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Miners lobbied O'Farrell to pull the plug on legal centre

Jeff Smith … EDO chief.

Jeff Smith … EDO chief. Photo: Tamara Dean

THE mining industry urged the Premier, Barry O'Farrell, to scrap funding to the Environmental Defenders Office - months later, the state government did just that.

Documents released under freedom of information laws show the NSW Minerals Council and the Australian Coal Association lobbied the Premier to cancel the EDO's annual public subsidy.

The government announced last month it had pulled the plug on the legal centre by redirecting money to Legal Aid and forbidding state funding for agencies ''providing legal advice to activists and lobby groups'' - the EDO's core business.

Kirsty Ruddock … EDO solicitor.

Kirsty Ruddock … EDO solicitor. Photo: Domino Postiglione

The EDO provides free legal services to communities involved in environmental disputes with developers and miners - increasingly, residents' groups fighting coal and coal seam gas proposals in rural NSW.

In a letter to Mr O'Farrell, dated October 9, the Minerals Council's chief executive, Stephen Galilee, lambasted the EDO for what he described as its support for a ''deliberate campaign of economic sabotage'' against the coal industry.

That was a reference to the attendance of the EDO's principal solicitor, Kirsty Ruddock, at a Greenpeace-convened meeting in the Blue Mountains that led to the creation of a document titled ''Stopping the Australian Coal Export Boom''.

In his letter, Mr Galilee told Mr O'Farrell: ''It is difficult to understand the logic behind NSW taxpayers' funds being provided to an organisation intent on using those funds to lodge legal challenges against decisions taken on behalf of taxpayers.

''It is even more absurd for these funds to to be used to support a deliberate campaign of economic sabotage against an industry providing our most valuable export commodity as well as 50,000 direct jobs… We hope your government will therefore cease funding the EDO as a matter of urgency.''

Mr O'Farrell declined to say whether he took any action in respect of the letter.

A spokesman for the Premier said: ''Any interest group can make representations to government - the government will ultimately consider all information and make decisions that are in the best interest of the state and taxpayers.''

In its letter to Mr O'Farrell, the Coal Association described as ''perverse'' the way in which the EDO was using taxpayer funds to represent three anti-coal community groups in the Hunter Valley, as well as its link to the anti-coal movement.

The letter was copied to the Minerals Council and the Energy Minister, Chris Hartcher. Mr Hartcher later publicly described the EDO as part of a ''left agenda to destroy the economy''.

The EDO's executive director, Jeff Smith, said the link to the anti-coal movement was a ''beat up'' used by the office's opponents to justify crippling its functions.

Ms Ruddock, daughter of federal Liberal MP Philip Ruddock, was one of 18 people thanked for attending the Blue Mountains meeting and Mr Smith said she was there only to provide legal advice to groups the EDO was representing.

''That's what we do: We review documents and provide legal advice. It doesn't mean we endorse them,'' he said.

''The way it has been painted you'd think we wrote the document,'' he said.

''I was one of six people who provided advice to the review of NSW planning laws and the subsequent green paper. No one accused me of being a co-author of that.''

The EDO was notified last Friday that its funding would continue until June 30 but at 27 per cent less than previous levels, with a further wind back expected in line with the new guidelines. The EDO is now calculating redundancies.

Clarification: The previous version of this story said the EDO's public subsidy was $2.5 million. In fact, the state government's direct funding is about $200,000. Contributions from the Public Purpose Fund (interest paid by the NSW Attorney-General on trust accounts held by solicitors) amount to about $1.7 million.

 

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