Again state parliament was in dis- array last week with resignations, slush funds, bribe allegations and dodgy appointments debated.
But one other item stood out.
Lennox Head-based upper house MLC Catherine Cusack (Liberal) lashed out at comments by Labor’s Walt Secord in parlia- ment after Mr Secord said Thomas George (Nationals member for Lismore) is ‘a fierce opponent of the Bentley blockade’.
Mr Secord also told parliament Mr George’s son, Stuart, is the com- munity relations manager for Metgasco. ‘This is the bloke who does spin for Metgasco,’ he said.
That prompted Ms Cusack to call out across the floor, ‘withdraw that disgraceful smear.’
When asked for clarification on why it was a smear, Ms Cusack told The Echo, ‘The imputation made was to smear Mr George’s reputation and integrity.’ However when asked if it was a conflict of interest that Mr George’s son, Stuart George, is Metgasco’s communications relations manager, she declined to comment.
Ms Cusack also declined to comment on whether she thought the fossil fuel industry unfairly influences politics and would not say whether she supported lobbyist or donation reform.
But when asked who she supported – either the protesting Bentley residents or her government – she paused and replied, ‘I support my government’s position.’
Despite being cautious with her words, Ms Cusack did elaborate on how the expansion of mining has become a hot-button issue. ‘The mining licences were issued by [former disgraced Labor MP] Ian McDonald. I can’t recall how many throughout NSW but there are a lot.
‘When I saw the map I was very surprised. He took upfront pay- ments from mining companies for the licences, so this has become their legal right. But we have changed that, so now that money is not upfront.’
Ms Cusack was also cagey on whether there is any public support for Metgasco’s planned Bentley operation, apart from Liberal and Nationals MPs themselves.
‘I would personally like to have seen a different approach and wish there had been better engagement earlier in this,’ she said.
A tedious war of political rhetoric broke out last week between Walt Secord MP (Labor) and new north coast MP Andrew Stoner (Nationals) over who is worse.
Mr Stoner replaced Don Page as north coast minister, and comes as fellow MP Andrew Fraser (Nationals) questioned his leader’s ability to be effective given his many portfolios.
In reply, Mr Stoner acknowledged the increased responsibility, but was confident he would able to ‘continue to deliver for regional communities across the state, with a special focus on those along the north coast.’
But what area does the north coast cover? Mr Stoner’s office re- plied that it covers both the north coast and the mid-north coast, to which Mr Secord replied it was a ‘feeble attempt to hide the Nation- al Party’s neglect of the region by clumsily redrawing the definition of the north coast.’
Mr Stoner retorted with, ‘It’s hard to take Walt Secord seriously, especially on the issue of CSG and the north coast.’ Ugh.
A unified vote by Byron councillors at last Thursday’s meeting will see two letters sent to state government MPs regarding concerns over the rapidly expanding gas mining industry.
It will be requested that macadamia, dairy and beef industries of the northern rivers be classified as a critical industry cluster (CIC). Only horse breeding and wineries in the Hunter Valley have been classified as a CIC – as Cr Alan Hunter pointed out, it was only because they have open cut mines to contend with.
Water threat to region
And likewise, Council will express its concerns with pen to paper that ‘gas exploration is taking place in a location (Bentley, west of Lismore) within the surface water catchment of one of the region’s urban water supply sources.’
Cr Duncan Dey’s motion says, ‘Incidents in recent years such as wastewater overflows in the Pilliga State Forest and at Casino demonstrate that the infant unconventional gas industry is either not willing to, or not capable of averting such incidents, and that the planning for and granting of exploration licences was premature.’ Will this all make any difference? Probably not if done in isolation, as Cr Di Woods pointed out.
She suggested it would be more effective if all north coast councils were aligned. But that’s notwithstanding the public’s discontent which saw thousands turn out at Bentley recently.
One of the most interesting parts of the meeting’s debate was the idea put forward by Crs Hunter and Chris Cubis that Council should instead concentrate on the three Rs: rates, roads and rubbish. We shouldn’t be political, they said.
It’s an intriguing argument: should we operate as non- political vessels and let the state and feds take care of us?
Or, can humans ever achieve a pure non-political state of being? It’s understandable to want less work given the rates of councillors’ pay, but such is the calling to a higher purpose.
The possible contamination of waterways from gas mining at the proposed Bentley site, just west of Lismore, has sparked a motion by Greens Cr Duncan Dey for this Thursday’s council meeting.
