The man tasked with heading up one of Mike Baird’s newly amalgamated ‘super-councils’ has close ties to both the National Party and coal industry. Labor, the Greens, and the head of a recently sacked local council are raising red flags. Thom Mitchell reports.
New South Wales’ opposition parties are demanding former Nationals Deputy Leader John Turner be sacked, just days after he was appointed to a powerful position by his own party as head of the new Mid-Lakes Council.
Mr Turner’s appointment as Administrator comes as a result of the forced merger of the Gloucester, Great Lakes, and Taree Local Councils, as part of what Premier Mike Baird has dubbed “the most comprehensive local government reform in more than 100 years”.
But Mr Turner’s selection for the new Administrator position, which will see him replace the three democratically elected Councils for more than a year, has proved controversial thanks to his ties to the Nationals as well as his links to the coal industry.
A former Shadow Mining Minister, Mr Turner is currently being remunerated by Whitehaven Coal, Glencore, Idemitsu Resources, Vale and Yancoal for his work as the Independent Chair of at least six Community Consultative Committees. The Committees are designed to provide a mechanism for ongoing consultation between coal companies and local communities and stakeholders. As Independent Chair, Mr Turner’s role is to act as an impartial ancillary between coal companies and communities.
Mr Turner has not responded to requests for comment, including around the perceived conflict between his work through the Community Consultative Committees and his new role as Administrator of the new Mid-Lake Council.
The question is pertinent given that Gloucester Council is one of the three local councils Mr Turner will replace in his new role as Administrator. Gloucester Council had proved a thorn in the side of the local coal industry before its recent dissolution, and has been sparring with one coal company with which Mr Turner has direct involvement.
Labor’s Leader in the Legislative Council, Adam Searle said Mr Turner’s appointment “shows how dangerous” Baird’s reforms could prove to be. Mr Searle said Mr Turner’s conflicts “are so multiple [and]so profound… he can’t possibly undertake this new Council role with the confidence of the community.”
Greens’ Justice Spokesperson David Shoebridge agreed.
“There’s no question at all that he should be stood down,” he said.
Recently-usurped Gloucester Mayor John Rosenbaum said the local council had been fighting to stop the approval of a new mine, known as the Rocky Hill Project. He said he is concerned that the community has lost an important advocate, given Council had been putting up stiff opposition.
Meanwhile, the Council had also been working through its stakeholder presence on the Community Consultative Committee of an established mine, the Stratford Extension, to hold its operator to account.
“Initially when they looked for the extension we had certain things we believe should be considered on behalf of our community: That was the closeness to the Stratford Village, it was too close, the noise, the lack of finance… we weren’t successful with any of that,” Mr Rosenbaum said.
The Council had continued to work at addressing those concerns through the Stratford Extension Community Consultative Committee. But under the new super-council arrangements, Mr Rosenbaum said Mr Turner had been given “total power,” usurping the authority of the elected Councillors.
The Stratford Extension project is operated by Yancoal, one of the companies for which Mr Turner serves as an Independent Chair. Mr Turner serves the role on the Community Consultative Committee for the Moolarben Mine, which is located outside of Gloucester but also run by Yancoal.
The arrangement has given rise to the perception of a conflict of interest. While Mr Turner is Yancoal’s Independent Chair on the Moolarben Mine, his role as Administrator of the new Mid-Lakes Council may also require him to vocalise community criticisms of how it runs its Stratford Extension project.
“The roles are directly in conflict, not only as to his role with the coal industry versus his role at the Council, but even in relation to that particular coal company,” Mr Searle said.
Mr Shoebridge said the community deserves to know “what kind of due diligence Premier Baird undertook to allow someone in the pay of Yancoal to be the administrator a local council, where that company’s mine is so highly controversial?”
“Gloucester has been an extremely plucky little council, a thorn in the side of the coal industry – well Mike Baird has pulled the thorn out in one go,” he said.
Gloucester has been the scene of some of the most ardent anti-coal seam gas activism in New South Wales in recent years, with the Council joining a community campaign that eventually forced AGL to abandon a planned project in the area.
The decision to appoint Administrators to the newly merged councils lies with the Minister for Local Government, Paul Toole, a National party peer of Turner’s.
A spokesperson for Mr Toole said, “Administrators have the same integrity obligations that would apply to councillors with respect to matters such as conflict of interest, pecuniary interests and codes of conduct”.
The former Mayor of Taree Council, Paul Hogan said that his community was not overly concerned about another Yancoal mine operating in what was Taree Shire. But it does concern him, he said, that “ex-politicians seem to be given these cushy jobs”.
“John [Turner] was very strongly involved in the National Party, being a Deputy Leader, but if the opportunity comes up that they can reward ex-politicians, the political parties seem to make a pretty good fist of it.”
Mr Turner has also faced criticism for his work as the Chair of Whitehaven Coal’s controversial Maules Creek Mine. In late 2014 New Matilda revealed that he had presided over false records of meetings which eventually landed the company a fine.
Minutes had falsely suggested environmental group Greening Australia was on the Committee, and as a result the destruction of a critically endangered forest lacked an environmental representative for more than two years.
Mr Turner has not responded to requests for comment.
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