Category Archives: Journalism

Hanson’s Golden Mile

KALGOORLIE, MARCH 8, 2017

Pauline emerges from the Kalgoorlie Miner offices, sees the journo wolf pack and visibly shudders. Prim in a close fitting one-piece outfit and heels, she’s looking unnerved but breaks into a gracious smile. There’s whoops and whistles and horn blasts coming from the traffic along Hannan Street. Just around the corner is the Golden Mile, a superpit revealing one of the biggest gold mines in the world.

But Pauline Hanson’s after another form of gold here in Western Australia, where the divide between rich whities and the conspicuously dispossessed Indigenous people is as stark as that in their skin colour.

As she waits at the corner (Kalgoorlie traffic lights taking an inordinately long time to change), a car sidles into the kerb with a small dog hanging out the window and a woman waving and smiling while trying to take a photo at the wheel. Pauline grins back. She’s getting the feel of the place.

A young fella who’s pursued the pack from outside the pub asks her for a photo, tries to put his arm around her, gives the flashing cameras a devil-may-care leer and afterwards tells us his name is Ollie.

“I’ve been drinkin’ in the pub since six this morning. Got a cheque for three and a half grand here.”

But asked whether he’d vote for her he laughs.

“I dunno who I’d vote for. I just wanted to get a photo with her.”

More drive-bys with thumbs up and the cry of “Pauline you rock.”

Across the road and into the shade and it’s handshakes all round, smiles of recognition blooming on the faces of people out doing whatever business keeps them in baking hot Kalgoorlie.

All around us, oblivious to this short-lived hootenanny, Indigenous people are enacting their own long game, the parallel slow-mo existence that Hansonites will never understand.

A short, sturdy woman claims Pauline with arms wide, declaring; “About time you came here. I’ve already voted for you.”

Pauline shakes the hand of a young Indian man who had evidently said something complimentary, the redhead replying, “Thank you. That’s very nice.”

She is beguiling, friendly. As I walk alongside her I try to ask a question but I’m tongue-tied. She leans closer.

“Sorry, I didn’t understand the question?”

Then she’s crossing the road to the courthouse, her two minders trying to brush me aside. They’re a white bearded Scotsman, Robin Scott from the Mining and Pastoral Party and Richard Bolton, the local One Nation candidate who has no posters in town and who, according to everyone I’ve asked is not actually running a campaign. We’ve been here a week and certainly seen no evidence of one. It seems Pauline’s visit is the campaign.

We’re now outside the courthouse, torn apart in August last year in a spontaneous uprising by indigenous people grieving the killing of a 14 year old boy, by a white man who was only charged with manslaughter. Facebook had been alight with vigilante-style groups and vicious racist commentary before and after the boy’s death. On the personal pages of many of the group’s members, One Nation memes and devotion were common.

Pauline spots me again and asks; “I’m sorry I couldn’t hear you before …”

I stand at her side. Cameras are flashing. I ask if she’s aware of the killing of of Elijah Doughty and the ensuing grief and unrest in the town. She looks puzzled and says no, she doesn’t know anything about it.

Robin Scott interrupts, saying, yes he knows and will make comment about it later. He hurries his important charge on.

People are gathering, holding children aloft. It’s a fan club. They’re staring at Hanson like she’s the Pope, about to bless them. A lone black man in hi-viz cast-offs shuffles past, eyes downcast. Couldn’t have been better scripted.

A twenty something girl with platinum and purple hair and a kind of medieval frock vest puts her arm boldly around Pauline, grinning widely. Pauline is aglow. Despite the temptation to depict her as a monster, it’s impossible not to marvel at her magnetism. I have to keep reminding myself of the virulent racist subtext, ignorant policies-on-the-run and insular, overweening world-view.

“More and more people are following you,” says another short, fierce looking woman with pearls and a peach blouse. “And they can’t ignore it, no matter how hard they try.”

‘They’, I suppose, are the mainstream media and their lunch money – Labor and the Coalition. The Pauline fan club, consciously or otherwise, are echoing the Trumpists, seeing Hanson as our own Greatness Maker.

As Pauline talks to more people, the cameras are being arranged for interviews with the ABC and Channel 9 Perth. Guy Rundle is there, Crikey’s roving gonzo. His latest piece spoke of the dysfunction in One Nation’s Western Australia campaign, candidates displaying little concept of the standard apparatus of an election campaign. Internal feuding, litigation and failed candidates are daily news items.

But the cameras are waiting for Ashby, who’s stalking through the courthouse portico, on a succession of calls.

“I’m just the middle man,” he snarls. “Don’t fucken flog me.”

Then: “He wanted to be a candidate. Haven’t seen him. Been here in Kalgoorlie all morning.”

Finally Ashby sets up his own camera. He’s a one man media unit, the trash-texting Angel of Death for the 2011 Parliament’s disgraced Speaker Peter Slipper and Julia Gillard’s short-lived majority.

The ABC journo is being directed out of her light by a very professional Pauline. She speaks crisply about the unfairness of the GST levied on Queensland and Western Australia, the two states where her popularity is greatest.

Two overly protective security guards exceed their remit in attempting to aggressively block photographer Dean Sewell’s camera angles, one of them calling him a bloody idiot.

“You’re the one who’s waving your arms around,” he tells the florid faced woman, who’s very anxious to impress Pauline.

There’s been an attractive young couple hanging around the outskirts of the melee, trying to get a photo. Now the woman, a tall blonde wearing shorts and singlet is facing her partner, who’s trying to get her in shot with Pauline. She’s holding a sign on a piece of A4 paper.

Pauline glides over.

“Would you like a photo?”

“Yes, please,” says the woman, folding the sign up in embarrassment.

“What’s on the sign?” asks Dean.

“Oh, I don’t really want to …”

“Go on,” he yells.

She stands beside Pauline, unfolding the sign. Cameras flash. It says; “You Are The Worst.”

Pauline clocks it and says, “Oh.”

“I’m sorry, but I really don’t support anything you stand for,” the woman says. There’s a brief silence, but nobody’s really shocked. It’s all part of the show.

“Just the general racism,” the woman, who’s from Adelaide, and whose name is Kate Wilson, replies to a question from the ABC.

This minor piece of bravery is mostly noticed by the journalists, who swarm around Ms Wilson, Rundle plying her with questions. It doesn’t seem to bother Pauline at all. She’s happily at the centre of this swirling vortex of fame and emotion. Like Trump, she espouses simple pub politics, withholding the spiteful subtext of racism that’s well understood by her fanbase, the champions of White Australia and rule of thumb politics. They love her for it, the half-baked anti-vaccination theories, the Aboriginal-bashing, the Muslim baiting. She plays it with just the right amount of humility and glamour, giving credence to their rancour and they’re star-struck and grateful.

