As public sentiment shifts against the sector, NSW’s biggest coal seam gas companies are busier than ever safeguarding their billion dollar babies with the help of high profile and well connected lobbyists.
Together the big CSG players — Metgasco, Santos and AGL — have seven separate lobby firms working for them, more than doubling their clout behind the scenes.
Until its takeover by Santos last year, Eastern Star Gas employed an additional two firms, with the ratio of lobbyists to energy companies peaking before the end of 2011 at more than 2:1. This comes despite Premier Barry O’Farrell’s declaration that those hiring lobbyists "are wasting their money".
The industry is employing some of the nation’s top firms including Hawker Britton, Barton Deakin, MacGregor Public Relations, Australian Public Affairs, Kreab Gavin Anderson and Statecraft.
While the exact amount being spent on these lobbyists is confidential, according to its annual reports from 2010 and 2011, Metgasco’s bill for the general category of "consultancy" more than doubled from $214,557 in 2009 to $458,297 in 2011.
And the investments don’t stop there.
They’re not out to convince the crowd, but to buy the ears of conservative politicians.
Significant donations from lobbyists working on behalf of the industry are steadily landing in the coffers of the NSW Liberal and National Parties.
A review of donations made in the last financial year by lobbyists for Santos, Metgasco, AGL and Eastern Star Gas reveals that as the tide mounted against NSW Labor in the lead up to last year’s landslide Liberal election win, so too did the cash donations shift.
Between January 2010 and June 2011 Barton Deakin, which has a range of clients that includes Metgasco, donated a total of $50,090 to the NSW Liberal ($42,590) and National ($7,500) parties. $43,970 of this was donated within the last financial year alone — a period in which the CSG industry battled an increasingly united grassroots opposition.
Kreab Gavin Anderson, lobbyist for Santos, donated $32,027 between January 2010 and July 2011 to the NSW Liberal ($14,817) and NSW National Parties ($15,210). $20,257 in the last financial year.
In a striking one-off donation, Australian Public Affairs, also a lobbyist for Santos, lobbed $15,000 into the coffers of the NSW Nationals. An additional $3,182 went to the NSW Liberals.
Ensuring the cause of its lobbyists didn’t go unnoticed, Santos itself directly donated a further $25,680 to the NSW Liberal ($10,000) and National ($15,680) parties between the start of 2010 and July 2011.
These are signs that the NSW CSG lobby industry is booming says Dr Peter Chen, lecturer in politics and media at the University of Sydney.
"There is a large and growing industry for lobbyists, certainly within the CSG industry," said Dr Chen.
"[The CSG] industry is concerned that given the rise of protests against them, their investments will be wasted. So in a sense it’s inevitable that it’s taking steps in dealing with government to protect their investments."
It’s true that cash donations between third parties are inevitable and it’s mostly innocuous stuff. But it’s clear that there has now been a strategic shift — the big four CSG companies are chasing lobbyists with notable Coalition pedigrees.
Metgasco’s lobbying is being done by the relatively new Barton Deakin. Until recently the energy giant had stuck with its sister company, the Labor-linked group Hawker Britton, but switched to Barton Deakin — pitched as "the Hawker Britton for conservatives" — with the shift to a Coalition government.
Leading Barton Deakin’s operations is Peter Collins, former leader of the NSW Liberal opposition from 1995-1998 and one of the most senior ministers in the seven year Greiner/Fahey Coalition government. His Barton Deakin profile still proclaims "a lifelong commitment to the success of the Liberal Party in NSW".
As opposition leader, Collins was responsible for the appointment of Chris Hartcher to the role of then shadow minister for industrial relations. Today, it is Hartcher who holds the cabinet portfolio for Resources and Energy — a worthwhile connection for Metgasco.
Peter Collins is one half of an influential lobbying team. In his role at Barton Deakin he works with Richard Shields from Metgasco. Sheilds is former deputy director of the NSW Liberals and was recently appointed Metgasco’s deputy director of PR.
Metgasco isn’t the only company whose lobbyist network reads like a game of political Connect Four.
As the Nationals draft a blueprint to deal with the community opposition that gas exploration faces in rural electorates, the CSG industry is working hard to get their ear.
Santos and AGL, the two largest NSW CSG companies after the departure and takeover of Eastern Star Gas, maintain close relations with senior members of the National Party.
Both companies are listed as clients of MacGregor Public Relations on the NSW register.
