4th June 2017
Photo: Gina Rinehart is the proud new co-owner of the Kidman cattle empire. (Supplied: Hancock Prospecting/James Radford)
From mine dust to bulldust, Australia’s richest businesswoman Gina Rinehart takes it all in her stride as she shows the ABC around Helen Springs Station in the Northern Territory.
It’s a rare opportunity to meet the mining magnate and proud new co-owner of the Kidman cattle empire, who disappears momentarily in a cloud of fine red dirt, whipped through the stockyards by the notorious Barkly Breeze.
This 5,600 square kilometre station on the Barkly Tablelands, 800 kilometres south of Darwin, “is one of the star properties in the Kidman group”, Mrs Rinehart said.
But it’s a star she believes could shine more brightly.
“We currently have about 24,000 cattle, but parts of the paddocks are underutilised,” she said.
“When we put in the extra water holes — we’re planning about 45 new water points — we’ll be able to put in another 9,000 head of cattle, so it’s going to be one of the big properties of Australia.”
The business partners are pumping tens of millions of dollars into improvements and new technology, with plans to employ the latest drones, UHF radio communications and cattle handling equipment.
Solar panels are replacing windmills and diesel as the drivers of water pumps and shading is going up over cattle yards.
“We’re rolling out our improvements across the Kidman portfolio with the absolute support of our Chinese partner,” Mrs Rinehart said, adding that Shanghai CRED’s Gui Guojie was keen to plough profits back into the business “and build the Kidman holdings into something we can be proud of, one of Australia’s best”.
China firmly in Kidman sights
The S Kidman and Co board, which has met for years at its Adelaide headquarters, last month broke with tradition and convened in Shanghai around the edges of the first Australian Football League match to be played in China.
Gui Guojie — who sponsors South Australian AFL team Port Adelaide Power — was a prime mover for the game.
The Chinese market is now firmly in Kidman’s sights, with plans for the live export of cattle and branded boxed beef.
Respected industry publication Beef Central recently reported that Mrs Rinehart’s vision was to send 800,000 cattle to China through Broome, Darwin and Townsville, effectively doubling Australia’s total live exports.
“The northern ports are closer to China, but I should also say that it would involve other ports because there are times in the wet for instance that shipping might not be possible,” Mrs Rinehart said.
The first Australian shipment of live cattle to China, commissioned by Shanghai CRED, left from Portland in Victoria in February.
Mrs Rinehart has plenty of options for export routes.
She is the country’s third-largest cattle producer, with 22 properties across Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia.
“Hopefully Australia’s cattle industry will grow so we will need more and more markets, and Asia is obviously a market for us,” she said.
Putting history and a great story to work
Chatting informally with female station hands on Helen Springs, Mrs Rinehart talks proudly about her grandfather’s friendship and business partnership with Sir Sidney Kidman, a man she said, who knew the value of diversification.
Mrs Rinehart appears genuinely taken with Sir Sidney’s rags to riches story and believes China will be too.
Don’t be surprised if Australia’s iconic pastoralist becomes the face of boxed beef in China.
“We have a wonderful Chinese partner who’s very, very proud of the Kidman heritage and a great admirer of Sir Sidney,” she said, “so much so I think we are going to be doing a film about Kidman”.
Mrs Rinehart is already exporting her own branded, full-blood wagyu to China for sale to high-end restaurants and hotels.
Investment welcomed, but concerns linger over gas intentions
The cattle industry has welcomed Mrs Rinehart’s agricultural investment, but there is some concern her longer-term interests may extend to gas exploration and development.
The Northern Territory Government has imposed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, while an independent inquiry looks into fracking’s environmental impacts, particularly its potential to contaminate or deplete underground water.
An interim report is due within six weeks, but the Government will await a final report at year’s end before deciding whether to lift the fracking ban.
Northstar Pastoral owner Colin Ross believes that gas development would pose too great a risk to the aquifers vital for the cattle industry’s survival.
The sign outside his Maryfield Station states “no fracking, no negotiation”.
It’s a clear message to Mrs Rinehart, whose Hancock Prospecting holds the tenement to explore for oil and gas beneath his property.
“We’re not hearing anything from them with the moratorium, but I’ve got a fairly strong stand on it and I’m sure at some time she will as well,” Mr Ross said.
The cattle producer shares at least 50 kilometres of fence-line with Rinehart-owned properties.
“They’re really good neighbours,” he said, adding “anyone new with investment and money to spend and develop the north has got to be good for industry as a whole”.
But he would like a clear indication of where the mining and cattle queen stands on fracking.
“She’s obviously got a pretty big platform, is well-known and a voice, so it would be great if she could see the dangers that are obviously there and express those views,” he said.
When the ABC asked Mrs Rinehart about her view on fracking, she referred us to Adam Giles, the former Northern Territory chief minister who is now the spokesman for Hancock Prospecting’s pastoral business.
“Certainly different industries can work together, whether it’s tourism industries on cattle stations or mines or gas development, but from our point of view we are here for cattle,” Mr Giles said.
“We want to be the biggest and best cattle company in Australia.”
After a quick tour, a freshly baked pastry for lunch from the station kitchen, and a presentation led by Mrs Rinehart herself, the ABC’s visit to Helen Springs was over.
Arguably Australia’s most powerful woman took her leave with a warm smile and a wave as she headed to the helicopter sporting a blue Hancock shirt, black leggings, hiking boots with pink trim and her signature red felt hat — not your regular station attire, but then again, this is no regular cowgirl.
Don’t be fooled though.
Gina Rinehart means business.