As Pauline’s entourage sweeps off on her way to do ABC radio, in her wake I overhear an overweight security guard on his phone;

“You’’ll never guess who I just shook hands with,” he says. “Pauline Hanson. Yeah. Had a bit of a yarn. I said ‘you’re doing an awesome job’.”

I can hear horns beeping, see people turning, looking over their shoulders and hear car horns trailing down Hannan Street. At the courthouse, people are still gathered, talking excitedly.

Last week we’d interviewed the Mayor of Kalgoorlie, John Bowler, who’d pooh-poohed Hanson’s chances in the WA elections this Saturday. “A souffle never rises twice,” he’d said, quoting Paul Keating. Like many in the political establishment he doesn’t see her relevance. Mind you, he also denies Kalgoorlie is more racist than anywhere else in Australia and scorns the relevance of social media to the real world.

Just as in Trump’s march to power, pundits have been divided on Pauline’s party’s electoral chances in Western Australia this Saturday, March 11. But, with Queensland predicted to follow suit later in the year, it seems likely they’ll win an unprecedented number of seats. And if Pauline’s popularity in Kalgoorlie is any indication, then it seems she just needs to get out of her own way.

 

Article on online mag The Big Smoke on Gomeroi people protesting Shenhua Mine

http://thebigsmoke.com.au/2015/10/15/gomeroi-nation-shenhua-mine-joined-blockade/

Traditional owners of our land set to join blockade of Shenhua Mine if approvals are met, writes new TBS contributor, Mick Daley.

Gomeroi traditional owner Mitchum Neave says he’s prepared to join the new Liverpool Plains Alliance in a blockade to stop the Shenhua Watermark Mine in NSW. Traditional lands and a rich agricultural sector are soon to be obliterated if final approvals are granted by Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt for a 35km square open cut mine in the heart of the Liverpool Plains.

“I won’t speak for other people, but I’ll join a blockade,” Mitchum said, in disgust at Federal Government inaction over alleged breaches of Shenhua’s Cultural Heritage Management Plan (CHMP).

The Gomeroi of Red Chief Local Aboriginal Land Council in Gunnedah say that Sections 9 and 10 of the CHMP have been sitting on Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s desk for two years. They say that breaches of these two sections will clearly show that mining cannot commence on their traditional lands.

Yet Minister Hunt gave approval for the mine to proceed in June 2015, without consideration of the CHMP breaches.

“We’ve had a gutful of the destruction of our culture; we’ll rally together and march on Canberra,” said Mitchum.

Mitchum is a TO from the Breeza township, who was born and bred in nearby Gunnedah. He’s also a Senior Deputy Captain in the Regional Fire Service. He had been a consultant to the NSW Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) when they ordered Shenhua to conduct cultural heritage surveys of the proposed mine site. The Liverpool Plains hide many relics as well as massacre sites, according to Mitchum. But the Grinding Grooves represent spiritual values unfathomable to white culture – not to mention their patent historical value.

“The Grinding Grooves are a war memorial site. I told them at the Planning Assessment Commission meeting, this is our Gallipoli site,” Mitchum explains.

“You wouldn’t like it if I went to your war memorial and destroyed it. I’d be locked up.”

In their CHMP, Shenhua had recognised 55 Aboriginal archaeological sites, but determined that only 26 of them would be conserved. The Grinding Grooves, despite being identified as having high cultural value, would be moved.

“That’s just ridiculous,” snorts Mitchum. “You can’t move them. Some of those sites are the size of a double decker bus. There’s natural spring water runs through the sandstone. If you take it out of that wet environment it’ll dry out and disintegrate.

“I don’t care what rock doctor they get; as soon as they move it, you can’t put it back together.”

The Grooves are deeply scored into clumps of sandstone rock. They were rallying points for Gomeroi warriors prior to white settlement. Strategically placed along the ridgeline above the plains facing south, they look out to where marauding bands of Wiradjuri or Casuli tribesmen – or for that matter, white settlers – would appear.

These were focal points for the Gomeroi culture – sacred space where life is so close to the veil, where death and the unknown come close to this world. Today they are the last hope for the survivors of the Gomeroi people as they seek to preserve their heritage and the land that is as dear to them as life itself.

But this close to final approvals, it seems that Sections 9 and 10 of the CHMP will most certainly be ignored.

Sue Higginson, Principal Litigator for the Environmental Defender’s Office, is pursuing a case against Shenhua Watermark Mine on behalf of a Landcare Group protecting the large koala population there. But she says she has examined the Gomeroi people’s case and sees little hope for legal action on their behalf.

“Our cultural heritage laws are in bad shape. The tragedy is that there aren’t very many options when it comes to cultural heritage. It’s an absolute disgrace.”

It’s a sorry business indeed.

If Shenhua had conducted more thorough surveys of the sites, Mitchum says, they would have turned up hundreds of artefacts and sites.

Mitchum had accompanied their surveys as a consultant.

“When you do these surveys the transects are supposed to be done on foot. They done it in a four wheel drive, but the grass is three foot high – you can’t see anything.

“One of the criteria for their approvals here was they had to survey 17 percent of the country, but they only ended up doing two percent of it. But the mine people will just shop around ’til they find an archeologist who writes what they want.”

Like the other Gomeroi, Mitchum is utterly disillusioned with this process.

“I was told when I grew up, ‘Keep it to yourself. Two things the white man will do, they’ll sell it or destroy it.’”

Fed up with following normal channels, the Gomeroi people have now joined the Liverpool Plains Alliance. It’s a group that’s uniting farmers, townspeople, Lock The Gate and environmental groups including The Wilderness Society and 350.org.

The Alliance is exerting considerable political pressure on both State and Federal Governments. Legal actions are shortly to commence.

With the price of thermal coal plummeting and pressure mounting against extractive fossil fuel industries to curtail their global warming emissions, new coal mines are increasingly seen as very dangerous propositions.

Australia’s conservative State and Federal Governments are resisting mounting international pressure to dramatically reduce carbon output. Their determination to subsidise and promote coal over renewables has made this mine seem inevitable.

But if all else fails, the farmers of the Liverpool Plains and many members of the Alliance have pledged to blockade the mine site and refuse to allow construction to commence. Mitchum, Aunty Dolly Talbot and the Gomeroi elders are all for it. They’ve had enough of this sorry business.

“We don’t want to break the law, ‘cause they’ll paint you as the bad person, but we were trying to do the right thing and the Government has failed us,” said Mitchum.

“It’s time now to stand up for our culture.”

 

The Liverpool Plains Alliance is holding an awareness and activist training weekend, the Harvest Festival Against Shenhua, on the Liverpool Plains next to the proposed mine site, on November 6 to November 8, 2015.

See the Facebook site for more details.

Published 6/8/16 in the Saturday Paper as ‘Uneducated Guess’

In October 2015, an unconventional gas mining well head ruptured at Aliso Canyon near Los Angeles. It belched out a massive plume of methane – the most potent greenhouse gas. Overhead, a Hyperion spectrometer aboard a NASA satellite measured the equivalent of the yearly emissions from 572,000 cars surging into the overburdened atmosphere.

