claim that publicity about the dispute would jeopardise her family's safety. However, the judge was unimpressed and released the material which gives a rare insight into the life of the Perth-based tycoon.

The judge also disclosed a security report commissioned by Ms Rinehart, which concluded that the family would be at risk of abduction, robbery and harassment by "criminals, deranged individuals and issue-motivated groups" if the court order was lifted. The report likened their plight to that of celebrities such as David Beckham, David Letterman and the singer Joss Stone.

In the emails, Ms Welker and Bianca Rinehart voiced fears about their security. "I don't think you understand what it means now that the whole world thinks you're going to be wealthier than Bill Gates – it means we all need bodyguards and very safe homes," Bianca, who lives in Vancouver with her husband, Sasha, and son, Nicholas, told her mother. "I don't have the money to protect myself or my children and it scares me."

But Ms Welker, who lives in New York with her husband, Ryan, and two small children, also had more prosaic concerns. As well as a bodyguard, she wanted a chef – "so you can be sure April [her daughter] is fed right" – and a housekeeper "that is good [with] kids so if I need to go out I can". She told her mother: "Even my friends who have nothing compared with your wealth have more staff." What about Ms Rinehart paying those three salaries as a birthday present, she suggested.

While Ms Rinehart's responses were not recorded, she is bound to have been mortified by publication of the emails. Despite her prominent role in Australia's booming mining industry, she has never given an interview, and is said to shun friends indiscreet enough to talk about her. Exceedingly litigious, she has, reportedly, few interests outside work.

During a flight to India last year, she talked about coal non-stop, according to a profile of her in Good Weekend, a magazine published by Australia's Fairfax Media group. This week, the profile subject became Fairfax's biggest shareholder, apparently aiming to increase her political and media influence.

She already owns a stake in television network Channel Ten. Some fear she will use those interests to promote her views, which include a push to import cheap labour from overseas.

The sole heir of Lang Hancock, who spotted iron ore deposits in Western Australia's Pilbara region while flying low to avoid a storm, Ms Rinehart is said to have worshipped her father. The pair fell out when, after her mother's death, he married his much younger housekeeper, Rose Porteous. Ms Rinehart called her stepmother a "Filipina whore", and after Hancock's death hired private detectives to try to prove that Ms Porteous was to blame.

She herself married young, had John and Bianca, got divorced, then married an American corporate lawyer nearly 40 years older than her. Frank Rinehart, with whom she had Hope and Ginia, died in 1990.

In 1997 local media reported that Ms Rinehart had reached an out-of-court settlement with her former security guard, Bob Thompson, who had accused her of sexual harassment. Mr Thompson later told Woman's Day magazine that she had been besotted with him and wanted to marry him. "I told her over and over I wasn't interested, but she wouldn't take no for an answer," he said.

Details of her dispute with her children are likely to emerge in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, her wealth continues to grow, fuelled by China's demand for iron ore. She could soon overtake Christy Walton, the Wal-Mart heiress who is the world's wealthiest woman, and after that – some believe – she could knock Mr Slim, the Mexican telecommunications mogul off the top perch.

Iron Lady: The rich life

Gina Rinehart's fortune doubled to $18bn last month after her mining company signed a deal with South Korean steel giant Posco, which will take a 15 per cent stake in in Western Australian iron ore mine.

Earlier this week, her company Hancock Prospecting became the biggest shareholder in Sydney publisher Fairfax Media. She increased her stake from 5 per cent to 13 per cent. She also owns a 10 per cent stake in Australian broadcaster Ten Network Holdings Ltd.

In the next few years she plans to expand her iron ore operations and develop two coal projects. If commodity prices hold up, Forbes magazine tips her to become the world's richest woman.

Jenny stevens

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