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17 August 2023, 14:33

David ETTERSHANK (Western Metropolitan Region):

I rise to speak to the Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) Amendment Bill 2023 on behalf of Legalise Cannabis Victoria. I thank Mr McGowan for his thoughtful contribution. I think that was terrific; thank you. We want to start by acknowledging that the Victorian economy benefits hugely from the mining industry. According to 2021 data from the Minerals Council of Australia the value generated by this industry in Victoria is in excess of $1 billion, including $152 million in wages and salaries, over $300 million in purchases of goods and services and almost $50 million in state government payments. However, to put this in some perspective, that $1 billion is roughly the size of the illicit cannabis market in Victoria on an annual basis, which to date has not been considered worthy of regulation, merely prohibition. But I digress. I shall return to my subject, to whit, the mining industry.

Beyond this financial benefit, minerals and extractive resources provide necessary materials for housing, construction, renewable energy infrastructure and manufacturing, but there are also well understood and multifaceted negative impacts associated with resource extraction – climate change, deforestation, pollution, the loss of biodiversity, displacing people from their homes, dividing communities and damaging people’s health, to name but a few.

To exemplify this point, we can look at any state in Australia because directly or indirectly so many of our nation’s people have suffered some form of harm from the consequences of mining gone wrong. By way of example, let me just share two words that have been repeated in this chamber on multiple occasions, ‘Juukan Gorge’. To expand their iron ore mine in WA, Rio Tinto blasted caves that showed 46,000 years of continual occupation and gave a 4000-year-old genetic link to present-day traditional owners. They did this despite regular meetings with traditional owners and regulators prior to that happening, prior to that blast going ahead. So I guess I share Ms Ermacora’s distress at what happened there, but I draw a very different conclusion from that.

Closer to home we see Fosterville Gold Mine’s inability to self-assess risk having disastrous impacts on Axedale and Goornong farming and urban communities. We see it in mine worker injuries and deaths, in noise pollution, in dust emissions, in acid mine water drainage, in heavy metal contamination, in degraded groundwater quality and in earth tremors. With this well understood, we must pay very close attention to this attempt to streamline approval processes and self-regulation for this industry. We have heard from community groups, concerned constituents and many other members of the public primarily from regional and rural settings sharing an array of concerns on this bill. I think we share Mr McGowan’s experience in that regard.

We have, I guess, three major concerns with this bill: the new self-assessment model, the regulatory role of councils and the ambiguity of further regulations. First, in respect to self-assessment, this bill removes the requirement for the Earth Resources Regulator’s statutory endorsed work plan and replaces it with a manifestly less prescriptive regulatory model. Under the current process, a work plan would generally outline the proposed activities to be undertaken and it functions as a repository of information relating to matters such as environmental management, community engagement, health and safety, reporting obligations and more. The government makes very valid criticisms that the current processes employed by the Earth Resources Regulator lack transparency, and we endorse that concern. But if you want to enhance transparency, you can pull back the blinds, you do not need to bulldoze the wall. The proposed new model will include a self-assessment process and a duty to minimise risk to the environment and people from mining activities. That is a given. Applicants, however, will assess how much risk their mine poses to the environment and to the community and then decide for themselves how they will manage those risks before jumping directly to planning permissions and bypassing the work plan stage. This means that any pushback or appeals process on a self-assessment and council’s decision on it will not be aided by a work plan endorsed by the Earth Resources Regulator.

Further, under this model there is a clear incentive to under-report and self-assess in the lower range. A self-assessment of low risk means that miners can commence work according to a code of compliance and will not need to prepare a rehabilitation plan to be approved by the department. I want to come back to rehab in a minute. We have heard stories from stakeholders that speak to just how problematic a self-assessment regulatory approach to this industry will be.

We heard, for example, the story of a landholder that informed a mining company that the ground was too waterlogged for exploration activities. The mining company’s risk assessment was that this was not a problem and insisted on access. The result was extensive and permanent damage to the land in question from the 20-tonne drilling rig, which became bogged and had to be dug out no less than 15 times. We understand the government believes that the existing process is unnecessarily costly and inefficient, creating delays and adding cost to industry, but why risk rushing such environmentally sensitive applications through when the consequences of getting it wrong are so severe? We should be seeking every opportunity to identify risk well in advance of a final approval being issued.

Turning now to our second point of concern, under this new process councils will become responsible for approvals for planning permission, with the Minister for Planning as the referral authority. Councils will have to assess the environmental hazards, the health risks and a complex range of long- and short-term impacts. Basically, they need to assess both the direct and indirect impacts on community, environment and business. They are to do this without a work plan and have to rely on an applicant’s self-assessed risk plan. They are to do this without technical, geological or environmental expertise and resources – something that is essential to properly assess mining applications. Now, this is just a little bit bizarre. If we are to believe what we have heard of proposed changes to the building planning framework, this government does not trust local councils to approve the building of a block of flats, but apparently it considers them competent enough to approve extraordinarily complex mining projects. I mean, the mind boggles at this inconsistency.

Further compounding these concerns is the requirement for councils to provide ongoing monitoring to enforce compliance with the new duty in the scheme for an unwritten but not legally binding code of compliance. Let us remember that we will have rate-capped councils doing this. One must ask: with what money and with what highly skilled technical human resources will they be doing this? There is a real concern that these changes could burden councils and inadvertently lead to less due diligence and less evidence-based decisions. It is then even more perplexing that the government has said that these reforms will not significantly change the role of councils in respect of mining and extractive industries. We understand that assurances have been provided by the government to the opposition proposing a comprehensive period of consultation, including with local government, but we have not sighted that, so please forgive me if I do not feel particularly reassured.

The government also said that the Earth Resources Regulator will continue to be a lead regulator for the industry, although how this relationship with councils will operate in the future remains entirely unclear. Mr McGowan rightly referred to the importance of rehabilitation plans as part of the mining process, but we know from previous Victorian Auditor-General reports reporting specifically on the question of rehabilitating mines that historically this regulator has repeatedly failed in its role to ensure that land is progressively rehabilitated and returned to premining or better conditions. The government has foreshadowed further changes to the Victorian planning provisions, local planning schemes and related documents to clarify the process for this decision-making, which will be subject to community consultation. We welcome this community consultation, but the gap we see in this bill between legislation and regulation appears to be a mountainous one.

I concur with Mr McGowan: we have also been inundated with calls for further community consultation on both regulation and implementation, and we would like to see the government listen to those calls. I would say these are not your classic short-form bulk emails. These are really well thought through and considered letters from primarily rural and regional constituents.

We believe that consultation should happen first and then this bill should be brought back to this place. That is why we will not lend our support to this bill at this time. One of Legalise Cannabis Victoria’s pillars is ‘Save our planet’, and this principle is front and centre in our deliberations on this bill. So to this end, we will be supportive of proposed amendments that will encourage greater consultation with local governments, environmental organisations and regional communities likely to be impacted by mining and exploration. Broad consultation, transparency and accountability are important, and we do not want to settle for less.


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