AN elderly farmer smelt a rat in September when the Department of Planning confirmed what he had always known – that he lodged a valid agricultural land objection against a NSW mine in 2016 that the department lost, only to find again when the mine was approved and its licence granted.
On Wednesday the farmer, 83, learnt what the department didn’t tell him – that former department titles operations manager Rebecca Connor was suspended after making what she argues was a protected disclosure to a superior that the handling of the farmer’s case was wrong.
She was sacked while arguing the mine licence should be revoked as the department pursued allegations against her.
“I’d like to say thank you to her, my word yes,” said the farmer, who was stunned to hear Ms Connor lost her job while fighting for him. He asked not to be identified.
“If I’d known I probably would have jumped up and down a bit more with the department when they said they didn’t have my objection, but I didn’t know any of this. I appreciate that she did this for me.”
Ms Connor returned the thanks but said “He doesn’t owe me anything. He just got screwed over by the department.”
The farmer lodged an agricultural land objection in August, 2016 to the granting of a mine licence over at least 40 hectares of his property in regional NSW where he grows wheat and runs cattle and sheep.
“It’s the best country I’ve got and they just want to take it right over. It cuts my block in half, takes the heart out of it,” he said.
“They’ve just squared it all up to suit themselves and I can go jump in the lake.”
The mine received development consent in November, 2016, and provisional approval for the granting of a mine licence was given in the first half of 2017.
In May, 2017 the farmer wrote to the department asking what had happened to his objection and expressing his concerns. The department replied it had not received an objection from him. Department documents show the farmer’s efforts to provide proof of his letter, including repeated trips to an Australia Post office.
A department employee on September 22, 2017 noted the farmer was going to speak to his solicitor about challenging the department, but rang back later to say “he was not going to get his solicitor involved as he didn’t see the point”.
Ms Connor alleges a department employee emailed proof of the farmer’s objection to a department executive shortly after the mining licence was granted on October 4, 2017, leading to Ms Connor’s report about the case to a superior in early November, a day before she was suspended.
The farmer was not advised his objection had been found until a letter from the department on September 28, 2018. It arrived months after Ms Connor’s reports to other senior department employees, and after she lodged a complaint with the NSW Ombudsman’s office on August 20 about the department’s handling of the farmer’s case and her sacking after making a protected disclosure.
In its letter the department acknowledged the farmer’s objection was found after the licence was granted and following “investigations”. It was received at the department’s Maitland office which handles mine applications and titles.
The department advised the legal effect of the “additional information” – that the farmer had made a valid agricultural land objection – was that the department secretary “may be required to proceed to determine” the objection, more than a year after formal mine approvals were granted.
The farmer objected to the department’s suggestion that no action was required if he consented to the mine “or has previously withdrawn the agricultural land objection”.
“For all this time they’ve said there was no objection and now they’re asking me if I’ve withdrawn it, without telling me what happened. They’re trying to make out this is my problem when the ball’s in their court to come up with something to sort this out,” he said.
“When the letter turned up a few weeks ago I thought ‘Well, there’s got to be some underhand work gone on here’. I smelt a rat, and now I find out all this. I have never consented or signed to anything with this mine. There’s no access agreement,” he said.
“I think they’re definitely trying to take advantage of an 83-year-old man but I’ve still got a few faculties left.”
Ms Connor said she was pleased the farmer had some answers, but the community was entitled to know how and why his objection disappeared and re-appeared.
“I’m glad there’s still an opportunity for him because it was wrong. Just wrong,” she said.
NSW Greens MP and planning spokesperson David Shoebridge said the case was “either gross negligence or worse, and neither conclusion is flattering for the department”.
“We now repeat our call for a special commission of inquiry with royal commission powers to review this sorry history of planning approvals for mines in this state. When a landholder’s objection is lost, or just plain ignored, and even the scant protections the law gives to the community from the ravages of the mining industry are not applied, then something is deeply wrong with planning in this state,” Mr Shoebridge said.
NSW Greens MP and environment spokesperson Cate Faehrmann said “the whiff of corruption and mismanagement never seems to leave the mining department in NSW and this latest saga stinks”.
“Serious questions need to be answered about the department’s action in handling this farmer’s objection. Why did the document disappear? Why did it take so long for the department to act once it was found? Why was an employee sacked soon after raising concerns?” Ms Faehrmann said.
“This scandal must not be swept under the carpet and we need an independent external investigation to get to the bottom of it.”
The department declined to answer questions about Ms Connor’s challenges on the farmer’s case after her allegations were referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption by the department secretary Carolyn McNally on Wednesday. A department spokesperson said the farmer’s objection was being considered.