By Christopher Knaus, originally published in the Guardian 21st October 2019
The head of New South Wales’s mining lobby said his group had “publicly and privately” pressured government to review the state’s independent planning body after it blocked a new coalmine on environmental grounds, an anti-corruption probe has heard.
The NSW Minerals Council chief executive, Stephen Galilee, fronted the Independent Commission Against Corruption (Icac) on Monday to answer questions about the way his organisation attempts to influence government.
His evidence came just two days after the NSW government launched a review of the Independent Planning Commission (IPC), a body designed to check ministerial power to grant new mining licences, which was set up following recommendations from Icac.
Last month, the IPC rejected the development of the Bylong Valley coalmine near Mudgee because of significant concerns about environmental impacts, including on climate change, and the costs to future generations.
Galilee said his organisation has been lobbying hard against the state’s independent planning body, particularly following the Bylong Valley rejection.
Galilee said he hoped the decision to review the IPC was a result of the NSW Minerals Council’s campaign, which he said had “been highlighting these issues publicly and privately to the government and the minister” without much traction for some time.
“I’d like to believe that our campaign on planning reform has helped the government decide that it should look at some of the processes that are place,” he told Icac. “But I suspect that … that has more to do with the internal issues of the planning commission itself.”
The decision has prompted widespread anger among integrity commissioners. The former Icac commissioner David Ipp said it was a “recipe for corruption”.
Another former Icac commissioner and Centre for Public Integrity chair, Anthony Whealy, said the IPC was a “a crucial accountability agency” that must be preserved.
“It is now facing a review, announced by the NSW government under pressure from the Minerals Council of NSW,” Whealy said.
“This raises questions about the vested interests of the Minerals Council and the impact that is having on our accountability institutions.”
Galilee likened the NSW Minerals Council, which has 14 employees and a turnover of up to $7m, to a small business. He argued against adding to what were already “incredibly onerous” transparency and integrity regulations, unless environmental groups and not-for-profits were subjected to the same.
Galilee said such groups had just as much resources and staffing, but their funding sources were opaque, despite them having “unduly influenced” and “gamed” the planning system to thwart the approval of new mines in the state.
He rejected a proposition from the Icac chief commissioner, Peter Hall, that groups who were lobbying for vested, commercial interests should face more scrutiny than environmental groups or not-for-profits.
“I disagree because you’re putting a price on transparency. You’re saying transparency applies to some and not others,” Galilee said.
Galilee estimated he met with ministers roughly eight to 10 times in the past two or three years, and their chiefs of staff about 10 to 15 times.
He downplayed the impact the mining industry was having on government and the gains it got from access to ministers.
“There’s very rarely anything resolved from a meeting with a minister other than to have more meetings with a department official to keep on talking about something, and then six years later we get a refusal,” he said.
“If things were going so well for us we wouldn’t be getting project refusals and we wouldn’t be getting increasing regulation, and timeframes for assessment wouldn’t be going up – and the number of mines in NSW wouldn’t be falling, investment wouldn’t be dropping, and we wouldn’t be running a public campaign against the planning minister and his planning system.”
The current Icac inquiry into lobbying in NSW, named Operation Eclipse, is continuing.