Based on a 2009 list of lobbyists compiled by the Sydney Morning Herald, the two companies shifted from notoriously Labor-linked firm Enhance Corporate.
John MacGregor, is both owner, managing director and a listed lobbyist of the firm. He was a former senior press secretary to former NSW Liberal premier, John Fahey.
Joining him is the company’s chairman, Ian Armstrong, who is a former leader of the NSW National Party and who served as deputy premier during the Fahey Coalition government. He was also a member of the NSW Standing Committee on Natural Resource Management from 2004-2007.
According to the MacGregor Public Relations website, senior consultant Elizabeth Waterland also worked in public relations roles for former NSW environment minister Tim Moore who was in office under the Greiner Liberal government until John Fahey’s takeover in June 1992.
MacGregor, Armstrong and Waterland appear influential assets for AGL in NSW. AGL followed the trio to MacGregor Public Relations after they left Government Relations Pty Ltd, which worked and continues to work on behalf of AGL.
It’s with these three at the helm that in the last financial year, MacGregor Public Relations donated $10,245 to the NSW Liberals and Nationals.
The importance of ties to the Nationals is not lost on Santos either, who is also on the books of political consulting firm Australian Public Affairs (APA).
Described as "a hard-right Liberal Party functionary", its chairman is Alistair Furnival, a former senior adviser and chief of staff for Liberal heavyweight Santo Santoro.
Working with Furnival is Liam Bathgate, whose most recent political appointment was none other than chief of staff to then NSW opposition leader and current Premier, Barry O’Farrell. Bathgate also served as press secretary to the Federal National Party leader Doug Anthony and took up the reins in NSW as the party’s director.
As NSW National Party director Bathgate also worked closely alongside Ian Armstrong on a renewed Liberal/National unity agreement, often via telephone hookups.
With Bathgate at Australian Public Affairs and Armstrong at MacGregor Public Relations, Santos effectively has the Nationals on speed dial.
The faces behind APA give a solid context to the striking one-off donation made by the firm to the NSW Nationals of $15,000 in the last financial year, while an additional $3,182 went towards the NSW Liberals.
Not at all bad news for its client Santos. Even better news is the fact that Eastern Star Gas (ESG), until its takeover by Santos this month, had also worked had to recruit lobbyists from high up the NSW National Party ranks.
Statecraft, ESG’s lobby group, is filled with so-called "guns for hire" — government relations specialists who are well known in conservative circles.
Consultant Jonathon Moore was an advisor to the current Deputy Leader of the Nationals in the Legislative Council, Jenny Gardiner, for whom he worked until as recently as June last year.
The lobby group is also owned and partnered by Michael Priebe, a former NSW State director of the National Party.
The fit between Statecraft and Eastern Star Gas was supremely effective, with the lobbyist group able to work hand in hand with the energy company’s non-executive chairman John Anderson, also a former Nationals leader and deputy prime minister.
In what Dr Peter Chen labels a "mates for the boys" relationship, Anderson and Priebe are previous allies from high up the National Party’s ranks. In 2008 together they formed a highly publicised post-election review of their party calling for a merge with the Liberals. Priebe is also married to Anderson’s former staffer Jessica Maine (now Jessica Preibe).
Their connections made Statecraft a highly effective lobbying limb between the industry and the Nationals’ upper echelons.
They also give weight to the firm’s donations in the lead up to the 2010 election: $5,850 to the NSW Liberals, $3,000 to the NSW Nationals.
At the time of its operations, Anderson’s Eastern Star Gas also added to these — donating a further $23,591 between January 2010 and July 2011 across the NSW Liberal ($16, 091) and National ($7,500) parties. $20,591 was made within the same financial year as Barry O’Farrell’s election win.
According to Greens MLC and mining spokesperson, Jeremy Buckingham, the current lobbying by firms on behalf of the CSG industry is proving "enormously influential".
Giving up on convincing the crowd, the lobbyists are aiming straight for the conservative heavyweights.
"The lobbyists have been spectacularly unsuccessful at changing the public discourse because the community is informing itself," notes Jeremy Buckingham.
"In terms of lobbyists influencing government, they have been quite successful which is why there’s been a reluctance on behalf of the government to support a moratorium," he said.
This is the first of a two part series on coal seam gas lobbying in NSW in collaboration with the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism’s Global Environmental Journalism Initiative.
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