How ironic that on the eve of the ICAC findings into possibly the biggest corruption case in NSW politics the O’Farrell government announces a plan to change the rules in favour of mining companies.
The latest proposed law change “to promote the development of significant mineral resources” would be toasted in the board rooms of Rio Tinto, the world’s fourth-largest publicly listed mining company.
As we saw in the 16 year reign of the last NSW Labor government the financial muscle of the mining industry has many friends on Macquarie Street.
Their influence was extensive and regularly on display when a mining-impacted community had a legal win over a company more interested in their profit margins than the health of local residents and the environmental impact of their mining operations.
The common tactic used by the Labor government was to change the law so the mining company that felt hard done by could get its way. Those law changes were regularly supported by the National and Liberal parties with the Greens in opposition.
The Coalition now they are in government are abusing their power in a similar way to what Labor did.
However, before the O’Farrell government rush ahead with new rules they would be wise to remember how similar their actions are to those of the now disgraced former minster for mineral resources Ian Macdonald.
In 2008, with the backing of cabinet, Mr Macdonald pushed a bill through parliament to amend the Mining Act in order to sidestep a decision of the New South Wales Court of Appeal that had determined the owners of the Moolarben coalmine could not mine because the lease encroached on a lease held by mining giant Xstrata.
The Greens opposed this bill which some mining companies lobbied hard for. While the initial fight was between two mining companies it was mining impacted communities who were the losers under the new legislation that was passed by parliament in one day.
Speaking in the Legislative Council I detailed the benefits the bill delivered for the mining industry over landholders and identified Felix industries and White Mining, the owners of Moolarben, as having 'some good allies' in the Labor government.
What I did not know at the time, but as a result of the ICAC hearings is now on the public record, the two mining executives associated with these companies, Travers Duncan and Brian Flannery, jointly received $1 billion because of the change to the legislation. The Coalition voted with Labor to pass the amendments that Mr Macdonald had introduced to the Mining Act.
In 2010 Mr Macdonald was at it again, using legislation this time to overturn a community win in the court. A standout and historic action at the Rossmar property on the Liverpool Plains involved local farmers in a 615-day blockade to prevent BHP Billiton conducting exploration.
When these farmers took their case against the exploration activities of BHP Billiton to the Supreme Court, it was recognised that for years mining companies had failed to uphold landholder rights. BHP Billiton lost the case. This is a great example of how farmers, with the support of country, city folk and the Greens campaigned together to protect farming land.
Responding to the litigation, Mr Macdonald did not act to ensure mining companies upheld the law. Instead, in 2010 he introduced legislation, the Mining and Petroleum Legislation Amendment (Land Access) Bill that removed the obligation on miners to notify all landholders of their exploration plans and robbed the ability of landholders to take legal action against miners if they breached their exploration licence conditions.
Responsibility for this bad decision did not just rest with Mr Macdonald. The then Labor government with the support of the Coalition regularly put the interests of mining companies above communities, food security, water and the natural environment.
The Coalition and Labor may have reversed sides in parliament but when it comes to delivering for the mining industry they still work as a solid block. While Rio Tinto will be pleased with the O’Farrell government’s proposed law change the public will be left wondering if ICAC should expand their investigations.