RESOURCES Minister Don Harwin has refused to answer questions in parliament about whether a senior Department of Planning official’s resignation was linked to controversy about a secret $5 million Upper Hunter mining lease agreement fund.
Mr Harwin confirmed a deputy secretary of the Department of Planning’s resources division resigned one week ago, and the disputed $5 million was placed in the fund on February 9 – five years late.
The resignation was only days after Muswellbrook Shire Council called for an urgent parliamentary inquiry into why the government failed for more than four years to enforce an exploration licence condition of consent requiring mining company Ridgelands to establish a $5 million community fund.
Mr Harwin refused to answer or referred repeated questions by three senior Labor MPs about whether the resignation was linked to the Ridgelands case.
He also took on notice a question about whether anyone in his “agency attempted to reduce, or supported reducing, the obligation on Ridgelands”, after the company made an unsolicited offer of $500,000 to Muswellbrook Council in July, 2017 which revealed the secret $5 million fund after the council initiated legal action in the NSW Supreme Court to claim the money.
The council called for an urgent parliamentary inquiry two days after Ridgelands walked away from a meeting with the council and community representatives to finalise projects under the fund. The $5 million was required to be spent within the five years of the lease which expires on February 27.
Muswellbrook mayor Martin Rush said an inquiry should explore what the minister for resources and energy knew and when, and dealings between the Department of Planning and Ridgelands, including any promises or indications made by the department to renew the Ridgelands licence.
The 2013 agreement required Ridgelands to establish a $5 million community fund for the Muswellbrook area around the Wybong exploration lease site “as soon as reasonably practical” after the licence was granted in February, 2013.
The agreement also required Ridgelands to publicise the fund and provide detailed and regular updates on money spent over the five years to the minister and department.
When the secret deal was revealed former Wybong resident and former Muswellbrook councillor Christine Phelps described it as “the NSW Government and the mining industry in cahoots again to shaft the community”.
In parliament on Wednesday Mr Harwin said Ridgelands Resources had not yet lodged any application with the NSW Government to renew the exploration licence.
“Should a valid application be lodged before the current term of the exploration licence expires on 27 February 2018, the titleholder’s performance against all conditions and requirements of the previous term will be taken into careful consideration,” Mr Harwin said.
“This includes any and all actions taken in relation to the establishment and operation of a community fund.”
He told parliament the resources regulator was continuing an investigation into the breached condition of consent that was launched in August after the council’s Supreme Court action.