By Michaela Whitbourn and Megan Gorrey, originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald 21st October 2019
Former commissioners of the state’s anti-corruption agency have accused the Berejiklian government of caving in to mining industry pressure by holding a review into the future of the independent consent authority for major projects in NSW.
Planning Minister Rob Stokes said on Saturday that NSW was “open for business” as he announced the snap review of the Independent Planning Commission, the statutory agency responsible for making arm’s-length decisions on state-significant development applications including mining projects.
Terms of reference for the review, which will be overseen by NSW Productivity Commissioner Peter Achterstraat, include “whether it is in the public interest to maintain an Independent Planning Commission” (IPC), and whether changes should be made to the thresholds for referring matters to the IPC.
Lobby group the NSW Minerals Council launched a print, radio and television advertising campaign targeting the “faceless IPC” after it rejected South Korean company Kepco’s $290 million proposal for a coalmine in the Bylong Valley near Mudgee.
In the reasons for blocking the mine, published in September, the IPC said the environmental cost of the project outweighed its economic benefits and would be “borne by future generations”.
The review comes as the Independent Commission Against Corruption holds a public inquiry into the regulation of lobbying in NSW.
Chief executive of the NSW Minerals Council Stephen Galilee told the inquiry on Monday that he would “like to believe” the industry group’s “campaign on planning reform” had triggered the review but he suspected “it has more to do with the internal issues of the planning commission itself”.
The former Howard and Baird government adviser said “if things were going so well for us we wouldn’t be getting project refusals … and we wouldn’t be running a public campaign against the planning minister and his planning system”.
The inquiry into the future of the IPC follows an administrative blunder earlier this month, when the commission approved a 21-year lease for Rix’s Creek South mine near Singleton before public submissions had closed. The commission was forced to retract that decision hours later, before the project was given valid approval about a week later.
The IPC has also come under pressure over its ongoing role in determining the Star casino group’s controversial proposal to build a $500 million hotel and apartment tower at Pyrmont.
The ICAC recommended in 2010 that the decision-making role of the Planning Assessment Commission, now called the IPC, be expanded because it provided “an important safeguard against potential corrupt conduct”.
Scrapping the commission entirely would result in decisions about major projects including mining licences being returned to ministers.
Former ICAC commissioner David Ipp, QC, who presided over a series of high-profile inquiries into mining licences, said “returning to ministerial discretion on mining licences is a recipe for corruption”.
“Once it is left to the minister basically there are no safeguards,” he said.
Mr Ipp now sits on the board of anti-corruption think tank the Centre for Public Integrity, which is chaired by former assistant ICAC commissioner Anthony Whealy, QC. Mr Whealy said the IPC was “a crucial accountability agency” and the review was announced “under pressure from the Minerals Council of NSW”.
“This raises questions about the vested interests of the Minerals Council and the impact that is having on our accountability institutions,” Mr Whealy said.
Georgina Woods, a campaign co-ordinator for anti-mining group Lock the Gate, told the ICAC’s inquiry into lobbying that the group was “very concerned” about the IPC review because the agency served as a “check against corruption”.
NSW Greens MP Jamie Parker, the party’s planning spokesman, said any moves to weaken the independence of the panel “simply opens the door to corrupt politicians and their mates to wave through inappropriate development across NSW”.
“This panel already overwhelmingly supports even the most egregious development proposals,” Mr Parker said. “The fact that the government is even considering a review shows they are operating to serve developers and miners, not the community.”
The Labor Opposition welcomed the review of the commission’s future and called for the inquiry to be fully transparent.
Opposition planning spokesman Adam Searle said Labor had “long thought that the IPC was inadequately resourced” and it was unsurprising that errors such as the Rix’s Creek mine blunder were “creeping into the commission’s processes when the Berejiklian government provides it with such little resourcing”.