IN 2013 the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption could not have issued a more blunt message to the NSW Government and the community about the corruption risks associated with coal.
“The Commission’s view is that the policy and regulatory environment in NSW for the release and allocation of coal exploration licences is conducive to corruption,” the ICAC said in a paper prepared after damning investigations into the corrupted Doyles Creek and Mount Penny exploration licences in the Hunter.
The paper, Reducing the opportunities and incentives for corruption in the state’s management of coal resources, makes grim reading for anyone believing that by 2013 any government in Australia should have its head around the basic requirements of good governance and acting in the public interest.
The ICAC found departmental decision-making on coal exploration licences was “characterised by weak processes”, was not transparent, and included “implicit pressure” to approve mining activity “when significant additional financial contributions” had been made at the exploration stage. There was “only a weak mechanism to prevent licence holders from continually renewing exploration licences”.
The NSW Government determined mining exploration licence areas without considering the social and environmental impacts, or examining whether other land uses such as agriculture would return a greater benefit to the state.
The small section of a government department responsible for the exploration licence renewals process did not have a database that automatically flagged when licences were due for renewal, and as we now know, until October large parts of the system were paper-based. This is despite the state experiencing a coal mining boom and damning inquiries into exploration licence allocations leading to the jailing of former government ministers Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald.
It is with this history behind us that the case of Ridgelands Resources applying to renew an exploration licence over more than 7600 hectares of Wybong agricultural land is situated, after it failed to meet a condition of consent that should have allocated $5 million to the community and government departments failed to enforce it.
The ICAC stressed the need for transparency. The question is if the NSW Government is listening.