It’s no accident the Hyperion was aboard that satellite. Data from it was being crunched by NASA scientists as part of a continuing assessment of “fugitive emissions” from the leak-prone gas mining industry.

America’s Environmental Defence Fund estimates a quarter of anthropogenic global warming is caused by methane emissions. Almost half of that comes from fugitive emissions – leaking wells, pipes and compressors used in coal or gas mining.

The United States has had an enormous, largely unregulated gas extraction industry since the 1950s. Known as shale gas in the US, the industry accounted for 40 per cent of natural gas production as at 2014 and is on the rise, having generated 1.7 million new jobs, while drastically lowering the cost of domestic gas.

“The political sensitivities are real. It would be surprising to me if it had no effect.”

Despite this employment and revenue boom, and in a political climate coming to terms with the realities of climate change, the Obama administration has been bankrolling concerted fugitive emission research projects. In May, the Environmental Protection Agency issued new rules specifically aimed at curbing gas-mining emissions.

That’s a startling contrast with Australia’s pro-coal seam gas (CSG) Coalition government. The government’s studies of gas fields in Queensland have been funded largely by the Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA), a joint project between the federal Department of Industry, Innovation and Science and big mining companies. GISERA provided $14 million for a study that found fugitive emissions to be negligible.

The department declined to comment on the issue.

However, Dr Michael Borgas, formerly a principal research scientist and head of the staff association at CSIRO, has observed how government cuts impair serious research.

“We’re losing some of that capability to be able to do proper measurements and monitoring of those sorts of emissions … and to make sure it’s done in a publicly funded, transparent way, so that the knowledge is better trusted,” Borgas told The Saturday Paper.

The government’s scientific body, the CSIRO, has had 1300 jobs cut in two years by successive federal budgets – 150 of them from climate research, according to Borgas. It is as yet unclear what to make of this week’s announcement by new Science Minister Greg Hunt that the CSIRO should refocus on climate change science.

Borgas has lodged a case with the Fair Work Commission for unfair dismissal from his CSIRO position.

“The reason given in my case was reduction in the need for near-field particle analysis. So … they wanted to remove capabilities related to air quality and the exposure of humans to toxic chemicals.

“There’s a contention about whether the decisions [on job cuts] were made on factors like union membership. That came to the fore on the basis of emails that were released to the senate inquiry.”

Federal subsidies to the fossil fuel industry are estimated to be about $7.7 billion annually. The Coalition and Labor between them have received $3.7 million in donations from fossil fuel companies since the 2012 election.

A Sydney Morning Herald investigation found 24 ministers or advisers moving into high-level industry jobs after careers spent facilitating mining projects. A former adviser of New South Wales Premier Mike Baird is the current CEO of the NSW Minerals Council, and Baird’s draconian protest laws were promised to the mining industry at a pre-election dinner in 2014.

The prevailing message from ministers and lobbyists has been that Australia needs CSG to forestall an energy crisis. Yet The Sydney Morning Herald investigation revealed how Australia is essentially giving away liquefied natural gas (LNG) resources to multinational miners while claiming a shortfall in gas supplies.

The new federal minister for the environment and energy is Josh Frydenberg – a confirmed proponent of CSG as a means of ensuring Australia’s domestic gas supply.

In this political environment independent scientists struggle for funding research of fugitive emissions.

Professor Isaac Santos is a researcher at the National Marine Science Centre in Coffs Harbour. An expert in greenhouse gases, he has worked all over the world, from Antarctica to China.

Since 2008, Santos has been the beneficiary of 14 Australian Research Council (ARC) grants worth $4.5 million. But he says that when it comes to getting funding for CSG studies in Australia, he has hit a brick wall.

“I applied for nine research grants in 2013,” he says. “I got five. The four I failed are CSG related.”

Santos is quick to assert he’s not a coal seam gas activist.

“I just believe in science,” he said.

In 2012, he and a team of Southern Cross University scientists made a submission to the government’s now defunct Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency on fugitive emissions from gas fields in south-west Queensland. Using a cavity ring-down spectrometer, the baby cousin of the Hyperion, they demonstrated hugely elevated leakages.

“It took us one day driving a car to obtain more on methane in Australian CSG fields than has been made available in over 10 years,” Santos said.

That report provoked a savage response from ministers and industry. Santos and his colleagues were pilloried for not having a baseline study with which to compare their findings. That would mean having data on natural methane emissions before gas mining infrastructure was introduced, in order to prove that these elevated emissions were directly caused by industrialised gas fields.

But no gas fields in Australia have baseline studies – energy companies were not required to have these before they were given exploration licences in the late-20th century.

Santos and his team were vindicated when the paper was peer-approved, meaning their methodology and results were found by the scientific community to be impeccable.

However, without adequate funding, he says that research into gas field emissions can never match the findings made by US scientists.

“What you’re really missing in Australia now is the landscape scale. You can do this bottom-up approach of adding up a bunch of wells, or we could fly over and get the gas fields as a point source. But we don’t have that capacity here.

“The Americans have those models but they are flying. We should be flying but it’s a money issue. We’re 10 years behind the Americans in that respect.”

The University of Melbourne’s Professor Peter Rayner, one of Australia’s foremost carbon cycle and climate researchers, says that while the ARC is well insulated against political interference, other funding avenues are more vulnerable.

“The political sensitivities are real. It would be surprising to me if it had no effect, particularly on direct government funding.”

Rayner says that CSIRO scientists in Australia are doing serious research and postulates a midpoint between their findings and those of Santos.

“There’s only one truth out there and at the moment we’re seeing different aspects of it. It’s worth remembering that [fugitive emission] doesn’t have to be very serious before it cancels out much of the climate benefit of the gas [in comparison with coal].”

While acknowledging the integrity of individual scientists, Santos questions the CSIRO findings. He says they are compromised by the nature of their funding body.

“The data that’s come out in the past two or three years is … cherrypicked,” Santos says.

“They’re not measuring the worst wells, because they’re being guided by the industry. There are a thousand wells in the catchment, so they give them a list – can you please choose 50 for me?”

Rayner also says that the inability to conduct proper research means that scientists are missing another crucial contributor to gas field emissions.

“The sleeper issue is the geology in these CSG areas,” he said. “There might be evidence … to be concerned about whether the geology … is conducting methane to the surface.

“There’s evidence of that in the US – hotspots of methane where they’re not extracting anymore. While worrying about the infrastructure we might miss the slow-burning percolation of methane through the soil that could change the overall picture.”

In mid-July Borgas had a hearing over his case for unfair dismissal from the CSIRO. He has been directed to further negotiate with the institution.

“There are up to 30 people, maybe more, that have claims that their redundancies are not valid,” he says.

