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Issue #1483      1 December 2010


Public rejects “big business” Labor

Last week the NSW Keneally government finally abandoned plans to build a dam as big as Sydney Harbour on the Williams River in the Hunter Valley. Public disquiet over the cosy friendship between ALP governments and big business is exemplified in the vigorous local and state-wide protests against the Tillegra Dam proposal.

In 2006 the then Iemma government claimed the dam would guarantee fresh water for the Hunter Valley and NSW Central Coast. However, even allowing for climate change, much of its 230 billion-litre capacity was undoubtedly surplus, given that it met an anticipated water shortfall only likely to occur every 830,000 years. Moreover, its construction would have necessitated flooding 90 highly productive farms, and the presence of geological fissures cast doubt on its ability to actually retain water.

The government finally conceded defeat after two studies showed that the dam’s construction would threaten migratory bird species, as well as sites of Aboriginal and European heritage significance, and that an enormous amount of water could be provided by subsidising the installation of domestic water tanks, augmenting existing dams and regulating Hunter and Central Coast water use.

In deciding to proceed with the $450 million Tillegra project, one of the Iemma government’s prime motives was undoubtedly the facilitation of a major development project. However, the project would also have facilitated residential and industrial development within the Hunter Valley and central coast, particularly coal mining, which requires enormous quantities of water.

The Hunter Valley is already suffering from mining overdevelopment. Huge, obscene open-cut mines pock-mark the landscape and coat it with coal dust, endangering public health. Many long-wall coal mines have caused extensive soil subsidence and the loss of aquifer water.

Nevertheless, new mines are being opened up throughout the state. The government has granted companies at least 20 licenses to drill exploratory mines for gas, coal or other minerals beneath the wonderfully fertile Liverpool Plains. The prospect has enraged local farmers, who see their livelihoods in the iconic “black soil plains” ruined by the loss of surface water and soil, the release of toxic fluids into aquifers and surface water, and the emission of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

Plans are afoot to mine for gas within a former brickpits site at St Peters, an inner Sydney suburb. One mining corporation even intends to use the highly dangerous “fracking” technique, which can result in subsidence and the release of toxic chemicals, for mineral exploration alongside Lake Burragorang, the principle source of Sydney’s drinking water.

Currently, test wells can be drilled without the approval of the NSW Environment Department. The NSW Farmers’ Association has demanded a moratorium on new mining projects until a plan has been prepared to safeguard food security, water resources and agricultural land.

The mining industry has haughtily dismissed such demands as stemming from “activism (which) has entrenched a trendy if uninformed cynicism towards our industry”. It has also launched a public relations “survey” that seeks strategic information about relationships between farmers and protest groups.

A changing landscape

Significant changes are occurring in the NSW political landscape. The Labor government’s obsessive commitment to kick-starting major development projects, if necessary by overriding objections from local communities and councils, is a major factor in its astronomical fall in public popularity.

The disenchantment is not limited to the NSW ALP government. Some leading National Party members have shares in mining corporations, or are directly involved in their operations. In many states, small farmers and rural communities are beginning to abandon the National Party because of its allegiance to mining interests. The Greens are increasingly seen as a preferable alternative.

The federal government has also come under fire for approving coal-seam gas mining in Queensland’s Surat and Bowen basins, despite reports that mining could cause several metres of ground level subsidence, as well as the loss of 45,000 gigalitres of aquifer water.

However, nothing matches the loss of popularity of the NSW Labor government. In the next state election in March it is expected to experience the biggest voting slump in ALP history.

And so it should. After all, you must expect to fall from grace if you’re prepared to sup with the devil.


Next article – Attack on Glebe Public Housing

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