Cr Dey, who is also a councillor of water authority Rous Water, warns that Metgasco’s attempts to extract tight sands gas from prime agricultural lands could have ‘catastrophic impacts.’
He says in the upcoming council agenda for April 10 that the risks have ‘not been adequately investigated’.
Additionally, Rous Water, which supplies water to Lismore, Ballina, Richmond Valley and Byron LGAs, has called on the state government to prevent gas exploration in areas it is planning to explore for under- ground water sources. It comes as the state government recently announced a six-month freeze on all new CSG explorations.
Cr Dey wrote, ‘My view is that the risk to water quality is substantial while the necessity for unconventional gas to be discovered or, if found, extracted in this particular locality is negligible.
‘There is gas elsewhere.'
‘Rous and hence Byron Shire Council and their de- pendent water supply community rely on the Lismore source. If it were to be re- moved from Rous’s supply system, our future water strategy would be undermined in that a replacement source would be required almost immediately. While groundwater is proposed as ‘the new source’, it requires several years of investigation prior to use.
But in reply to Cr Dey’s question on possible contamination, Rous staff said, ‘It is unlikely that surface water runoff will have the potential to impact on local tributaries’, but ‘a key question to be ad- dressed concerns the extent to which the upstream migration of contaminants occurs during... intermediate flow ranges, when potential expo- sure could occur.’
‘This analysis requires consideration of the variability of tidal flows that would also introduce variability to this situation.’
Meanwhile Council’s Infrastructure Services director, Phil Holloway, says in the re- port that council staff contact- ed Richard Green, team lead- er of the state government’s Groundwater North, over the issue. ‘He has verbally advised that they have no concerns with the Bentley project.
‘It’s a conventional gas bore in that they are looking for dry gas, not fracking for coal seam gas. He also advised that groundwater flows very slowly and said that it may not be even possible for ground- water to travel from Bentley to Byron.
‘Without further investigation he couldn’t comment any further on the issue.’
But in his comments Mr Holloway provided the federal government’s Atlas of Ground- water Dependent Ecosystems which, ‘suggest the ground- water between Bentley and Byron Shire could be linked.’
State govt refused to fund water test
Regardless, for those living next door, the possibility of toxic spills and runoff are a major concern. Boudicca Cerese from Gasfield Free Northern Rivers claims the water testing that was done last year was insufficient to make any reasonable comparison.
‘What is required is proper baseline data’, she said, ‘not just this one-off testing but actually, over a period of time, through all different seasons.’
Richmond Valley Council, which covers Bentley, commissioned Lismore-based Richmond Water Laboratories to carry out the 2013 testing, with Metgasco paying for the test after the state govern- ment refused to fund it.
No baseline testing
It was done within a two- kilometre radius of the well’s location, and looked at the water quality in two creeks, two bores and two dams adjacent to the property where the company plans to drill for tight sands gas. The tests will be repeated two months after the drilling is complete and again 12 months later.
Cr Dey is asking for Council to write to Macquarie Street- based NSW coalition MPs regarding the dangers of the activity, while Cr Basil Cameron is calling on councillors to support a letter-writing push to include northern rivers agricultural industries as a Critical Industry Cluster (CIC) status.
Currently there are only two CICs in NSW: the horse and wine industries of the Hunter Valley. That legislation protects just those two indus- tries from the state’s rapid expansion of gas mining.
Botched boat eviction plans by bureaucrat change to year lease for Bruns Buccaneer
The tedious and complicated bureaucracy that nearly sank Brunswick Buccaneer boat hire may soon be over. Well, for a year at least.
The Echo reported earlier this year that the manager of the NSW government-run North Coast Holiday Parks (NCHP), Jim Bolger, inexplicably tried to evict the 30-year old business and its operator Ilan Schnitzler a year ago with just four days’ notice.
It came without explanation and Mr Bolger told The Echo at the time, ‘the Trust will not take part in discussing licence or legal issues through the media’.
But in a turnaround, Mr Schnitzler told The Echo that Mr Bolger had a ‘completely changed attitude,’ at their recent meeting, and agreed to allow the boat hire business to continue for a year.
And as the licence makes no guarantees past 12 months, Mr Schnitzler’s solicitor, Claire Lovejoy, told The Echo it was possibly because of the NCHP’s controversial plan of management (POM) for the town- ship, which is yet to be determined.
