THE packed public gallery of Council Chambers erupted in cries of “Shame!” last Wednesday, when South Gippsland Shire Council voted down a motion seeking the State Government exempt the shire from CSG and coal exploration and mining activities.
The motion was put forward by Cr Andrew McEwen and strongly supported by Cr Kieran Kennedy and Cr Don Hill. Their arguments, however, bolstered by three public presentations on the subject on Wednesday morning, could not persuade the other five councillors at the meeting (Cr Nigel Hutchinson-Brooks was absent).
Those councillors reasoned that Council has taken a strong enough stance for the moment on what is essentially a state government issue, and that now – in the lead up to a state election, while a moratorium on mining exploration and fracking is in place (until July 2015) and a full report is in the pipeline – is not the time for further action.
In her presentation to Council on Wednesday morning, Poowong resident Wendy Davis, a member of Lock the Gate Victoria, said that it was “a dreadful shame that NSW and Queensland have been overwhelmed by this industry” but now the environmental impacts of CSG mining are known and Victoria is in a place to benefit from the other states’ misfortunes. She asserted that she represented the views of a majority of South Gippsland residents in asking for the shire to be CSG free.
“Your concerned citizens require you to listen to them and pass Cr McEwen’s motion,” she concluded.
David Arnault, a writer and environmentalist from Mirboo North, also exhorted Council to support Cr McEwen’s motion. He painted a grim picture of what could be expected to happen to the South Gippsland landscape if coal seam gas mining went ahead. He warned that housing values (and hence rate revenue) would drop as a result of a desecrated landscape and fewer tourists and tree/sea-changers.
“This is a huge issue that will affect all of us,” said the third speaker, Phil Piper, also from Mirboo North. “You don’t seem to be taking it seriously,” he told the councillors, and suggested that they should follow the example of Bass Coast and take stronger action against CSG exploration and mining. “Get your priorities right…I ask you to support Cr McEwen’s motion, because it’s so important.”
He spoke, however, in vain. At the meeting that afternoon, the ‘Lock the Gate’ lobby noisily made their presence felt, but not even their fervent views, expressed in wild applause (after Cr McEwen and his supporters spoke) or interjections of outrage (when the opposite view was argued) could sway the majority of Council.
Mayor Jim Fawcett said that in June 2012 Council had affirmed its opposition to coal seam gas exploration or mining “until it is shown to be safe”, and since then had advocated on behalf of the community, putting forward its concerns to the industry and related governing bodies and meeting with government regulators on a number of occasions. “Nothing has changed,” he said, insisting that the right time for Council to take further action would be if a future government tried to put measures in place allowing CSG to go ahead. “This is not about CSG, it’s about when to advocate on your behalf,” he said, addressing the public gallery.
Crs Harding, Davies, Brunt and Newton agreed that the timing was wrong.
Cr McEwen, however, said that it was “absolute nonsense that nothing has changed”, pointing out that several Australian regions, such as the Margaret River in WA, had successfully sought exemptions from CSG mining on the grounds of their agricultural industries. “This is precisely the time,” he exclaimed. “We’re dropping the ball. We’re not strategic. We let things occur.” He said that when it came to CSG mining, throughout the world the regulatory regime had failed.
Cr McEwen said that mining would jeopardise the shire’s agricultural land and its water and affect tourism, the local economy and employment. He said that community meetings had made clear the strength of community opposition to CSG mining, but Council did not have a good record on advocating on behalf of the community and was accordingly marked low in community satisfaction surveys. “We’re not perceived as being good ar representing the strongly held views of the community,” he warned.
He added: “This is an acid test for Council. It will come back to haunt us.”
Linda Giddy from Foster was amongst the crowd in the public gallery. Afterwards she expressed bitter disappointment in how the vote had gone. She said that in a survey of more than 300 people in the Foster area, all but one (who was unsure) was opposed to CSG exploration or mining on their property or in their neighbourhood or community.
Shire chief executive officer Tim Tamlin tried to placate the disappointed crowd, saying: “Don’t be disheartened. Now is not the right time. The right time is when it would have the biggest impact – in a few months’ time.”