“The current minister [Christopher Pyne] was an advocate for improving air quality in Australia as a national priority, so whether or not he brings that to the new direction [of research priority] remains to be seen.”

 

Cause of Action

The morning Sue Higginson invites me to court, she is there to hear the decision on a New South Wales Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) case disputing Chinese coal company Yancoal’s bid to expand operations in the Hunter Valley town of Camberwell.

Higginson is principal litigator and lately chief executive of the defenders office which, in this instance, had represented widowed octogenarian farmer Wendy Bowman’s property against Yancoal.

In the courtroom, a bewigged justice read the verdict.

“I dismiss the appeal,” he uttered dryly, “with costs.” And with that, a landmark case against Big Coal was won.

“We’ve got a political system that has privileged the rights of these multinational corporations over the top of community and environmental rights.”

It was another in a series of astonishing victories for the legal centre. Higginson and her outfit have a formidable record, having been responsible for a series of victories against multinational corporations.

“We’re very small and we punch way above our weight,” Higginson observes. “But change is slow in a system as big as ours.”

The legal centre suffered an enormous blow in December 2013, when then prime minister Tony Abbott pulled vital federal funding. The following year the NSW government also reduced state funding.

But Higginson and the EDO are nothing if not resilient. Since then, they’ve undertaken ambitious fund-raising drives that have helped facilitate recent wins over Japanese whalers, the Indian Adani corporation and its massive Carmichael coal project in Queensland, and now Yancoal at Camberwell.

Higginson’s is an amazing story. In 10 years, she’s risen to become head of an institution that is on the front line of environmental advocacy in Australia.

In an age of potentially disastrous global warming crises, women such as Higginson have formed the vanguard of Australia’s environmental protection. From Indigenous spokeswomen to corporate warriors, they are bringing the fight for survival from the fringe of activism to our mainstream courts and stock exchanges.

With up to 90 per cent of Australia’s landmass under exploration or mining licences, many of these issues directly relate to mining and the extraction of fossil fuels.

Sue Higginson’s story is particularly germane, as her role means she is directly involved in legal battles across the spectrum of environmental issues. It’s a role she relishes, one she’s been working towards since she came to the struggle in her mid-teens, while at school in Melbourne.

“I picked up that in NSW we were logging old-growth forest and that there was very little left. And as an inquisitive young person I kept looking for the sense in that,” she says.

She left home for northern NSW, where she joined the North East Forest Alliance. “It was an organisation that had a plan, and I need a plan,” Higginson says. “I’m not just an emotional operator, I need to operate on the basis of scientific evidence and most importantly within a context.”

Higginson spent years on the remote front line of forestry campaigns, negotiating with loggers and police at often-volatile blockades. After the forest alliance won seven landmark court cases and successfully stopped old-growth logging in NSW, she found herself sitting across from government ministers, helping carve out the deals that created the forest reserve system that stands today.

“I found myself having to master all these skills. I learnt a lot about the legal system, about social movements, and I saw a very clear line in that you do it through science and evidence,” she says.

“So I got myself into university and I could see all the way from day one that the law was going to be the tool to further the actual purpose that I was put on the earth to do, and that was to protect the environment.”

Graduating with first-class honours, Higginson began working in private practice. Three years later, she took a job with the Environmental Defenders Office. After seven years, she became principal solicitor. In 2015, she became chief executive.

“I’ve become an expert in public interest environmental law, and the best vehicle in this country to assist the community is the organisation I work for,” she says. “Becoming CEO means that I can have a seriously committed attempt at keeping this organisation the best it can be.”

That is a very high standard. The office has operated with remarkable success for 30 years, so well that it has made very powerful enemies.

In 2012 the Minerals Council’s chief executive, Stephen Galilee, accused the EDO of a “deliberate campaign of economic sabotage” and the next year lobbied for punitive measures from attorney-general George Brandis and then NSW premier Barry O’Farrell, who later stood down over evidence given to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Indeed, two Labor and 12 Liberal MPs have been dragged before ICAC over corruption allegations related to the approval of coal and coal seam gas mining projects in recent years. Nonetheless, Higginson’s outfit lost most state and federal funding.

Private funding by tax-deductible donations is also endangered, as the Coalition has sought to revoke the office’s charitable status.

“It’s times like that that I have a rare moment of questioning the effectiveness of what we’re doing,” Higginson confides.

“We’ve got a political system that has privileged the rights of these multinational corporations over the top of community and environmental rights.”

In 2013, the office represented the citizens of Bulga, a small town in the Hunter Valley, against the extension of an open-cut mine owned by Rio Tinto. The office won the case, at which point O’Farrell changed legislation so the miners could appeal. After a second loss, and O’Farrell’s disgrace, the Baird government has amended its rules in a third attempt to force the mine expansion.

“So that’s the other thing, you’ve gotta be a fighter in this job,” Higginson says. “The sense of injustice is just horrific when that happens.”

Such injustice has provoked considerable civil unrest as citizens, many of them farmers, are becoming aware of the power that multinational miners hold over their country.

“Now we’re seeing this massive growing movement throughout NSW and Queensland. Farmers who have never protested against anything before are standing up to say, ‘Enough’,” Higginson says. “When I started my foray into environmental protection, there was a lot of polarised conflict. It was loggers versus greenies or farmers versus greenies.

“But in the last five years, traditional National Party voters are seeing reason in what the greener side of politics is speaking.

“You throw in the very serious issue of climate change and you’re getting a very complex alliance of people.”

This first manifested when farmers, assisted by the Environmental Defenders Office, began mobilising against massive coal and CSG projects in Queensland. It came into its own in the Northern Rivers of NSW, where a coalition of farmers and townspeople combined to see off speculative CSG mining company Metgasco.

More recently on the NSW Liverpool Plains, a similar alliance has vowed to stop Shenhua’s planned 35-square-kilometre open-cut mine in some of the finest agricultural land in the country.

In the Pilliga Forest, where mining company Santos seeks to drill more than 800 CSG wells in the recharge area for the Great Artesian Basin, farmers from all over north-western NSW are joining activists to blockade drilling rigs.

“The clients that I work with…” Higginson says. “It’s hard to explain just how dedicated and committed these groups and individuals are and the burden that they carry, in most cases on behalf of all Australians, of generations that haven’t yet come.”

This workload takes a heavy toll on Higginson, as she commutes between work in Sydney and family in Lismore. But she is resolute that the sacrifices she makes are more than compensated for by the importance of her work and of the law centre.

“I know this office really well. When I say this office, I’m talking about an institution that has developed over 30 years and needs to be here, not just in the next 30 years but as long as we have a civil society that is governed by a legal system. This office is fundamental.

“Some nights, when it’s hard to sleep because I’ve got a massive case the next day, I long for the day when somebody taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘My turn,’” says Higginson.

“But at the end of the day I know that seeking environmental justice is not about one case. This is a lifetime engagement and it will go beyond my years.”