Interestingly, when on exhibition the POM did not include the Brunswick Buccaneer in the plan or maps and instead promoted a deck- ing area at the site.
As for the way in which Mr Schnitzler had to navigate the bureaucratic smoke and mirrors, be prepared for layers of confusing regulation.
While NSW government departments all appear to share responsibility of issuing permits to access the creek, Mr Schnitzler was advised that NCHP controls the embarkation point at Banner Park. At the high-water mark. Still with us?
Smoke and mirrors
Now that a licence has been signed by NCHP, he has to go back to Crown Lands, NSW Marine Parks and Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) to get the technical tick to legally operate.
‘Previously the departments indicated that permits would be grant- ed after NCHP gave the licence,’ said Ms Lovejoy. ‘Now it appears some of these departments are dragging their heels with emails unanswered for over a month.’
Mr Bolger, who is also NCHP’s media contact, was asked by The Echo for comment on the reversal of his previous eviction intentions but as of deadline there has been no reply.
NCHP controversially took control from Council of public parks and reserves in 2006, and The Echo previously reported that the state government took that revenue away from Council.
Additionally, the community be- came enraged at Mr Bolger’s plans to fence off public lands in the town.
■ Disclosure: Mr Schnitzler’s solicitor is a relative of the reporter
While the state government spewed its usual rhetoric this week, there was one issue that spun at a higher pitch: the rising unpopularity of fossil fuel expansion, especially in regional areas.
A temporary suspension on the issuing of new coal seam gas exploration licences was announced by the O’Farrell coalition government, while the NSW Labor opposition called on the premier ‘to go further and halt all CSG operations across NSW.’
It’s a turnaround for NSW Labor; when in government previously – for 16 hard long years – they were responsibble for the unfettered expansion of the industry, including $1,000 mining licences and royalty-free periods.
Meanwhile two major gas mining companies, Santos and AGL, have sought to address public discontent with a non-binding agreement with NSW Farmers, Cotton Australia and NSW Irrigators Council.
It accepts the right of landholders to refuse miners access to their land for gas development. Notably it poo-poos any neighbour who may disagree, with the agreement stating, ‘The parties condemn bullying, harassment and intimidation by third-party groups and individuals in relation to agreed operations.’
It comes only weeks after a Greens bill to give landowners a say on land access was not only rejected by the major parties, but not even debated.
While welcoming the announcement, Lock the Gate’s national co-ordinator Phil Laird said the commitment, ‘is no comfort to our Queensland members or to communities in the northern rivers facing off against gas company Metgasco, and cannot be relied upon unless it is enshrined in law in NSW.’
‘Our message to the government is this: extend rights and protections not just to landholders, but to the communities that rely on the health of the land and the water. Otherwise a gas company can still undermine the safety and security of landholders by buying high-value farming land for coal seam gas extraction, as AGL has done in the Hunter.’
The newly formed state government department tasked to advise and manage rural lands on behalf of landowners has been forced to apologise to members after letters were sent with wrong and missing information.
Local Land Services (LLS) blamed administration errors for the mistakes, which saw the election postal ballot package to members containing the wrong information for three candidates and the omission of a ‘holding number’, which assists in identifying and registering members hoping to enrol.
And the missing holding number appears to be a statewide flub, after the media spokesperson at head office in Tamworth confirmed it with The Echo.
But it remains unclear what, if any statewide response was made to the mistake.
Byron Shire rural landowner Alan Goldstein told The Echo that when he received the LLS election pack, it was ‘structured in a way to maximise the ways you could turn your vote into an informal one’, and that without careful examination, there are ‘numerous ways you could make a small mistake or omission.’
Goldstein says that more people will be disenfranchised with LSS, ‘because they will not bother to telephone to get their number.’
‘The office person said their office thought this process was being severely mishandled.’
Local Land Services (LLS) replaced the Livestock Health and Pest Authority (LHPA) and Catchment Management Authority (CMA) from the start of the year and was calling on landowners to enrol to vote on a new board.
MP controls board
And, like previous incarnations, Goldstein says, ‘LSS beginning to look as if it will continue in the tradition of not actually producing any real outcomes for the money it collects while performing its functions in an entirely unprofessional way.’
‘The problem with making such criticisms is that it only seems to lead to another review and name change with no real difference occurring.’
Further criticism of the LSS is that the NSW minister for primary industries controls 58 per cent of the vote, effectively negating any democratic accountability.
