Does Gina Rinehart’s move on Fairfax make her an oligarch? Not yet …

Mining magnate, Gina Rinehart is trying to buy more influence by becoming Fairfax media group’s largest shareholder. AAP Image/Tony McDonough

Australia’s richest person Gina Rinehart has moved to increase her stake in Fairfax Media, owner of The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and a number of radio stations.

Rinehart has already shown her desire to play a role in public life, campaigning against former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s aborted mining tax. She has also demonstrated a willingness to make media investments to ensure her pro-business worldview is promulgated.

What does this latest move by Rinehart mean? Are we seeing the rise of a resources-based oligarchy that trumps democracy in Australia? Or is this simply a new iteration of an age-old effort by rich people to influence debate that affects their interests?

The Conversation spoke with University of New South Wales political expert, Mark Rolfe about the political implications of the Rinehart bid.

Is Gina Rinehart now behaving like the kind of oligarch we see in countries such as Russia?

No, more like the billionaires in America. To make the Russian analogy would be to take it a little too far in the authoritarian, anti-democratic direction. It’s more like the American example where there’s tendencies amongst particularly conservative billionaires, or multi, multi-millionaires, to seek to expand political influence.

Australia’s Gina Rinehart hasn’t yet become like Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich. EPA/Andy Rain

I say that with some comparison to America, but also there’s a comparison there with her father, Lang Hancock who wasn’t satisfied with merely sticking to the mining industry, but also threw his weight around politically in the 70s and 80s, particularly in his connections to the Premier of Queensland, Jo Bjelke-Petersen.

And there’s instances in America of billionaires like Philip Anschutz who get large enough and see directions in the country which they don’t like. They buy newspapers and other media outlets and set up think tanks to try to influence the terms of debate within the country, in the direction they like.

Pressure brought about by Rinehart and others saw the mining tax dumped. Are we now seeing a situation where democracy is being challenged by the emerging resources oligarchy?

I think there’s always been that tension in modern representative democracy. You can take it back to the battles in the late 19th century, early 20th century America with the “muck-raking media” as it was called versus the plutocrats – the Rockerfellers and others. So there’s always been this tension within democracy between ideas of the people and equality, and the power of rich and their capacity to control politics and/or the media.

I see it not as a start of this trend, but a recycling of an old battle that will continue. In the light of the global recession of the last couple of years and the Occupy movement across the world, which has targeted these sorts of plutocrats as their enemy, we are seeing a sort of 21st century global re-invention of that old battle.

Do the politicians have the heart for that fight?

Yes, of course. It goes along political and ideological lines in this battle, and the sympathies of politicians for or against such involvements by the billionaires. But there is a great potential at the moment.

In the light of the global recession, this problem about the distribution of wealth, of power, of equality and the rights of people, many politicians on both the left and the right in Australia, and in America we’re even seeing this from Republican presidential candidates, are using the language of populism.

So no politician these days can afford, if they want to keep their jobs, to be seen to be out of favour with the people, whoever they might be, and for expressing sympathies for the plight of the people. That context gives a great deal of leverage for pushing back against the political and economic power of the billionaires. Although nothing is assured in the political game.

What would be the political effect of Rinehart taking control of Fairfax. Could that mean a shift in its editorial line toward a more pro-business, anti-union, right-wing climate sceptic agenda?

She can try to. And from all accounts, she’s tried at the Ten Network using her similar shareholding there. So that’s evidence of her political desires.

Doing that at Fairfax is more complicated. There’s certainly a very good brand name in the Fairfax-owned Australian Financial Review (AFR), and as much as there are accusations of the Fairfax group being an old, 20th century, dying media company, at least the AFR has a special niche and it’s doing very well catering to that niche. Playing around with that, even if it’s to push things in a more conservative, right-wing direction, people might not want to see the current set-up change because it’s working well.

With other elements of the Fairfax group, like the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, we’ve seen battles in the past at those newspapers with Conrad Black, the Canadian media proprietor who is also very right-wing. He wanted to shift things in directions that pleased him but he came a cropper there.

And Rinehart could come a cropper with the same group of people, the journalists who are prepared to, in spite of the threats to jobs and so on, push back. And of course, Rinehart is seeking 10-14% of the company, so there are limitations at the moment.

Her ability to influence the agenda through an increased share of Fairfax may not be as great as people would suspect. At this stage I wouldn’t see the masthead newspapers at Fairfax shifting to become the Fox Network in America. I don’t see things changing dramatically.