Richmond MP Justine Elliot visited the Bentley community blockade yesterday in the latest show of support by politicians in the region for anti-gas protesters who now face legal threats by the local council to close down their camp.
The federal MP’s move follows recent visits to the campsite by mayors of Lismore, Kyogle and Tweed shires and many others who have made ‘showing up’ at the Bentley blockade a pilgrimage.
Mrs Elliott, a strong campaigner for a gasfield-free northern rivers, had planned to visit the camp next week but decided to head out there yesterday after Richmond Valley Council (RVC) refused an extension for the temporary camp ground.
The refusal has raised concerns among protesters that the RVC is running a political agenda in support of Metgasco or being pressured by the state government.
The two-month permission for the primitive campsite lapses today, but general manager John Walker said council was considering legal action if people camped on the private property refused to vacate.
Mr Walker told media the approval for the camp would not be renewed, claiming conditions had been ignored and suggested that police, rather than council rangers, would be used to enforce any order to vacate.
But Mrs Elliot, a former police officer, said she supported ‘all those who continue to fight the National Party and their pro-CSG expansion agenda’.
‘I stand with our community in opposing CSG mining,’ she told Echonetdaily after visiting the camp on private land adjacent to Metgasco’s planned gas drilling site at Bentley.
Lismore mayor Jenny Dowell’s recent visit to the camp was this week followed by Tweed mayor Barry Longland and Kyogle mayor Danielle Mulholland making what is increasingly becoming a regional pilgrimage.
Mr Walker has been a vocal supporter of Metgasco’s approval for exploratory gas drilling on the property next door to the camp, owned by former Lismore City councillor and local National Party identity Peter Graham.
Richmond Valley shire mayor Ernie Bennett, another National Party stalwart, appears to have taken a back seat to Mr Walker in batting for miner Metgasco.
Former RVC and Rous Water councillor Stuart George, son of Lismore MP and prominent National Party member Thomas George, came under flak as a councillor, accused of a conflict of interest after it was revealed he was employed by Metgasco, a role he continues to this day.
Mr Walker has come under fire from Gasfield Free Northern Rivers (GFNR) which says his actions have ‘raised serious concerns’ about the motivations of Richmond Valley Council in their treatment of the camp.
GFNR’s latest application to continue and expand the camp at Bungabee Road was made on behalf of community members opposing Metgasco’s invasive drilling at Bentley, spokesman Ian Gaillard said.
‘It is very concerning that while Gasfield Free Northern Rivers is trying to comply with all requests from Richmond Valley Council, we have been denied procedural fairness by them,’ Mr Gaillard said.
‘It is standard practice for Council to offer applicants an opportunity to address any perceived failings in their development applications, but for some reason Council is denying the community camp at Bentley this right.
‘This begs the questions whether Council is running a political agenda in support of Metgasco or is under undue influence from a state government intent on forcing this toxic industry on an unwilling population in the Northern Rivers?
‘I know there are hundreds of properties in Richmond Valley that are non-compliant under the Environmental Planning & Assessment Act, yet it is only those exercising their democratic right to protest that are being treated unfairly,’ he said.
‘Even more disturbingly, despite making every effort to follow due process in our dealings with Council, the occupants of the community camp have been subjected to repeated spurious allegations and vilifying innuendo in public statements and media comments by Council representatives.
‘Nonetheless, we will continue with our efforts to pursue an ongoing permit for the camp and have submitted notification to Richmond Valley Council that we will be lodging an application for redetermination of our development application under s82A,’ Mr Gaillard said.
‘We will be pursuing all available legal avenues to maintain the existing camp so we can support people’s right to peacefully protest Metgasco’s invasive gas mining.
‘The irony of the whole situation is that, as RVC well knows, maintaining the Bungabee Road camp is the best way of ensuring public safety and an orderly and organised camp,’ Mr Gaillard said.
Tweed mayor Cr Longland told APN Media during his Bentley visit that he was impressed with what he had seen at the campsite and people there were ‘working within the consent of an approved DA’.
Kyogle mayor Cr Mulholland said she had ‘heard a lot of stories about the “extremists” here so I wanted to come out, meet the people and dispel a few myths.
‘A lot of people here are from the Kyogle LGA and they are worried about gas mining,’ she told APN Media.
Both mayors climbed and sat on the top of the large protest tripod at the campsite’s gate A, sparking loud cheers among the crowd.