So how can you attend a public information session and come away with more questions than answers?
Very easily, it seems, if it’s got anything to do with fracking.
Enter the recent euphemistically named ‘Natural Gas Information Days’ held at various centres around Gippsland, which have been offered as a major part of the State Government’s response to this issue.
I attended for several hours at the Inverloch session. And a very odd experience it was. For those who didn’t attend, the format ran as such.
As reported by the Sentinel-Times last week, attendees were offered two things. The first was the chance to chat to representatives from government departments about geology, water resources and a fairly basic outline of the fracking process.
So far so good, so long as your questions were good enough, because no information was offered unless asked for, apart from some limited handouts.
But the second part of the session was the odd bit. Attendees were offered the chance to sit in small groups and voice their concerns about this industry to representatives of a private contractor, named Primary Agency, charged with gathering public opinion by taking notes.
They also took expressions of interest as to whether people wished to be part of a further process of community workshops, the participants of which would be decided upon by the agency, no doubt in tandem with government representatives.
And that was it. Thanks for coming. An unusual process, to be sure, to the point of raising serious questions as to how much value it offered, and to whom?
By way of illustration, let me tell you an instructive little story, if you have a moment.
My small group included a concerned local resident of many and varied opinions, who launched into a wide ranging statement which took several minutes, starting at concerns over the similarities between the lack of research into Thalidomide and the lack of research into fracking, sketched over the issue of land owners’ rights, diverged to possible contamination of ground water and the proliferation of highly toxic tailings dams, and after several other tangents ended up with a comparison to the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
“But are you saying that we don’t need oil,” suggested the facilitator, almost defensively, with the use of the word “but” puzzling me greatly, coming as it was from a person being paid to simply record others opinions rather than put forward their own.
“Perhaps we don’t,” I offered.
“Ah,” said the facilitator, visibly brightening. “So you feel that there should be research into renewables,” he summarised, duly noting this down.
At this point I observed that this was the only note he had taken from the entire proceeding statement, thereby choosing a topic which could easily be addressed with a glib statement regarding slated research programs, which may or may not happen.
And it was his response which started my questioning.
“But we’re hearing these same stories everywhere, so why write them down more than once,” he answered.
Exactly! And why bother spending real live money going out into the countryside to clumsily gather snippets of loosely stated opinion from members of the regional public, when surely this information could be far more easily and concisely gathered through written submissions from well informed and well supported grassroots groups stemming directly from the same community.
And indeed, the same concerns could be collated in a few days by a couple of junior public servants given access to the internet, because local concerns will directly mirror global concerns. Conditions may vary slightly from place to place, but the industry remains the same.
So this is a very ham-fisted and expensive way of gathering information regarding public concerns, if that was the intention at all.
If, however, as a sceptical person might suggest, the intention was to create an image of public consultation which could be tailored to a given conclusion, then it might be very fit for purpose.
And, in any case, why bother with any of this. Surely, given the observed problems with this industry from around the world, any application should be met with a simple request for the relevant company to categorically prove the safety of their process, at their own expense. End of story, and the tobacco defence need not apply.
I’m sure at that point viable reserves in Victoria would suddenly dwindle by industry estimates.
And Spring Street could say: “Your government working for you, so sleep well in your beds.” That would be nice, and it wouldn’t cost a cent.
But as it is, given the hokey process that I’ve just witnessed, I’m not at all sure I can do that. But then, what did I expect from a government of career politicians. And perhaps that’s the real issue, right there.
So sleep well, if you dare.