How a stupid comment by this wealthy old man 40 years ago is still a lesson for us all

Gina Rinehart and her father Lang Hancock.

Gina Rinehart and her father Lang Hancock.

The entire Netball Australia sponsorship fiasco involving Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting could have been pretty easily resolved with a bit of respect and tolerance.

The fact is, it wasn’t and there should be a lot of soul searching about that, but there probably won’t be.

In terms of how a company should handle a controversy this was a disaster. Rule No.1 of crisis handling is to not make it worse.

Indigenous sportsman and activist Anthony Mundine summed it up when he told News Corp: “She could have apologised for her father’s comments, distanced herself from them and told us that she doesn’t believe those things. Instead, she pulled her money out.”

Mundine’s strategy is what most of corporate Australia would consider to be the best path forward, but Rinehart is made from different stuff. She doubled down.

The effect of that was to move a comment from 40 years ago into the present.

If you were Rinehart, what would you do as a corporate leader? Would you distance yourself from it or would you make a statement accusing the netballers of virtue signalling?

Simple really – wash your hands of it and don’t escalate the issue.

As it stands, Hancock Prospecting’s image has been tarnished, Australian netball is floundering in a crisis, and Indigenous Australians are wondering why mainstream Australia still doesn’t get it.

If Hancock Prospecting was a public company heads would be rolling, superannuation funds would be lining up to whack the chief executive, the share price would be tanking, and banks would be running a mile.

But it isn’t, and Rinehart is defiant.

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Not a new issue

It raises a lot of questions for Australians but it’s not a new issue, nor is it exclusive to Netball Australia and Hancock.

There are also aspects of this that are similar to the resignation of Essendon chief executive Andrew Thorburn because of the discovery of comments made by his church condemning homosexuality.

His guilt was by association with the church and sermons made years ago, not by anything he actually said. Should he have the right to belong to a church that said that in 2013, or does the church have a greater good that outweighs the intolerance?

“It is troubling that faith or association with a church, mosque, synagogue or temple could render a person immediately unsuited to holding a particular role,’’ Thorburn said.

“That is a dangerous idea, one that will only reduce tolerance for others and diversity of thought and participation in our community and workplaces.”

He is right. Tolerance is key here, and maybe he and his church should think about that.

The Rinehart issue revolves around a statement made almost 40 years ago by her father, mining magnate Lang Hancock.

Hancock suggested Aboriginal people should be herded into an area and sterilised so that eventually there were none left.

Even at the time it was a vile, jaw-dropping statement. Lang was known for that sort of thing.

So why did Indigenous netballer Donnell Wallam get upset about something that was said 40 years ago by someone other than Rinehart?

She hasn’t made any public statements, so we can only assume that it’s the unresolved issue for Indigenous Australians of the daily injustice that is piled on them.

How far back do we reach?

You think that’s overblown? Look to the headlines out of Perth and the Indigenous boys beaten with machetes. One teenager is dead.

Australia has been struggling with this very same issue for years. You might remember that back in 2014 when the Coalition was trying to bring in changes to The Racial Discrimination Act, the then attorney-general George Brandis gave a fairly perverse view of freedom.

“People do have a right to be bigots. In a free country people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive or insulting or bigoted,” Brandis said.

There are people on both sides of that Brandis statement and they are still not willing to give an inch, but freedom of speech is not absolute and Brandis was wrong.

To be clear, Rinehart can’t be judged on statements from her father. She can only be judged on her own actions or inactions, but that doesn’t mean she could not have resolved this issue by a simple, clear statement saying she did not accept her father’s comment.

The question for Australians is: How far does this go? How far back should we reach to find sins or transgressions? How intolerant of intolerance should we be?

It’s understandable that business people say that there is no end to this sort of demonisation of their image. I can see that. Gambling, alcohol, defence and mining are all thrown into the same basket and accused of having blood on their hands, but it’s not as black and white as that.

Life rarely is, so maybe we should try having a little respect for each other. It can’t hurt.

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