Opinion: It’s no laughing matter for threatened miners

April 10, 2014

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald

NSW Minerals Council CEO, Stephen Galilee

Earlier this week an editorial in the Newcastle Herald claimed: ‘‘The NSW government’s bias in favour of approving mining proposals is a joke’’ (Herald, 8/4).

It’s a claim supported by the vocal anti-mining lobby but not by the facts, and it is not a joke.

It’s certainly not a joke for the 1800 Hunter miners whose jobs are at risk because the mines where they work are currently caught up in a planning system that actually works against mining.

Consider the situation facing 500 Hunter miners at Drayton. The project has been there for decades. It has sought to extend a mine operating on land owned by the company. 

After more than four years and many changes to the application to appease others, the project still has no approval. And as a result, people are now losing their jobs.

Similarly, consider the plight of the 1300 Hunter miners of Mount Thorley Warkworth. They and their families also face an uncertain future thanks to a planning system in which a 30-year-old mine seeking to extend its operations goes through a three-year assessment, and receives all state and federal approvals, only to have those approvals overturned a year later by the views of a single judge.

So it’s no joke to these 1800 Hunter miners who face losing their jobs thanks to a planning system some claim is actually biased towards mining.

And it’s also no joke to the more than 1500 Hunter miners who have already lost their jobs in the past 18 months.

Job losses of this scale in other industries receive urgent attention from policy-makers. Yet these mining job losses have gone largely unnoticed. The miners of the Hunter have become the forgotten workers of NSW, ignored by government and mocked by the claim that the system is actually biased in their favour.

What kind of message does it send about investing in NSW when a project can spend more than three years in the planning system, receive all its approvals and then be overturned by a single judge a year later?  

What message are we sending when a project can spend more than four years in the planning system without an assessment outcome? It is little wonder that mining investment in NSW has halved over the past two years.

And despite the fact that so many jobs are either currently at risk or have already been lost, media coverage of these issues is often portrayed as something straight off the set of Erin Brockovich – a titanic battle of David versus Goliath, of local communities versus the mining projects.

The reality is that people working at these projects are part of their local communities too. There are thousands of Hunter families living in towns such as Singleton, Muswellbrook, Cessnock and Maitland who rely on a strong mining industry for their livelihood.  Locals whose kids play in local sports teams. Locals who head to the RSL for a beer.  Locals who are members of local clubs such as PCYC, Rotary and Lions.

Despite current difficulties, mining in the Hunter does have a strong future, with the potential to support thousands of jobs and foster future economic growth.

We have a world-class mining workforce, a long history of innovative mining practices, some of the best coal deposits in the world, and excellent rail and port infrastructure. Our Hunter coal is needed to generate electricity here in NSW, as well as being in demand by some of the world’s most powerful economies, including Japan, China, Taiwan and Korea.

What are missing are the right policy settings, including a planning system that provides certainty and consistency in its outcomes. On this front, the No.1 economic priority for the NSW government must be to fix the broken planning system. A sense of urgency is needed or more jobs will be lost.

So while some claim that the NSW government’s policies are biased in favour of mining, thousands of Hunter miners at risk of losing their jobs can only wish it were true. 

The truth is very different, and people are suffering.

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