 

A gathering storm

http://aidanricketts.com/the-perfect-storm-shenhua-and-the-liverpool-plains/

The softly spoken Andrew Pursehouse is a well-known man on the Liverpool Plains. Patriarch of a long established farming family, a prominent businessman, a respected regional elder. He’s brother-in-law to former Independent MP Tony Windsor and a founding member of the Caroona Coal Action Group (CCAG), representing over 400 landholders and local businesses, the longest running opponents of the Shenhua Watermark mine.

Finally approved in July 2015 by Environment Minister Greg Hunt, this would allow a massive 35km square open cut mine in the middle of the finest agricultural land in Australia.

The mine is now awaiting final approvals from the NSW government, whose leader Mike Baird, Nationals leader Troy Grant and local member Kevin Anderson all made pre-election assurances to the members of CCAG that they would oppose the mine.

Pursehouse and a majority of farmers across the State, in a new alliance with other concerned groups have vowed to fight this mine to the end – ‘whatever it takes’. As Tony Windsor famously said, they consider it to be the wrong mine in the wrong place.

But with the federal Government attempting to strip Australians of their right to contest mining proposals through gutting the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC), a perfect storm of dissent is looming.

Andrew Pursehouse points to the dining room table of his house, just above the Mooki River, the life blood of the Liverpool Plains.

“Before the election Baird made a commitment at that table right there. He said ‘I’m going to take this on personally’. We’ve never heard from him since. So them being here was an election stunt.”

There were plenty of witnesses. The members of CCAG present, conservative farmers all, were Fiona Simpson (former president, NSW Farmers), John Hampersum, Juanita Hampersum, Jim McDonald, who used to sit on the Independent Expert Scientific panel, Susie Lyall and political lobbyist Tim Duddy.

The plain facts

Andrew Pursehouse is under no illusions as to the damage such a mine would cause on the Liverpool Plains.

“It’s not just the water issue and potential damages to the aquifer, it’s the salt and the dust on 270 degrees around it, what that can do to our agricultural products, the koalas, the Aboriginal heritage.

Fiona Simson, former president of the powerful NSW Farmers group, is adamant that the farming community will never allow this mine to be built.

Simson’s focus is on Shenhua’s passing the fit and proper person test that was put in place by this government last year. Shenhua currently has four senior executives under investigation for corruption.

John Hamparsum, whose farm lies very close to the immediate impact zone of the mine site, is rather more blunt:

“The people’s resolve is such that there’ll never be a bulldozer on that country.

“The gloves would be off and it’d be civil disobedience at a level that the government hasn’t seen in NSW. Tempers are that point now that people want action, they want blood.”

CCAG have already launched 27 anti-mining court cases.

In 2008 they first opposed BHP with a blockade at Breeza led by the octogenarian George Clift, who famously stated that he’d meet them at the gates with a shotgun before he’d let them mine the Liverpool Plains. That 635 day blockade effectively discouraged anyone from attempting to mine here till 2011, when 100 farmers blockaded Santos from exploratory drilling for coal seam gas.

Andrew Pursehouse warns of a politically ruinous anti-mining campaign, if Hunt elects to pursue this course.

“We’ve got good grounds for further legal action and we’ve got the support of the Australia Farmers Fighting Fund, because this is of national significance. We’ve already spent round about a million bucks fighting this.

“So we’re not afraid to put money where it counts. But if all else fails we’ll stand up for our rights and invite whoever wants to be here and stop this nonsense. Don’t underestimate what a farmer can do.”

A national concern

The Shenhua Watermark mine has been been mired in controversy since corrupt former Labor minister Ian McDonald first sold an exploration license to the Chinese on the misconception that it was further south in the Hunter Valley.

Now the structural price of thermal coal is steadily falling and Chinese coal imports have dramatically dropped away as their sluggish domestic economy, concerns over pollution and increasing reliance on renewables start to bite.

As national attention has focused on the Liverpool Plains it has become clear that the negative impacts of coal mining are becoming critical in the national consciousness.

An online petition garnered over 50,000 signatures, while an independent Facebook group with hundreds of members is pledging to launch a citizen’s blockade.

Gunnedah’s Namoi Valley Independent newspaper held an online poll that showed 97% of 4,700 respondents to be against the mine.

And a new crowd-funded TV campaign from citizen’s advocacy group Lock The Gate is spearheaded by Alan Jones, who in it declares that “the latest move by the Abbott government puts at risk not just our environment but our very democracy”.

That notion of democracy hinges upon a belief in the sanctity of its iconic bellweathers. Besides food and water security two other salient issues here are Aboriginal cultural heritage and the koala population.

Mitcham Neave, a traditional owner (TO) of the Gomeroi people claims that while the entire Plains are sacred there are special sites, known as the Grinding Grooves, which absolutely must be protected.

Neave says they are an important war memorial site, where warriors used to sharpen spears for conflict with marauding Casula or Wiradjuri tribes – and white settlers.

“This is our Gallipoli site right here,” he says. “You wouldn’t like it if I destroyed your war memorial, I’d be locked up.”

He says they cannot be safely moved.

“Some of those sites are the size of a double decker bus. I don’t care what rock doctor they get, as soon as they move it you can’t put it back together.”

He and his fellow TO’s, who have followed all the processes within the law to this point, are fed up with being ignored. Neaves says he’s now ready for more direct action.

“I won’t speak for other people but I’ll join a blockade. We’ve had a gutful of the destruction of our culture, we’ll rally together.”

Sue Higginson is principal litigator for the Environmental Defender’s Office (EDO), who are representing the Upper Mooki Landcare Group in a public interest case on behalf of the koala populations of the area.

“They’re alleging that when the PAC made their decision they have failed to properly consider the impacts the mine is going to have on koalas,” she said.

“Essentially there’s a requirement that questions is this mine likely to place a local population at risk of extinction? Never did they answer that question. And that’s what it comes down to.”

Higginson says that the government is proceeding in non-compliance with the laws surrounding mining developments, just as they did in Queensland, where Adani’s case was defeated after Environment Minister Greg Hunt failed to take into account the fate of two threatened species in his approval of the Carmichael mine.

The head of the Landcare group is Nicky Chirlian, a speech pathologist and farmer who lives well clear of the mine site.

“My initial reaction is these bears are just going to die,” she says.

“Shenhua’s translocation plan effectively means the koalas have to get down from the trees and run away from the bulldozers in the first instance. The Koala Foundation has warned very clearly that translocation of koalas had a very high mortality rate of 90-100%.”

Tony Windsor, former Independent member for Tamworth and New England, sees behind these emotive issues a clear legal disconnect. He’s well placed to comment on the issue, being the man who effectively negotiated the ‘Water Trigger’ bill through the Senate in 2013, ensuring that coal seam gas (CSG) and coal mining projects cannot proceed until independent scientific advice concludes they won’t damage water resources.