But a spokesperson for NSW minister for primary industries, Katrina Hodgkinson, told The Echo that, ‘it was appropriate’ that the minister controls the board.
‘The funding base is one-third from the ratepayer, while two-thirds of the funding comes from federal and state government.
‘It’s important the minister has a say on how the board runs.’
When asked if he was aware of the statewide mailout blunder, the spokesperson said he wasn’t.
So what will the Local Land Services do for rural landowners?
While specifics are vague, the new government body claims it will bring together ‘agricultural production advice, biosecurity, natural resource management and emergency management.’ As for accountability, LSS uses language on its website such as ‘administering, developing, implementing, delivery, communicating, consulting and engaging,’ while they are also ‘preparing State Strategic Plans and Local Strategic Plans.’
Education and training will also be part of their services, but comes without further explanation. For more visit www.lls.nsw.gov.au or the class action against it: llsclassaction.com.
Hans Lovejoy & Luis Feliu
The newly anointed NSW Labor candidate for Tweed, Ron Goodman, wasted no time in trying to wedge incumbent MP Geoff Provest (Nationals) over a paid parking proposal for Tweed Hospital.
Goodman is demanding that details be released and wants an explanation to why there has been no public consultation.
Mr Goodman said, ‘It is an arrogant money grabbing exercise by the Nationals and shows how out of touch they have become. Patients – many of them elderly – and their families have to drive and they will now have to pay for parking. They will have no choice.’
Until recently Goodman, 41, was the editor of www.mydailynews.com.au (APN) and before that worked at Quest newspapers (Newscorp) in Brisbane for ten years. When asked what he thought were Labor’s weaknesses, Goodman laughed said he ‘wouldn’t buy into that,’ but said that he wanted to contribute to the party to make it better and believed strongly in their core values. Goodman will contest Provest’s seat of Tweed in the upcoming 2015 NSW election.
Provest ignored by A Stoner
It comes as a Tweed residents’ group were recently snubbed by NSW Nationals leader Andrew Stoner despite a request by Provest for them to meet. Dubbed Save Lot 490, the group has amassed more than 10,000 signatures and is petitioning the government to save a 40-hectare block between Kingscliff and Salt from development. It’s one of the last remaining blocks of coastal land on the Tweed and has been the subject of a public campaign for years. Save Lot 490 group’s Jerry Cornford told The Echo that despite Provest trying to arrange a meeting with the group and Nationals leader Andrew Stoner when he was in Tweed recently, the minister’s staff said he was ‘too busy’.
The Echo reported at the time that no details of Mr Stoner’s visit were made available.
Last year the embattled Leightons Property group pulled the pin on a proposed resort project earmarked for the site, handing it back to the state government. But in a controversial move, the state government changed the block’s status from Crown land to ‘government property’, which the site’s defenders saw as preparing it for sale. Lot 490 was also the site of a rare species of orchid, Geodorum Densiflorum, destroyed by a fire police believe was deliberately lit in July last year, only two weeks after staff had collected seeds and sent them to the Millennium Seed Project at Royal Kew Gardens in the UK.
New rural services for landowners are ‘unconstitutional’ and of ‘no value to rural landowners’
While NSW government services for rural landowners morphed into Local Land Services (LLS) on January 1, a class action against LLS claims the revenue collected is unconstitutional and is not value for money, especially for those who don’t run stock or grow crops.
The centralising of services is the ‘biggest change to agricultural services in 60 years’, says the body representing NSW Farmers, and has seen the LLS replace the Livestock Health and Pest Authorities (LHPA) and Catchment Management Authorities (CMA).
The class action comes as Goonengerry resident Howard Furner faces a pre-trial court hearing in Lismore on February 25 over unpaid LHPA rates for his property. Furner’s land has been reforested after years of cattle use, and therefore is without livestock or food crops. He told The Echo, ‘I don’t even open their letters any more because they don’t provide any services.’
Apart from LHPA failing to help with the wild dog crisis in the shire around 2011, Furner claims that LHPA annual returns show millions were spent on consultants.
Russell Preston is in a similar situation, because his land doesn’t run stock or grow crops.
The Brisbane-based theoretical physicist owns 12 hectares in The Pocket, and told The Echo he refuses to pay LHPA rates ‘as it is of no value’.
