Former New England independent Tony Windsor is considering a return to politics after the Abbott Government approved the Shenhua Watermark coal mine near Breeza, in Windsor’s former north-western New South Wales electorate.
“Yes that is true, I am considering it,” Windsor said, “the approval of the Shenhua mine yesterday was definitely a tick in the positive box in a sense that whether I’d reconsider reentering politics”.
On Wednesday, Windsor, who had retired to his Werris Creek property not far from the planned mine, took to Twitter to vent his frustration, declaring that the “Shenhua mine was conceived of by a corrupt New South Wales Labor government, fondled by a compliant New South Wales Liberal government and approved by a Federal Coalition beholden to the Chinese government”.
Windsor also joined the social media chorus directed against the Federal Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce, whose claims that he’s done everything he could to stop the mine were dismissed as a “sham” by the retired independent.
Joyce also took to social media in the wake of the approval decision, which has outraged large segments of the farming community in the agricultural heartland, and declared that “the world has gone mad” because of a decision his own government made.
Speaking to the ABC this morning, Windsor elaborated on his procession of tweets, telling host Frank Kelly that it’s “nonsense [Joyce has] done everything he could”.
“Part of the process initiated back in the previous parliament, and funded, was a valley-wide Bioregional Assessment process,” Windsor said. “It hasn’t been done.
“If the local member was genuine about trying to protect this… he [shouldn’t have] stood by and let that past.
“That Bioregional Assessment process goes to the heart of the issue here and that issue is risk.
“This is really an issue about risk management and water and the impacts that it has on agriculture.”
It’s an issue that’s roused the farming community’s ire because, as the Chinese state-owned company Shenhua said in its Environmental Impact Statement for the Watermark mine, “the project is predicted to result in the average annual relocation of approximately 194 mega litres of water per year from agricultural purposes to coal mining”.
Locals fear that, while Environment Minister Greg Hunt claims he has imposed conditions that will “limit water use to less than 0.09 per cent of available groundwater”, the project risks the incredibly productive local agriculture industry.
“When you add these water resources to this landscape and this magnificent flood plain, you're actually adding the transmitter of the problem if something goes wrong,” Windsor said.
In his personal defence on Facebook, Joyce took a similar position, arguing “I've never supported the Shenhua mine [and]I think it is ridiculous that you would have a major mine in the midst of Australia’s best agricultural land”.
But the beleaguered Minister for Agriculture also defended the government, citing the fact it had “brought about further investigations and had an independent expert scientific review”.
It’s an ironic defence, considering that the legislation Hunt invoked to “pause” the project’s procession through the approvals process in the lead up to the state Liberal government’s re-election was one of Windsor’s greatest legacies.
In his final parliament, Windsor used his influence as a key crossbencher to add a ‘water trigger’ to the omnibus commonwealth environmental law that currently allows Hunt to ‘call in’ projects that might be otherwise managed by the states in order to assess their likely impact on water resources.
But the Abbott government is currently in the process of palming off that power to the state and territory governments, which experts say jeopardises 30 years of progress in environmental law, as well as the utility of Windsors’ water trigger.
The tension between fuller control over mining activities and development has been a biting issue for Joyce’s National party in recent years, with the Greens garnering unlikely support from regional and rural communities affected by big coal and coal seam gas.
The recent New South Wales election saw one Nationals MP on the North Coast lose his seat to the Greens over coal seam gas, and a second Nationals MP win by a thin margin on preferences. Nationals seats across the state saw substantial swings against them.
Amidst the furore over the Shenhua approval, the Greens’ Agriculture Spokesperson capitalised on Joyce’s failure to sway the decision, tweeting, “Shenhua approval. You are fucking useless @BarnabyJoyce”.
Although his manner was somewhat less confrontational, Windsor is likely to have also had his own political ambitions in mind when he echoed New South Wales Farmers Association President Fiona Simson’s concerns that the government has effectively sanctioned the Chinese state to “disturb an area of over 4,000 football fields in size, in the middle of some of Australia’s best farming country”.
Simson said the community was “angry” because “the Liverpool Plains produces about 40 per cent more than the national average of food per hectare,” while Windsor said the government was “willing to risk this magnificent piece of agricultural land, second only in the world to some of the soils in the Ukraine”.
Windsor hasn’t “gone into the dynamics of numbers” around his chances at a political comeback, but his preference “to focus on the issues” is likely to endear him to his former constituents.
“If those issues that I’m particularly interested in are the ones that people in the area are interested in, well maybe they’d consider that, but I haven’t made a firm decision one way or the other,” he said.
The anger directed at the National party from its traditional heartlands over mining policy has been growing fast, and they’re widely seen to be caught between the need to show solidarity with pro-developer Liberal policies and the concerns of rural and regional communities.
Earlier this year the tensions were brought sharply into focus when Federal Nationals Senators repeatedly vacated the chamber as Greens bills to ‘give farmers the right to say no to coal and coal seam gas’ went to the vote.
Windsor, who held Joyce’s seat of New England from 2001 to 2013, used his interview with Kelly yesterday to reiterate that “even the scientific people that have looked at this, and even in Greg Hunt’s words, he’s saying we’re going to mitigate any problems that come up, that there’ll be a stop button”.
“By the time you push the stop button on water issues it’s too late anyway, and proving those things legally [is difficult], so Joyce has done nothing on this other than be granted the dispensation to oppose his own government,” he said.
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