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THE state government’s oversight of committees set up to give communities a say on mining projects has been called into question over criticisms their membership is open to conflicts of interest.
And its selection of arbitrators to preside over land-access disputes between mining companies and landowners has been labelled flawed, with one Hunter woman working as an arbitrator while being paid undisclosed amounts by mining companies to be chairwoman of nearly a dozen community consultative committees for mines.
Mines must set up the committees under their conditions of development approval.
An independent chairperson, approved by the head of the Department of Planning, presides over community and company members, but is typically the only person paid by the mine.
Margaret McDonald-Hill now oversees 11, including committees for mines as far away as Wollongong, Gloucester, Lake Macquarie and the Upper Hunter.
She is also chairwoman of a committee for an exploration project, a reference group for the proposed Wallarah 2 mine, and AGL’s Hunter and Camden coal seam gas committees, for which she is paid by AGL via the Department of Trade and Investment.
She is on the Mine Subsidence Board, on the government’s panel of arbitrators, and has been approached to join federal industry minister Ian Macfarlane’s NSW coal seam gas taskforce aimed at kick-starting industry activity.
Ms McDonald-Hill said she declared all her appointments at each committee, and did not arbitrate disputes for companies whose committees she heads.
She said nearly all the positions were offered to her by the government or mining companies.
‘‘I don’t put my hand up for any of them and my reputation precedes me. If you do a good job, people recognise that,’’ she said.
She would not say how much she was paid.
Asked if coal companies took the committees seriously, she said, ‘‘Some do, some don’t’’.
The mine committees are supposed to provide a vehicle for the community to raise problems or seek information about mining operations.
But Jacqui Kirkby, of the Scenic Hills Association and a community member of AGL’s Camden committee, said they provided a ‘‘limited ability to raise issues’’ and the chairperson had ‘‘enormous discretion’’ to apply guidelines for how they run.
‘‘I think it’s very important for people not to presume that this is a true consultation with the community,’’ she said.
Arbitrators are appointed, with ministerial approval, to a panel.
Ulan residents Julia and Colin Imrie said they were surprised when Ms McDonald-Hill was assigned to preside over their dispute with Moolarben for drilling on their land, as she previously served as a chairwoman of the mine’s committee.
‘‘We did question her conflict of interest and she did stand aside,’’ Mrs Imrie said.
But Bylong Valley Protection Alliance spokesman Craig Shaw said it was usually very difficult to have an arbitrator removed unless both parties agreed.
Even then ‘‘all you get in their place is another panel arbitrator’’, he said.
Mr Shaw said there was little evidence the Department of Trade and Investment screened for potential conflicts of interests, with Ms McDonald-Hill’s appointment an example.
‘‘Given that she is on so many other committees how is it possible? What is wrong with the department that they can even let her be an arbitrator?’’ he said.
Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham said Ms McDonald-Hill’s roles ‘‘overlap and seem to create significant conflicts of interest’’ that undermined her independence.
Committees should be reformed so chairs weren’t paid directly by coalmines, he said.
A Department of Trade and Investment spokesman said its arbitrator positions were advertised. All were selected for their experience or legal qualifications.
Being on a mine committee ‘‘does not necessarily constitute a conflict’’, he said. All arbitrators would know to disclose conflicts where they had acted or advocated for a specific company or person.
‘‘While disclosures of this nature are a given, changes to the conditions of being on the arbitration panel to reflect this requirement may be considered,’’ he said.
A Department of Planning spokesman said Ms McDonald-Hill’s background as former executive officer of the Association of Mine Related Councils ‘‘gives her a unique insight into mining issues at the local level across NSW’’.
The different committees of which Margaret McDonald— Hill is a member. The list refers to community consultative committees unless otherwise indicated.
■ Centennial Coal:
■ Lake Coal:
■ Bloomfield Group:
■ Kores :
Wallarah (community reference group)
Hunter Gas Project
Camden Gas Project
Mines Subsidence Board member
Resources Minister’s arbitration panel member