The party has been accused of duplicity after helping pass legislation critics say gives big miners more power to access private land. Thom Mitchell reports.
Widespread changes to the regulation of coal seam gas in New South Wales just days after the tragic suicide of Queensland farmer George Bender have provoked concerns that coal seam gas (CSG) mining outfits will gain even greater access to the private land owners and farmers.
The suite of Baird government reforms had been broadly welcomed as a step towards more rigorous and effective regulation. But at least one element of the changes has angered communities like those in the Northern Rivers, who have unequivocally rejected plans by CSG miner Metgasco to drill the area, and stoked concerns the new laws will ‘dramatically weaken’ land owners’ rights to block CSG activities that could affect them.
George Bender’s battle to keep coal seam gas off this land has been identified by his family as the impetus behind the Chinchilla cotton farmer’s sad passing. On Wednesday, the NSW parliament passed a condolence motion in his honour with Nationals MLC Duncan Gay suggesting reforms to give landowners a legal right to refuse access to companies could be afoot.
“Policy and political decision-making is currently underway not only among members of the Opposition but also among members of the government,” Gay said. But the Coalition government amended Greens MLC Jeremy Buckingham’s motion of condolence to remove the assertion that farmers should have the right to say ‘no’ to coal seam gas companies.
Earlier on Wednesday the Deputy Federal Leader of the party, Warren Truss, had explicitly stated that he believes farmers and landowners should have an express right to refuse access.
Buckingham attacked the apparent contradiction as “a classic Nationals tactics”. “[They] say one thing in public, and then fail to vote for it in Parliament, but the community is catching on to this trick and anger is rising at this duplicitous behaviour,” he said.
When the condolence motion for George Bender passed through parliament, Gay said that “no-one can take away from the legacy he leaves,” but his government has been accused of doing just that.
Legislation which passed one week earlier, and only days after George Bender’s suicide, changed the definition of an ‘improvement’ to land, which used to provide explicit protections for landowners.
Prior to the reforms, companies were not allowed to carry our prospecting or mining operations, or erect any infrastructure on land within 200 metres of a house, or 50 metres of a garden, without written consent. Substantial buildings, dams, and other valuable infrastructure were also afforded a level of protection.
The NSW government argues its changes will make mediation between companies and aggrieved landowners fairer, more effective, and more efficient, and anti-corruption measures and changes to how arbitration is carried out have been welcomed. In spite of this, the previously clear protections for landowners have been replaced with a subjective test for what is a ‘significant improvement’ that opponents say muddy the waters around what the rules actually are.
“Under these changes, the definition of ‘significant improvement’ is considerably looser and you only really get that protection if you’re business interests are not going to be able to coexist with [the coal seam gas activity],” said Georgina Woods, a spokesperson for Lock the Gate.
“They were talking about the fact that farmers not having the right to say ‘no’ is a fundamental imbalance which has to be addressed, but they took that part out of [Buckingham’s] motion.”
When the laws passed through Parliament last week, Buckingham accused the government of failing to consult before it rushed the changes through Parliament.
“Just last Thursday the bills were introduced…these bills are being rammed through both Houses of Parliament with no opportunity for consultation with the community, lawyers or industry – people who will be living under this new regime,” he said.
A spokesperson for Gasfield Free Northern Rivers – the community group leading the charge against Metgasco, which was repelled last year by thousands of local protestors – said the amendments “dramatically weaken landholder rights”.
“The government has attacked the single power which landholders had [and]severely narrowed the definition of significant improvements, so that very few landholders will be able to use it to prevent impacts on improved areas or farm infrastructure,” said Elly Bird, the group’s regional coordinator.
“They will have to show that their improvements cannot reasonably co-exist with mining and CSG and that their improvements cannot reasonably be relocated or substituted without material detriment to the landholder,” she said.
Like Buckingham, Bird accused the Nationals of “sending a very confusing message to the people of the Northern Rivers”. “Local MPs like Chris Gulaptis and Thomas George have come out quite strongly as saying the Nationals are doing all they can to bring about a gasfield free Northern Rivers, yet they vote for legislation that effectively smooths the way for [Metgasco],” she said.
Simon Clough is the Deputy Mayor of Lismore, a council which has been trying to keep Metgasco out by not allowing the company to use council-owned roads as it seeks a return to the area to carry out seismic testing and drilling. He too is concerned about the changes and lack of consultation.
“You have to say it’s very perplexing — on the face of it, it seems clear that it prevents councils having the authority to prevent the seismic testing, but the government’s saying ‘no it doesn’t’,” he said.
Lismore council has now sought independent legal advice.
“It really does come down to the whole point of this matter being rushed through with no consultation, and I guess it’s really concerning for us because the Lismore community voted at the last local government election.
“The results showed that 86 per cent, 87 per cent of people were opposed to any CSG exploration or production activities so our council has a very strong mandate from the community to say no,” Clough said.
Georgina Woods argued that the timing of the reform – which comes as the state government wrangles with Metgasco in court over its legally invalid decision last year to suspend a drilling licence – is uncanny.
“The specific change to section 72 [which deals with ‘significant improvements’]about seismic testing on a public road, at a time when Metgasco are intending to do seismic testing on a public road, indicates to me there is a connection,” she said.
“It’s such a specific change that it certainly appears connected.”
Suspicions and concern around changes in New South Wales have been flagged as eerily reminiscent of the political grandstanding and lack of support George Bender’s family say led to his suicide.
“I don’t think anyone is listening … I don’t think the nation is listening, I don’t think any one of you politicians care. You are a turntable, you walk in, walk out, you talk the talk, you are here for show,” his daughter Helen said on Q&A on Monday.
“Yesterday state Parliament was talking about the fact farmers not having the right to say no is a fundamental imbalance that has to be addressed,” Woods said.
In that context, she said, “It’s pretty disappointing that the New South Wales government would be winding back the little protection landowners had for parts of their farm they’ve made significant improvements to”.
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