If Barnaby Joyce tried to do "everything in his power" to stop the Shenhua coal mine in the prime agricultural lands of the Liverpool Plains, why didn't he make a submission to the public planning process? Why didn't he appear at the planning hearings? Why didn't his department?
Could it be that the public planning process has become such a joke that as Agriculture Minister and MP for New England he thought it a waste of his time? Or could it be that he didn't really try and do "everything in his power"? Maybe it's both.
The 'planning process' in Australia is more accurately described as the 'approval process'. Like kids at a modern sports carnival, virtually every project proponent gets a prize. Sure the 'process' might slow developers down a bit, and it will almost inevitably require some vague 'undertakings' to be made. But saying no to a major project? No, that's not how it works. Barnaby knows that.
The farcical nature of the 'planning process' is best understood by examining the farcical evidence that the proponents of major projects often submit in support of their project. The proponents of the T4 coal loader in Newcastle claimed that their project could create $60 billion worth of benefits which, if true, would have valued their projects contribution to the Hunter at more than the entire housing stock of Newcastle. Strangely for a project of such 'value', it never went ahead. The proponents had to downsize it because it wasn't financially viable. But the NSW Planning Department didn't seem to care.
The proponents of the Cobbora open cut coal mine near Dunedoo claimed that their project would create economic benefits of $2 billion. Despite the fact that even the NSW Treasury thought the project would lose $1 billion, the NSW Planning Department repeated the proponent's claims in both evidence to the Planning and Assessment Commission and to the media. Despite being approved on the basis of exaggerated benefits the Cobbora mine, never actually went ahead. Pity the government pre-emptively bought up the local farms, destroyed the local economy, and had to pay $20 million in compensation.
When coal project proponents make these ridiculous claims they, like Barnaby Joyce, know that the 'approval process' is a farce. Safe in the knowledge that the 'planning department' has no real plan other than to support the plans of others, developers simply pay consultants to make ridiculous claims to support their ridiculous projects. The Planning Department dutifully accepts their claims, and repeats them.
Every now and then a community has the resources and resolve to fight back. Ironically, when that point is reached, the incompetence of the Planning Department becomes one of the disgruntled communities' strongest assets. The 'evidence' that persuades the NSW Planning Department doesn't do well in the glare of an open court. Take the Warkworth coal mine case for example.
In 2003, Rio Tinto agreed with the NSW Government that its Warkworth mine in the NSW Hunter Valley would never be able to mine through the ridge that spared the small town of Bulga from the worst of the mine's noise and the dust. The miners kept to this agreement… until they ran out of coal on their side of the ridge.
Despite promising to never extend the mine, Rio Tinto sought approval to do exactly that. Like any good coal miner, it commissioned some economic consultants to dress up the miner's self-interest as national interest. Their consultants originally claimed that the mine extension would create 44,000 jobs and the planning department accepted that claim at face value. Why wouldn't you trust the proponent?
When the town of Bulga appealed the Planning Department's decision to the NSW Land and Environment court the jobs claim was shown to be ridiculous. The judge described the form of economic modelling used to generate such a number as 'deficient'. The town won the case and the planning approval was overturned. Rio Tinto appealed to the NSW Supreme Court, and lost.
But, like Barnaby Joyce, Rio Tinto knows that the approval process is not supposed to reject projects, it is meant to approve them. So after unexpectedly losing two court cases based on the existing planning laws, Rio Tinto's global head of coal mining flew from London to Sydney to meet the then Premier Barry O'Farrell. The law was changed two weeks later and the Warkworth mine is, once again, chugging its way through the new 'approval process'.
Business groups have been making a lot of noise in recent times about the inability of governments to deliver 'reform'. But while blaming government for their woes is the stock in trade of the modern supporter of 'free markets', the way in which the Shenhua decision was reached demonstrates that the real reason reform has become so hard has as much to do with the power of corporate lobbyists as it does with the weakness of the current government.
Just as there was a public planning process for the Shenhua mine, the Abbott Government has held, or is holding, public inquiries into everything from tax reform to beef marketing. Submissions are written, hearings are held and reports written. But inquiries don't lead to reform for the same reason that Barnaby Joyce didn't make a submission to the Shenhua process. Powerful groups know that the real decisions are made elsewhere and based on entirely different criteria than the public processes ever consider.
While the Minerals Council, the Business Council of Australia and other corporate lobbyists bemoan the failure of governments to deliver the kind of reforms big business are demanding, in reality, it is those same groups that have helped to cruel the reform process.
John Howard and the vast majority of the business community went to the 2007 election supporting a carbon price. The public process for developing Kevin Rudd's carbon pollution reduction scheme was, if anything, excessive in its length and breadth. But the minute the business community saw the opportunity to destroy the then Labor Government by opposing the carbon price they once supported, they leapt at it. The same was true for the mining tax. And they say the Government creates uncertainty!
A month ago Tony Abbott thought we needed a public inquiry into the collapse of iron ore prices. Using arguments we will never get to hear, the big mining companies persuaded him to change his mind. Two months ago Joe Hockey thought we needed an inquiry into superannuation tax concessions. Someone used arguments we will never get to hear to change his mind.
The business community, like Barnaby Joyce, use 'all of their power' in meetings that the public aren't invited to, to raise issues the public aren't supposed to focus on. And they have the front to claim that the 'reform process' isn't working.
In the 'golden era of reform', governments could use public inquiries to build the appearance of broad support for decisions that had already been made in private. But in recent times, community and environment groups have built their own capacity to participate fully in 'the planning process' and 'the reform process'. They bring their own scientists, their own economists, and their own lawyers.
Like the miners, community groups can now appeal departmental decisions to independent courts. And the big kids don't like it one little bit. Indeed, the mining companies are so worried about having to argue their case in public forums against well-resourced opponents that they are demanding that environment groups be banned from undertaking 'political' activities such as writing submissions and giving evidence at public hearings. I wonder why they think giving evidence is political? No doubt they are using 'all of their power' to tilt the table further their way, even if, like Barnaby's efforts, none of their efforts are visible to the naked eye.
Richard Denniss is chief economist at The Australia Institute.