“My viewing of the tea leaves is that this mine won’t happen,” he said. “Part of that will be because of public resistance, part will be because of the breach of process from both Hunt and Baird.

“I believe it can be shown that Hunt, Baird and Barnaby Joyce haven’t abided by their own processes of the law. In fact by circumventing the bio-regional assessment process they’ve removed the very evidence that’s required to determine the longer term scientific implications of this mine.

“All of those things will eventually get explored in the courts, that’s one of the reasons why Abbott was on about the environmental vigilante stuff. They talk about Adani but it’s just as much about this mine and the Chinese Free Trade Agreement as anywhere else.”

“It’s the most complex issue that I’ve ever dealt with in politics and it’s the easiest one to create politics out of.”

An Alliance is formed

Now CCAG have entered into a Liverpool Plains Alliance with other groups – including traditional foes in environmental groups such as The Wilderness Society.

Instrumental in forming this alliance has been Naomi Hodgson of the Wilderness Society. She has earned the respect of north western NSW farmers for her staunch campaigning in the Pilliga forest, where some 18 local landholders have been arrested striving to prevent Santos from establishing a proposed 800 CSG wells.

“This issue has sparked a raw nerve throughout the populace,” she said. ““People who’ve never before felt strongly on coal mining issues can see that we must draw a line against the industry’s perpetual expansion, digging up some of our best food producing country for coal is a proposal that crosses that line.”

The Alliance has created a major social movement on the Plains, abetted by the emergence of the Liverpool Plains Youth, comprising the sons and daughters of local farmers with perhaps less of the ingrained resistance to green groups as their forebears. They’re planning an activist training weekend in November to prepare against potential police confrontation.

This continues a phenomenon begun at the anti CSG blockade at Bentley in northern NSW, where hundreds of conservative townspeople and farmers aligned themselves with environmental groups and activists to stop that proposal.

The Bentley effect

Aidan Ricketts is a legal academic from Lismore, close to Bentley. A veteran forestry activist, he was instrumental in the conduct of the Bentley campaign. In the emergence of this Alliance he sees a similar catalyst for widespread community dissent.

“The Liverpool Plains really cracks open the agriculture versus mining issue.

“The Plains is a whole grab bag of signifiers – China and the Free Trade factor, indigenous heritage, the koalas, Tony Windsor and water, even this Pacific leader’s forum. Each one’s capable of igniting a different constituency and where you have this grand alliance coming together it all rises up and boils over. Once that happens the system as a whole becomes far greater than the sum of its parts and that’s where the Bentley effect comes in.

“It’s a bear trap for the National Party as well. They couldn’t have picked a worse place to try it on.”

Phil Laird, an ex-farmer himself and president of public advocacy group Lock The Gate, points out that following their corruption scandal, Shenhua are dramatically curtailing their capital expenditure in overseas markets. He says that detailed market analyses show a pronounced downturn in Chinese interest in Australian coal.

“Shenhua don’t necessarily want this mine. Probably if it wasn’t approved by Greg Hunt they would have quietly welcomed the decision. They don’t want to build any new greenfield sites. Their focus is going to be on brown fuel sites inside China.

“China produces about 4.5 billion tonnes of coal a year. Australia produces about 450 million. They’re reducing their production by about 10% a year so they’re effectively reducing their production by the entire Australian production. Now they’ve been stuck in a situation they don’t want. They’re looking for a face saver of some kind.”

The new landscape

Andrew Pursehouse is pinning his hopes on a political solution. In the light of a new political landscape he says there may well be a change of heart on this matter. Prime Minister Turnbull owns two farms in the Hunter Valley and he and his wife visited the Pursehouse property three years ago.

“Turnbull has been a water minister so had a pretty good understanding of the delicate water systems we have here. So he’d be more of a friend than Abbott.”

More recently, Independent MP Jacki Lambie attended an anti-mine tractor rally on the Plains and stayed two nights at the Pursehouse residence.

“In the senate recently she exposed large political donations from four Chinese names connected to Shenhua ,to Labor, Liberal and the Nationals,” Pursehouse said.

“So we’re looking at changes in that sphere, but if all else fails, well, the people that did the Maules Creek blockade are looking for a new camp, they want to come here.”

He points to the nearby town of Breeza, where Murray Dreschler, the founder and stalwart of the Maules Creek mine blockade, has established a weekend camp, on invitation from the Breeza Progress Association.

“So it’ll be more than just farmers, it’ll be the so-called green element. The passionate professionals, along with the general community. If all else fails it will come to that, but this is last resort stuff.”

Mike Baird’s office was approached for comment on Andrew Pursehouse’s claims. His press officer declined.

Sorry Business – First showing in The Big Smoke online magazine

http://thebigsmoke.com.au/2015/10/15/gomeroi-nation-shenhua-mine-joined-blockade/

Sorry Business

Mick Daley © 2015

 

Gomeroi traditional owner Mitchum Neave says he’s prepared to join the new Liverpool Plains Alliance in a blockade to stop the Shenhua Watermark mine in NSW. Traditional lands and a rich agricultural sector are soon to be obliterated if final approvals are granted by federal environment minister Greg Hunt for a 35km square open cut mine in the heart of the Liverpool Plains.

“I won’t speak for other people, but I’ll join a blockade,” Mitchum said, in disgust at federal government inaction over alleged breaches of Shenhua’s Cultural Heritage Management Plan (CHMP).

The Gomeroi of Red Chief Local Aboriginal Land Council in Gunnedah say that Sections 9 and 10 of the CHMP have been siting on Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s desk for two years. They say that breaches of these two sections will clearly show that mining cannot commence on their traditional lands.

Yet Minister Hunt gave approval for the mine to proceed in June 2015, without consideration of the CHMP breaches.

“We’ve had a gutful of the destruction of our culture, we’ll rally together and march on Canberra,” said Mitchum.

Mitchum is a TO from the Breeza township, who was born and bred in nearby Gunnedah. He’s also a senior deputy captain in the Regional Fire Service. He had been a consultant to the NSW Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) when they ordered Shenhua to conduct cultural heritage surveys of the proposed mine site. The Liverpool Plains hide many relics as well as massacre sites, according to Mitchum. But the Grinding Grooves represent spiritual values unfathomable to white culture – not to mention their patent historical value.

“The grinding grooves are a war memorial site. I told them at the Planning Assessment Commission meeting, this is our Gallipoli site,” Mitchum explains.

“You wouldn’t like it if I went to your war memorial and destroyed it. I’d be locked up.”

 

In their CHRMP, Shenhua had recognized 55 Aboriginal archaeological sites, but determined that only 26 of them would be conserved. The grinding grooves, despite being identified as having high cultural value, would be moved.

“That’s just ridiculous,” snorts Mitchum. “You can’t move them. Some of those sites are the size of a double decker bus. There’s natural spring water runs through the sandstone. If you take it out of that wet environment it’ll dry out and disintegrate.

