GREG RAY: Tables turn on tycoon

WE are often told that in Australia there is one law for the rich and one for everybody else.

That is supposed to explain why white-collar criminals can steal your retirement funds, trick you into investing in companies that they plan to have liquidated, tell utter lies in corporate prospectuses and still have a good chance of getting mentioned in the national honours list.  But if some misguided suburbanite embezzles a few grand from their league club to fund their pokie habit they go directly to jail without passing go.

If ordinary people have lived on a lovely rural property all their lives but one day get the dreaded news that coal or gas or something else that rich people want has been found beneath their land, there is no contest. When that happens it’s goodbye peace of mind, goodbye to all you’ve loved and cherished and here’s a cheque, take it or leave it.

So I’m wondering what’s going to happen to one of Australia’s famous mining magnates, Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, who now finds himself in precisely that horrible position.

Apparently Twiggy grew up on a lovely station in Western Australia called Minderoo.

It was in his family since 1878 until a forced sale in 1998.

Twiggy bought back the farm in 2009 but now he’s had the knock on the door that Hunter Valley people have learned to know and dread.

Two knocks on the door, in fact, since one group of miners want to dig up part of his place for sand and gravel to build foundations for some gas export enterprise and another mob want to search it for uranium.

Over in WA, when land-owners and would-be miners of that land are at loggerheads, they go before a Warden’s Court that is supposed to oversee the deal-making process.

Twiggy tried to make sand-miner Yarri Mining pay an annual performance guarantee of $200,000 to persuade the company to be careful. He was also concerned that machinery noise might frighten some of his cattle.

But the warden put Twiggy in his place, describing the proposed guarantee payment condition as “outrageous”.

When the warden gave the green light to the miner, Twiggy’s company issued a statement saying it was “disappointed at the warden’s decision to allow sand mining by Yarri Mining within the historical and environmentally fragile parts of Minderoo pastoral station”.

‘‘Andrew has a long history of jackarooing and working with the Aboriginal people in that part of the country,’’ a spokesman said.

‘‘He doesn’t want to risk that some of it would be spoilt by mining gravel for the foundation of an LNG plant.’’

It’s hard not to feel sorry for Twiggy.

I’ve stood with Hunter Valley property owners on lush green home paddocks, surrounded by decades-old fruit trees full of birds and bees, and sat with them on their time-worn verandahs and looked at the advancing walls of broken earth, feeling their grief and knowing that no human power could prevent the impending destruction.

As Peter Garrett once sang, back when he was on our side: “Who can stand in the way when there’s a dollar to be made?”

I’ve gone back to some of those places later and seen the altered landscape. It made me feel sick, sad and angry, all at once. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, not even a billionaire mining magnate.

But the sand miners have got the go-ahead, if Twiggy can’t find another way to stop them.

And now a uranium miner, Cauldron Energy, has applied for exploration licences over some other parts of Minderoo, sending Twiggy to the courts once more in another bid to defend his ancestral home.

It’s a dilemma, isn’t it?

Part of me wants him to keep losing, so he can see how the little people feel under a system that is stacked against them.

But another part of me wants him to win, because that might make a precedent that even little people might be able to use to protect places that are precious to them for reasons other than money.

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