Northern rivers environmentalists say they’re not surprised to learn that the powerful mining industry was behind the NSW government’s controversial move to strip the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) of its funding because it feared it could disrupt lucrative coal and coal-seam gas (CSG) projects.
The government last month announced it would redirect the legal centre’s funding to Legal Aid and ban state funding for agencies providing legal advice to activists and lobby groups.
The centre provides free legal services to groups involved in environmental disputes with developers and more recently with the coal and CSG industry, which has been disrupted by a growing anti-CSG movement in NSW and Queensland.
Byron Environment and Conservation (BEACON) president Dailan Pugh told Echonetdaily that media reports yesterday based on documents released under freedom of information ‘makes it clearer, if it wasn’t already’ why the EDO funding is to be cut.
‘This helps explain energy minister Chris Hartcher’s accusations in late October that the EDO was helping activist groups hurt the coal and coal-seam gas industries as part of a “left agenda to destroy the economy”,’ he said.
Fairfax newspapers yesterday reported that the mining industry urged premier Barry O’Farrell to scrap funding to the EDO and, several months later, the state government announced the move.
The documents show the NSW Minerals Council and the Australian Coal Association lobbied Mr O’Farrell to cancel the EDO’s $2.5 million annual public subsidy.
In a letter addressed to the premier last October, the council’s chief executive Stephen Galilee expressed concern about the EDO’s links with the anti-coal movement and its support for what it said was a ‘deliberate campaign of economic sabotage’.
‘It is difficult to understand the logic behind NSW taxpayers’ funds being provided to an organisation intent on using those funds to lodge legal challenges against decisions taken on behalf of taxpayers by the NSW government,’ Mr Galilee wrote.
‘It is even more absurd for these funds to be used to support a deliberate campaign of economic sabotage against an industry providing our most valuable export commodity as well as 50,000 direct jobs… We hope your government will therefore cease funding the EDO as a matter of urgency.’
The Newcastle Herald reported that Australian Coal Association chief executive Dr Nikki Williams also complained about the EDO’s activities early in 2011.
In its letter to Mr O’Farrell, the Coal Association chief described as ‘perverse’ the way in which the EDO was using taxpayer funds to represent three anti-coal community groups in the Hunter Valley, as well as its alleged link to the anti-coal movement.
Copies of the letter were also sent to the Minerals Council and energy minister Chris Hartcher.
Mr Pugh said that for years, the Lismore EDO has been providing free legal advice to residents and community groups concerned about excessive development and inappropriate activities.
‘They have been relied upon by councils to give impartial advice at public meetings and have themselves held numerous community information sessions. This has been an invaluable community benefit, most particularly by allowing the community access to expert legal advice that is otherwise out of reach,’ he said.
‘Governments make laws and they should help the community to understand their laws and welcome community assistance to make sure their laws are faithfully implemented. The law needs to be accessible to all, not just the rich and powerful.
‘It is a shame that the NSW government seems determined to remove the community’s access to legal advice across the full breadth of biodiversity, environmental and planning issues affecting the northern rivers because the mining industry objects to the community’s exercising its legal rights.
‘With major planning changes underway the community needs impartial advice to understand the changes and make informed comment. Time and again developers seek to bend the rules to increase their profits, the community will always need help to rein in their worst excesses.
‘Community groups working to protect our threatened animals and special places need good advice. And, while the industry might not like it, the community and landowners need to know what their rights are as CSG attempts to expand into this area. We need the EDO.’
A spokesman for the premier told the Sydney Morning Herald that ‘any interest group can make representations to government’ and that the government would ‘ultimately consider all information and make decisions that are in the best interest of the state and taxpayers’.
The EDO’s executive director, Jeff Smith, told the SMH that the link to the anti-coal movement was a ‘beat up’ used by EDO opponents to undermine it and its functions.
The government has told the centre its funding is to continue until June 30, but at 27 per cent less than previous levels, and further cuts are expected.
As a result, the EDO is considering putting off several employees.
The Newcastle Herald report says one of the former EDO clients is Hunter environmental activist Jonathan Moylan, who issued a fake media release this week that temporarily wiped $314 million off the value of Whitehaven Coal shares and is now being investigated by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.