“I don’t care what rock doctor they get, as soon as they move it you can’t put it back together.”

The Grooves are deeply scored into clumps of sandstone rock. They were rallying points for Gomeroi warriors prior to white settlement. Strategically placed along the ridgeline above the plains facing south, they look out to where marauding bands of Wiradjuri or Casuli tribesmen – or for that matter white settlers would appear.

These were focal points for the Gomeroi culture – sacred space where life is so close to the veil, where death and the unknown come close to this world. Today they are the last hope for the survivors of the Gomeroi people as they seek to preserve their heritage and the land that is as dear to them as life itself.

 

But this close to final approvals, it seems that sections 9 and 10 of the CHMP will most certainly be ignored.

Sue Higginson, principal litigator for the Environmental Defender’s Office, is pursuing a case against Shenhua Watermark mine on behalf of a Landcare group protecting the large koala population there. But she says she has examined the Gomeroi people’s case and sees little hope for legal action on their behalf.

“Our cultural heritage laws are in bad shape. The tragedy is that there aren’t very many options when it comes to cultural heritage. It’s an absolute disgrace.”

It’s a sorry business indeed.

 

If Shenhua had conducted more thorough surveys of the sites, Mitchum says, they would have turned up hundreds of artifacts and sites.

Mitchum had accompanied their surveys as a consultant.

“When you do these surveys the transects are supposed to be done on foot. They done it in a four wheel drive, but the grass is three foot high – you can’t see anything.

“One of the criteria for their approvals here was they had to survey 17 percent of the country, but they only ended up doing two percent of it. But the mine people will just shop around till they find an archeologist who writes what they want.”

Like the other Gomeroi, Mitchum is utterly disillusioned with this process.

“I was told when I grew up, keep it to yourself. Two things the white man will do, they’ll sell it or destroy it.”

Fed up with following normal channels, the Gomeroi people have now joined the Liverpool Plains Alliance. It’s a group that’s uniting farmers, townspeople, Lock The Gate and environmental groups including The Wilderness Society and 350.org.

The Alliance is exerting considerable political pressure on both State and Federal governments. Legal actions are shortly to commence.

With the price of thermal coal plummeting and pressure mounting against extractive fossil fuel industries to curtail their global warming emissions, new coal mines are increasingly seen as very dangerous propositions.

Australia’s conservative state and federal governments are resisting mounting international pressure to dramatically reduce carbon output. Their determination to subsidise and promote coal over renewables has made this mine seem inevitable.

But if all else fails, the farmers of the Liverpool Plains and many members of the Alliance have pledged to blockade the mine site and refuse to allow construction to commence. Mitchum, Aunty Dolly Talbot and the Gomeroi elders are all for it. They’ve had enough of this sorry business.

“We don’t want to break the law, ‘cos they’ll paint you as the bad person, but we were trying to do the right thing and the government has failed us,” said Mitchum.

“It’s time now to stand up for our culture.”

 

The Liverpool Plains Alliance is holding an awareness and activist training weekend, the ‘Harvest Festival Against Shenhua’ on the Liverpool Plains, next to the proposed mine site, on November 6-8, 2015. See the Facebook site http://on.fb.me/1KzCizu for more details.

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Album review – Ironsight, Handasyd Williams and the Primitives

One listen to Ironsight confirms that country rock oughta have its own commercial designation, rather than being lumped alongside modern country artists.

While Handasyd Williams and the Primitives wear their country influences proudly, they’re following an outlaw tradition steeped in renegade anti-glamour, glorying in unabashed big ideas and unhinged electric guitars as much as fiddles and mandolins and eschewing the rum and bubblegum post-pop of the mainstream country music variety.

Contemporary country music, whose jingles and videos mostly reflect the delusional notion that all is sunny and well in Abbott’s Australia, oughta be filed in the Kids section.

The Primitives’ take on country rock revels in its antecedents in Americana – the furious rumblings of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the Dirty South, Jayhawks, and Uncle Tupelo. That rock and roll strain grants itself license to savour elements of grunge, punk and folk music while allowing a free hand at political and social issues. Psychedelia is only a feedback solo away and that leaves the ground way open for left-field subject matter. They are an entirely different bag of cats.

Ironsight takes that license and runs hard with it, riding a lyrical wave that veers from pure Nineties angst to more rarefied political and sociological dialogues.

It’s outspoken and it’s angry, and in a world like ours, any worthy artist is angry about something – whether that be a dodgy record deal or say, Bayer selling HIV infected haemophiliac medication to Japan and Germany.

The subject matter is wide and far ranging, but if you’re a corrupt banker or politician, an arms dealer or a coal miner, you can bet you’re on its hit list. Handasyd favours a cranky falsetto to assassinate his various targets, and an enigmatic lyrical approach that leaves the Enemy fairly well open to interpretation. The album owes as much to Husker Du and Dinosaur Jnr as Willie Nelson, so greasy electric guitars lubricate the grim subject matter enough to keep it taut and wild.

The Primitives are a well oiled machine, giving heft and balance to the vitriol contained across twelve tracks. They’re adepts at the loping cadence of country rock, and the multi-instrumental attack of Rhys Webb and Handasyd Williams, in cahoots with Mark Oats’ fiddle and the deadly presence of Jason Walker’s pedal steel makes for some convincing ruminations.

Ironsight is a tough, no nonsense trek through contemporary country rock territory. Consumed by some pretty serious issues, its fixation on the wild side of dirty rock music holds its head above a death by polemics.

 

 

Standing Farm (my title Last Woman Standing) published in The Saturday paper, 18/7/15

Wendy Bowman, an 81-year-old widowed grandmother, is the last woman standing between fertile farming land, the village of Camberwell and yet another massive mining expansion in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. She still works a 190-hectare farm by herself at Camberwell, near Singleton, in country that’s been in her family for generations and was part of the original settlement in the area.

Land and Environment Court judge Nicola Pain has permitted the Chinese-owned mining giant Yancoal to expand its Ashton open-cut coalmine and operate it for a further seven years, on the condition that it acquires all the neighbouring land in the coal lease area in that time.

Wendy is refusing to sell.

When we visited, she was hand-feeding her plump droughtmaster cattle with the abundant lucerne that grows on this rich alluvial soil.

“I don’t believe that any food-growing soils should be dug up.”

“Yancoal’s lawyers told the court that this was not good farming land. Well, take a look around,” Wendy chortles, indicating lush green paddocks and a garden bursting with vegetables.

“I don’t believe that any food-growing soils should be dug up.”

Her farm is surrounded by massive open-cut coalmines, but here in this green valley you could be forgiven for thinking they were a million miles away. It is abundant with native wildlife, pushed from surrounding areas by mining.

