‘Crucial accountability agency’ faces review after push from mining lobby

By Shannon Jenkins

October 23, 2019

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An administration hiccup and mounting pressure from mining lobby groups has prompted a review into the New South Wales Independent Planning Commission.

Planning and Public Spaces Minister Rob Stokes said a two-month review of the IPC would “ensure confidence in the speed, quality and impartiality of decision-making on major projects”. 

It will be conducted by the state’s first productivity commissioner, Peter Achterstraat. A former auditor-general of NSW and a former deputy commissioner of taxation, he is expected to make recommendations to the state government about the IPC’s “purpose and structure” in December, according to Stokes.

“Independent expert decision-making has been a fundamental part of our reforms to the NSW planning system to ensure transparency and prevent corruption, and while their answer’s not always going to be yes, the answer does need to be quick, clear and clean,” he said.

“This review is an opportunity to reflect on how we can better serve communities where major projects are proposed and provide clearer processes for investors at the same time.”

The review was sparked by an “administrative error” that embarrassed the IPC earlier this month, but could also be connected to an increase in pressure from lobby groups.

The IPC accidentally approved a 21-year mining lease for Rix’s Creek South Mine before public submissions had closed. Hours later, the IPC reversed the approval.

NSW Minerals Council chief executive Steve Galilee said the stuff up was “stressful” for 300 workers.

“They were very relieved when the news came through yesterday afternoon that the project had been approved,” he said.

“They now have to wait to see whether they have a long-term future again.”

IPC chair Mary O’Kane said it was not normal for an approval to be made before all submissions had been received. 

“It’s embarrassing for the IPC because we try to work hard to give everyone a chance to comment and give as much input as possible, it’s very embarrassing,” she said.

Stokes called for an immediate review into the IPC to ensure the hiccup was not repeated, and O’Kane agreed.

But on Monday, Galilee told the Independent Commission Against Corruption at an inquiry into lobbying that the NSW Minerals Council had campaigned “publicly and privately to the government and the minister” against the IPC. 

“I’d like to believe that our campaign on planning reform has helped the government decide that it should look at some of the processes that are in place,” he admitted.

Galilee — a former chief of staff to Treasurer Mike Baird and advisor to John Howard — revealed he had met with ministers roughly eight to 10 times and their chiefs of staff about 10 to 15 times in the last few years. However, he denied that it had made any impact.

“There’s very rarely anything resolved from a meeting with a minister other than to have more meetings with a department official to keep on talking about something, and then six years later we get a refusal,” he said.

“If things were going so well for us we wouldn’t be getting project refusals and we wouldn’t be getting increasing regulation, and timeframes for assessment wouldn’t be going up — and the number of mines in NSW wouldn’t be falling, investment wouldn’t be dropping, and we wouldn’t be running a public campaign against the planning minister and his planning system.”

The IPC rejected a proposed coal mine near Mudgee last month because it posed serious environmental risks. Galilee told ICAC the Minerals Council had ramped up the pressure on the government following that rejection through campaigns.

Former ICAC commissioner Anthony Whealy said the IPC was a “crucial accountability agency” and expressed concern over the involvement of lobby groups.

“It is now facing a review, announced by the NSW government under pressure from the Minerals Council of NSW,” he told The Guardian.

“This raises questions about the vested interests of the Minerals Council and the impact that is having on our accountability institutions.”

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