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NSW Labor on mining and exploration in the valley

Geoff Helisma

When the Independent spoke with NSW Labor’s shadow minister for the North Coast Adam Searle MLC – also shadow minister for Climate Change and Energy, Industrial Relations, Planning and Better Living – he said he didn’t “believe it’s a case of you either have mining or protecting the environment; we have to find a way to do both”.

The interview seeks to discover the NSW Labor Party’s position on mining and exploration and is one of a series of stories about the possible threats mining poses to the valley’s most valuable asset, the Clarence River.


Independent: In regard to the Country Labor Conference recommendation to the Labor conference, can you explain the reasoning behind changing the local branch’s motion, “develop a comprehensive policy for issuing mining leases and exploratory mining leases in catchments of all NSW rivers to ensure the protection of the environmental and functional life of these rivers”, to “support a safe, strong, sustainable, responsible and well-regulated mining sector in NSW”?

Wouldn’t it be more ‘responsible’ to develop that kind of policy, rather than the adopted recommendation, which is rhetorical in nature?

Adam Searle: Well, okay, it’s the usual practice that party units put proposals to the party conference. The party policies committee obviously has a view about the recommendation they will make to the conference.

I’m not a part of that process, but issues around mining and environment and how competing considerations should be balanced are often robustly contested.

I’m not going to make any comment about our internal processes, but these are matters that will be robustly discussed [at conferences] whenever they’re held.

I: So you’re saying there may be some division at the Labor conferences, as there should be, because things should be discussed at length and then an outcome of that recommendation is basically at the mercy of the conference?

AS: Correct. The conference is the supreme policy-making body of our party. It binds the party, its members, including parliamentarians.

You’d remember the dramatic scenes about electricity privatisation at previous conferences; so we take the decisions of conferences very, very seriously.

It’s not so much a question of division; there are legitimate competing views about how we should approach these matters in a public policy sense.

I have a view, other party members and units have a view, and these have always been robustly contested; and the outcome is a matter for the conference, and we have to then, sort of, work within that framework.

These matters are constantly evolving according to the science. Obviously … mining has long been a feature of our economy and will continue to be, particularly if you want transition to a low emissions energy future.

We will need mining, because a lot of the components that will be needed in renewable energy are going to be the products of mining.

So we’ve got to make sure that we do provide a proper, robust framework, but one that protects not just the environment, but water. Water is a huge important issue and that will always weigh very heavily in any, not just any framework, but in any assessment of any given project.

I: At the governmental level, neither Clarence Valley Council, which trades on the river’s environmental values and all it brings to industries such as fishing, agriculture, boat building, tourism, recreation, etcetera, nor the NSW Government have shown concerns about ameliorating the threats mining might pose, instead, as Clarence MP Chris Gulaptis says, “An exploration licence is really minimally invasive … [and] when you find a deposit, not everything is approved … and it does have to meet the triple [test]; it’s got to [meet] social, economic and environmental [requirements]” is their adopted stance. What is the NSW Labor Party’s policy on addressing these types of issues in advance of exploration and actual mining taking place?

AS: Well, at the risk of repeating myself; we believe in a mining industry that is properly and robustly regulated and has the highest standards of environmental protection, particularly for water. It is a question of making sure that our assessment processes and standards meet community expectations and are world’s best practice.

We understand that mining brings wealth and jobs to the state and communities; but we also note there is an impact and we favour proper and robust standards of environmental protection.

I: Ironically, CVC’s biodiversity policy website page states that “changes to the aquatic environment and water flows” are identified as a primary threat; a threat CVC says needs to be “tackled head on”.

“Clarence Valley Council hopes that putting the spotlight on biodiversity will raise awareness about a range of threats and encourage our community to respond accordingly,” the website states.

“From an ecological and economic perspective it is preferable to prevent biodiversity decline, rather than ameliorate against adverse impacts after degradation has occurred.”

Fundamentally that’s the context for each of the interviews I have conducted regarding the dangers of mining in the Clarence Valley. So there’s a new policy and still they are not interested – surely, if there is exploration there must be an expectation of mining taking place?

AS: I understand that, that is a common sense approach; most explorations don’t actually lead to mining, so many exploration licences nominally expire and just sit there for years.

[However], I think this is one of the unsatisfactory approaches to our resources sector – that we allow these things to drift … where neither the holder of the licence or the department have an interest in resolving the issue.

…I think that is bad for local communities and bad for the public interest because it creates all kinds of problems. I think there should be a proper and timely decision-making process around these things – either there is going to be an application to renew, which is going to be determined within a reasonable timeframe, and it is renewed or it is not.

This is just one of the unsatisfactory features of resources regime, presently.

I: When asked this question – ‘Companies aren’t going to invest millions of dollars and the state government is not going to contribute up to $200,000 towards something [drilling test holes] if they don’t think it’s going to go ahead [are they]?’ Mr Gulaptis retorted that “we can close down the whole country and not have anything, because it’s going to be invasive”, if governments were to pre-empt possible outcomes as a result of exploration. He said that exploration is “contributing towards the economic conditions in our country by … employing people in that field”.

What are your thoughts on that idea?

AS: I think that kind of response is hysterical. These are very serious issues. The mining industry is a vital part of our economy, bringing in revenue, not just for those companies but for the workforces they employ and right across the supply chains, right across NSW.

Many companies in west and southwest Sydney are significant suppliers to the mining industry in the Hunter Valley and the Illawarra, so it’s not just a question of X number of jobs at this [Y] location.

Mining is a very important part of our economy, but increasingly we have become very aware of its impacts on environment, on water quality, air quality; and our systems of assessment and regulation needs to evolve to take those things into account, to make sure that impacts are minimised and we have the highest standards of protection for our air and water.

I don’t believe it’s a case of you either have mining or you protect the environment; we have to find a way to do both. The fact is most mining proposals do find their way through. Most mining proposals are not the subject of great public controversy.

I: When a government invests in a private company for exploration, isn’t it a reasonable expectation that the government expects a result? Would they invest money if they don’t expect a result? Most applications for grants have to show what the result will be to justify getting the money.

AS: No, completely and utterly wrong. I think this is part of government program to encourage exploration, to defray costs so [unfinished answer]. If it’s a threshold decision about whether we do an exploration, obviously companies would want to make sure that there’s a reasonable expectation that it will be worth their while. But if they’re receiving government support to do it, it means there is a lesser financial impact on them making that decision.

I think this is part of a general government policy, to encourage exploration at little to no cost to the mining company, [but] I don’t necessarily think that is a sensible use of public money.