And as Preston found out, the state government has the power to claim private property for unpaid rates. ‘Despite registering my property in a voluntary conservation agreement, the then-Rural Land Protection Board (RLPB) put my property up for sale for unpaid rates in 2003. It was only averted moments before an auction was to take place.’
He added that ‘no politicians have been any use’ with his cause.
A recent survey conducted by NSW Farmers revealed 56 per cent of respondents say that LHPA is not value for money.
So is the new LLS an unwieldily bureaucratic behemoth acting illegally? ‘This is bigger than the Titanic and no media are reporting on it,’ says 75-year-old landowner Trevor Kirk, who has set up a class action against the LLS (http://llsclassaction.com).
The retired corporate accountant describes himself as a ‘habitat and fresh air farmer’ and has been fighting the ‘funding regime of the NSW government’ since 2006 on the grounds it is ‘discriminatory, in breach of the Australian Constitution, persecutes landholders and is in their worst interests’.
‘Under Sir Lunch-a-lot [disgraced Labor primary industries minister, Ian McDonald], they reduced the land size from ten to four hectares, but there was an uproar and they changed it back.’
Kirk’s aim is to get landowners to contribute to a ‘fighting fund’ that will enable a High Court challenge.
‘I believe it’s unconstitutional for a state government to create any tax or levy,’ he says. ‘The federal government set taxes, and the state can only raise taxes, not impose them.’
He also claims that despite the name changes, NSW Liberal, Nationals and Labor parties have let the rort continue.
‘In this new LLS structure, MP Katrina Hodgkinson controls 58 per cent of the votes and she has set the rules.
‘She appears to be appointing stooges like her predecessors did.’
Despite Kirk’s claims of ‘business as usual’, there are now new managers and bureaucrats in charge.
Bruce Brown is one of the new crop and is the new north coast general manager of LLS, based in Coffs Harbour.
And as with the North Coast Holiday parks, there is a corporate tone to the government-run organisation. Brown told The Echo he comes to the job as a former NSW Farmers and corporate lobbyist, and ‘did work with helping banks develop connections with the farming sector.’
‘I’m from the private sector and am commercially driven,’ he said, ‘and we will be triple bottom focused with economic growth, as the sector has dipped in previous years.’
To achieve this, he said, the LLS will hold workshops and provide advice and education. And while the budget of the north coast LLS was still being finalised, Brown said the region – which covers Port Macquarie to Tweed – employs ‘around 40.’
But hard questions are still on the drawing board, with Brown admitting that the exemption sugarcane farmers had with LHPA is being reconsidered, as is the rateable system of land for ratepayers.
As for upcoming board member elections, enrolments closed Monday, and Brown conceded that 1,000-odd enrolments was a ‘low’ figure.
Upon hearing of Mr Furner’s court case, he said he would be ‘delighted’ to come and attend any group meeting with landowners who are dissatisfied with LSS services.
For more contact the Grafton office on 6642 0625.
The pressure is on to explain why the NSW deputy premier would come all the way up from Sydney to spruik ‘putting regional NSW back at the heart of government’ yet at the same time syphon money away from it.
Andrew Stoner (also NSW Nationals leader) was in Tweed last Thursday, and travelled up with five other senior NSW MPs for ‘party business’ and to meet Tweed Council, ‘local business owners and groups’.
But the specifics were vague – when asked, no names of the business owners or groups were supplied by Mr Stoner’s media spokesperson.
But it was an opportunity for The Echo to ask Mr Stoner directly whether he would return management of Brunswick Heads’ public caravan parks and Crown reserves back to the Byron Shire Council.
Mr Stoner, who has the power to do so, said simply he ‘hadn’t ruled it out’.
In 2006 the parks were controversially taken over by the state and handed to the North Coast Holiday Parks (NCHP) by former disgraced Labor MP Tony Kelly, with a claim they had been mismanaged.
And ever since, major cost-shifting has occurred: The Echo previously reported that when council ran the parks in 2003–04, it made almost $1 million ($860,553) but under state control in 2011-12, NCHP paid $196,818 from park income to Byron Council.
Byron Shire mayor Simon Richardson is calling for the return of management to Council, and it follows widespread community concern over future development of the parks and reserves by NCHP.
In 2012, former Byron general manager Graeme Faulkner lifted the veil of confidentiality over the report used by the state government to justify the Brunswick Heads parks takeover, and was damning of its claims.
The report was also discredited by most councillors at the time as deceptive and full of misinformation in order to justify stripping Council of its trusteeship of the parks.