TEMPERS flared in Council Chambers yet again last Wednesday as South Gippsland Shire Council argued the merits of advocating to the Victorian Government to exempt all land in the shire from coal or coal seam gas exploration.
Put forward by Crs Andrew McEwen, Don Hill and Kieran Kennedy, the motion was ultimately dismissed, largely on the grounds that it served no useful purpose, but this was only after a long and heated debate, which prompted some angry interjections from the public gallery.
Cr Nigel Hutchinson-Brooks led the charge against the motion. He asked for extra time to read out a prepared piece. He began by pointing out that Council has long taken a strong and proactive position against coal mining licences and CSG exploration in South Gippsland (and this is clearly explained on the council website) culminating in a resolution passed unanimously at the February council meeting, in which Council agreed to:
- Advise the Victorian Government that it endorses the key recommendations of the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry Into Unconventional Gas Final Report – December 2015.
- Advise the Victorian Government it supports a ban on the unconventional gas industry in Victoria for all forms of unconventional gas until it can be demonstrated that the impacts will not adversely affect the environment, economy or community.
- Place a link to the Final Victorian Parliamentary Report into Unconventional Gas on Council’s website.
Cr Hutchinson-Brooks said that the Coal and CSG Free Mirboo North Group even wrote to Council after the February meeting expressing thanks for the unanimously passed resolution. He was therefore shocked to see an email from Cr McEwen to Coal and CSG Free Mirboo North implying that not all councillors were opposed to CSG and announcing that Cr McEwen and Cr Hill were going to put forward a further motion at the April meeting.
A seething Cr Hutchinson-Brooks quoted Cr McEwen: “In an election year it is amazing at the transformation of some of our reluctant Councillors,” to which remark he retorted: “What transformation? What reluctance? I have not changed my views against coal and CSG in the last ten years or more…What has the election year got to do with anything?…It is Cr McEwen who mentions the election year to again denigrate his fellow Councillors by innuendo, that they have changed their minds because of the coming election. This is sheer calumny and hypocrisy. What he is implying to the community is ‘There is an election coming up, remember that it is Cr Hill and I who are the only true defenders against CSG exploration.’ The website documents demonstrate that their position is absolutely not true.”
With quiet rage, Cr Hutchinson-Brooks methodically picked the assertions in Cr McEwen’s email to pieces, reserving special fury for the statement announcing the April notice of motion – “We [Crs McEwen and Hill] will give them [the other Crs] an opportunity to stand up for the ongoing protection of our area through an amendment to exempt South Gippsland from such activities in the Mining Act.”
Cr Hutchinson-Brooks exclaimed: “What arrogance! What conceit! What condescension! The other Councillors have always stood up for the protection of our area…What Cr McEwen is doing here is setting a trap. If the other Councillors do not support him in this motion before us, he and Cr Hill can claim that they are the only true supporters of protecting our area. If the other Councillors do support him, Cr McEwen can boast that he and Cr Hill are the true leaders of the community. Both of these positions are in my opinion devious, manipulative and hypocritical.”
Cr Hutchinson-Brooks then turned to an email sent by Cr Hill to several community groups. He picked that to pieces, too, in particular the suggestion that Crs Hill, McEwen and Kennedy had been “attempting to get this motion through Council for 12 months and until this week could not get the others to support your request to put this message to the government”.
“None of these three Councillors have ever had a conversation with me about ‘getting a motion through.’ The Council has indeed supported the community’s request to put ‘this message’ to government,” asserted Cr Hutchinson-Brooks.
Turning then to the motion before the April meeting, he said he would not be supporting it, firstly because it was not appropriate and secondly because of “the devious and manipulating way it has been put together”.
Cr Hutchinson-Brooks attempted to continue, levelling accusations of bullying against Crs McEwen. However, he did not get very far before Cr Kennedy called a Point of Order, saying that the presentation dealt with the personal rather than the matter in hand. The Mayor, Cr Bob Newton, merely asked Cr Hutchinson-Brooks not to personalise it, but allowed him to go on, whereupon Cr McEwen said he’d been maligned in a series of personalised attacks and Cr Hutchinson-Brooks said that he felt bullied. There were cries of disbelief and scoffing from the gallery, in which were seated at least a few people who – judging by letters in this newspaper today – continue to be swayed by the arguments of Crs Hill and McEwen.
“We have a duty to advocate for our ratepayers, even though we don’t have any control over mining companies or the government,” claimed Cr Kennedy.
Cr Jim Fawcett observed: “It’s amazing the resilience of some people. I think this matter has been to Council five times. Some people really just want something to yell about.” He pointed out that Council had passed resolutions on CSG at the February meeting and before that at the August 2015 meeting. “We have advocated,” he stressed, listing just a few of the ways in which Council has done so.
He accused councillors of scaremongering, saying “I deplore the Chicken Little actions of some of our councillors. They’re using this as a leverage point to gain support in the community.” He gloomily predicted that yet another motion would be put to Council in three months’ time. “I think they’re self-serving. They don’t move on,” he concluded.
Cr Mohya Davies said she was “continuously disappointed by the intimidation we receive. It’s disrespectful, it’s not gracious and it’s not democratic representation. As Councillors we can do better than this”. She pointed out that Council has already taken a very strong stance against CSG and could not go beyond its remit. “This is asking us to ban CSG – which is beyond our powers.”
Cr Lorraine Brunt expressed a similar view, saying that Council was being asked to do something which was beyond its authority and it was a waste of time bringing it to the table.
Cr Hill and Cr McEwen, however, would not back down. Cr McEwen asserted there had been no good arguments against the motion but only “personal vilification and a series of abusive comments”. He spoke at some length on the dangers posed by CSG. This was despite suggesting, in the ‘Background’ he wrote to the motion, that there was no great likelihood of companies finding it worthwhile to mine CSG in South Gippsland. “With climate change dramatically accelerating there is an increasing recognition that fossil energies are on the wane as company valuations are falling dramatically,” wrote Cr McEwen. “The Victorian Parliamentary and Government Resources Assessment Reports suggest that there are not significant resources in southern Gippsland.”
Crs McEwen, Hill and Kennedy voted for the motion, the other five councillors (Cr Harding missed the meeting) voted against it and the motion was therefore lost