“They can’t really do anything because they’ve got to buy me out and there’s the common up near the highway, which [registered claimant] Scott Franks has slapped a native title on. It’s a well-known fact that the Aboriginal people used to come down from Mount Royal to here, where they had fish, platypus and kangaroos in plenty.”

Sue Higginson of the NSW Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), who fought the case in the Land and Environment Court, says Justice Pain’s decision was just and equitable.

“Normally through the power and weight of importance [mining companies] granted themselves they’ve been able to basically bulldoze their way through from the outset, but Justice Pain said no. These are reasonable conditions in the circumstances,” Higginson says.

“You have to remember that it’s a mining project, it’s not a public purpose – at the end of the day you’ve got two competing private interests.”

The mining interest is undergoing serious financial woes. In June 2014 Yancoal announced it had debts of more than $5 billion and had posted a $192 million loss for the year. It was seeking to fund a $US1.8 billion debt owed to its parent company, Yanzhou Coal, which is haemorrhaging money to bail out this ailing subsidiary.

Nonetheless James Rickards, investor relations manager at Yancoal, says that economic conditions permitting, they’re determined to carry on with the expansion, dubbed the South East Open Cut Project, which will earn a projected $109 million over its seven-year life.

“We reported a significant loss in the last annual results,” he says, “but we are rebuilding an organisation that has been financially challenged for quite some time. And very difficult economic conditions don’t assist with that.

“We haven’t appealed the new decision at this time. There are a lot of other options we have to consider before then in regard to the lease of that land.”

Rod Campbell, research director of The Australia Institute, an independent expert witness in the EDO’s case against Yancoal, found the economic reasoning behind the proposed expansion spurious from the outset.

“Initially they said the dollar value benefit to NSW was to be $368 million, and one thing I argued was that original number included profits going to China and so shouldn’t be considered. In the end the judge largely accepted Yancoal’s second analysis that, if it went ahead, the mine would earn $109 million in royalty payments and corporate and payroll tax.”

Just up the road from Wendy is the rambling Ravensworth Homestead, built by the First Fleet surgeon John Bowman (unrelated to her). This colonial sandstone manse is falling to pieces on mine-owned land, despite a court order that it be restored as a heritage building.

Wendy says that if she sells, Camberwell will join a list of towns destroyed by mining in the Hunter.

“The Department of Health have said no one is allowed to live there if this mine goes ahead, so the stupid mining company have said to everyone who owns their own homes, ‘Just go away for seven years and then you can come back.’ Can you imagine the state those houses would be in if everybody left them for seven years?”

One of Camberwell’s most vocal residents, Deidre Olofsson, began lodging freedom-of-information requests with the Department of Planning in 2012, asking for copies of minutes from Ashton’s discussions with them. It took three years to learn there had been meetings between Ashton Coal and the Department of Planning, the Office of Water and the Planning Assessment Commission prior to 2010, but that no minutes had been taken.

It’s a glimpse into a political process begun by NSW Labor’s former planning minister, Tony Kelly, who escaped criminal charges after the Independent Commission Against Corruption found him guilty of corruption over property dealings.

He acquired the Camberwell Common in 2010 from the community trust that had managed it since 1876 and awarded its control to Ashton Coal. Under community pressure, the government subsequently re-gazetted the land to be managed by a new community trust, but objections brought by Ashton Coal have tied the matter up in the Land and Environment Court.

Olofsson also questions possible connections between members of the government’s Planning Assessment Commission and the mining industry.

“I started to ask questions of the Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) whether they’d registered the pecuniary interests of each commissioner between 2008 and 2012. They couldn’t give them to me because they didn’t have them – there were no registers,” she says.

The state ombudsman’s office has criticised the PAC for failing to maintain a register of financial interests of its members before 2012, and instructed that it do so in future. It has now been asked by the EDO to investigate the possible conflict of interest of two members of the PAC.

Olofsson holds little hope for the village if Yancoal should prevail. “Once they’ve gone there’s no other industries to come. There’s very few dairies left, most of the land is destroyed. There’s going to be a mass exodus from this area. Camberwell is riding on whether Ashton appeals the court judgement and what happens to the Bowman property in the future. It comes down to Wendy’s age and Wendy’s family. So if Wendy goes, it’s over.”

Twelve towns like Camberwell have been eaten up by mining operations in past decades. Another on the verge of extinction is Bulga, just 36 kilometres away.

Bulga’s defenders have won a Land and Environment Court challenge and a Court of Appeal challenge to stop the mine expansion. Following their success, the Baird government has tweaked the planning laws to attempt to drive it through. A third decision on whether the mine can go ahead is pending.

Open-cut mining started in the Hunter Valley in the 1980s. Wendy’s husband Mick, who passed away in 1984, was a vigorous opponent to projects that eventually claimed the family’s historic Ashton homestead and farm that is now the main Ashton Coal mine.

“I had to sell Ashton in 1994 because upstream, Coal and Allied had been allowed to mine under Bowman’s Creek,” Wendy says. “The bottom of the creek broke through, so we didn’t have any water in the creek for two weeks, but all of a sudden it came up two kilometres away in a spring on another property. We tested the water going in – it was between 300-400 parts per million salinity, and when it came up it was between 1200-1500ppm. And we’d wondered why the lucerne was dying. We had to sell because they sent us broke.”

Wendy points east to the ridge where Rixs Creek and the New England Highway intersect, and describes the mine’s proposed expansion.

“All the flats and right up to the bottom of that ridge would be mined,” she says. “There are a lot of aquifers up and down the ridge. This is a very important waterway. It provides a pipeline to Broke, clean water to Singleton, Branxton, Greta, Lochinvar and the farmers and vineyards there, as well as the abattoir. It provides water to Pokolbin, and that’s a very important tourism destination.

“This is one of the richest valleys in the whole of Australia and has some of the best regulated water from the Glenbawn and Glennies Creek dams. You’re less than two hours to Newcastle, with all the export facilities for everything that you grow.

“Now when all this mining is finished, everybody in the Hunter is going to have to rely on the stored water in those two dams, because all the aquifers that used to keep them refreshed in a dry time have all gone.”

Wendy looks around her property and east to Camberwell, where the South East Open Cut Project is ready to swallow her farm. “The best thing that ever happened is this downturn in the mining industry,” she says. “It’s made them all sit back and think. Anything that goes mad comes down with a thump anyhow – always has, hasn’t it? That’s how the world works.”

 

Liverpool Plains farms in miners’ sights

Published in The Saturday Paper
Aug 16, 2014

Generational farmers are preparing to stand their ground as BHP and China Shenhua Energy seek to mine coal in some of the nation’s richest agricultural land, on the NSW Liverpool Plains.

It is late afternoon when we finally spot a white kangaroo. Tim Duddy, the Liverpool Plains farmer with a family of five, is elated when our photographer Dean Sewell snaps pictures from the Land Rover as the creature, luminous in the dusk, bounds away towards a tree line.

Continue reading Liverpool Plains farms in miners’ sights