Members of this sign-toting, anti-coal seam gas mining audience yelled abuse and interjected as councillors considered a motion to permanently exclude the whole shire from unconventional gas and coal mining and exploration.
By Michael Giles
THEY called the councillors “gutless fence sitters”. They yelled out that the mayor was “weak” for not supporting their calls for a CSG free South Gippsland.
They constantly heckled, abused and interrupted the debate in the South Gippsland Shire Council Chambers last Wednesday, October 22.
And they tried to intimidate the councillors as they prepared to vote.
To be frank, they did their own cause no favours.
But in the end, the Coal Seam Gas protestors went away empty-handed from last week’s council meeting.
That was the outcome of a heated debate over a divisive but poorly worded Notice of Motion, moved by Cr Andrew McEwen, “seeking a permanent exclusion of South Gippsland Shire from CSG fracking and coal exploration and mining”.
It would have effectively seen the shire declare itself ‘CSG Free’, something it wasn’t prepared to do this close to a State Election and with still nine months to go for the moratorium on unconventional gas mining.
The Coalition Government announced in November last year that the moratorium on new exploration licences for onshore natural gas and on hydraulic fracturing would be extended until at least July 2015 while community consultation and independent water studies were carried out.
These are yet to be tabled.
The spectacle was something of an inglorious turning point for the movement which has previously been an inclusive, popular campaign but now risks going feral.
It started sedately enough last Wednesday afternoon with the gallery in Meeting Room One at the Leongatha Memorial Hall Complex filled to overflowing with yellow sign-waving people.
Cr Andrew McEwen moved an amended motion, which Cr Don Hill seconded, and the debate began.
1. Endorse a policy of seeking exemption from the State Government for coal seam gas (CSG) and coal mining and exploration in South Gippsland Shire;
2. Write to all political parties seeking a permanent exclusion of South Gippsland Shire from CSG fracking and coal exploration and mining;
3. Incorporates under advocacy in its annual council plan its opposition to CSG and fracking and its position to seek an exemption from CSG exploration and mining in the high quality agricultural area in South Gippsland; and
4. Develop an active communication strategy to publicise and advocate council’s position.
After debate, but not before numerous outbursts from the rowdy gallery, the motion was lost on a vote of Crs McEwen, Hill and Kennedy in favour and Crs Brunt, Newton, Fawcett, Harding and Davies against.
Some of the councillors have since been harangued and further abused for their stance.
What they said
Cr McEwen prefaced the debate by saying that the issue (of declaring the shire CSF Free) wasn’t going to go away and would come back in the future if not passed today.
“We’ve already handed over a petition signed by over 2000 people and there’s strong evidence that the local community is 95 per cent against coal seam gas in this area.
“The people have voted with their feet and the community is against it.”
He said it was vitally important that the government protect the Gippsland Food Bowl and apply the precautionary principle by voting against unconventional gas mining and exploration until it was proven safe.
He said the shire’s $460 million agricultural industry and $250 million tourism sector were at risk, providing a combined 4390 local jobs.
“These companies traditionally bring their own workforces, which go from site to site, so not only would it not create new employment, you’d lose potentially half the jobs you already have in agriculture and tourism.”
He said there was no science in the propaganda put out by the mining companies and the shire needed to be urging the State Government to protect the region’s high-value agricultural land and tourism.
“No economic case has been made for unconventional gas mining,” he said.
The opening statement by Cr McEwen was met with applause.
Not so the comments by Cr Jeanette Harding who said the timing was all wrong for such a decision.
“The State Government has a moratorium in place until July next year. If this meeting was happening in May I would be happier,” she said.
“We asked for the moratorium and we have a government that is supporting us.”
“No, no, no,” they said.
“Do you love your grandchildren more or money.”
“It will be too late by then.”
Cr Kieran Kennedy spoke in support of putting more pressure on the government.
“We’re not asking government to set a precedent that hasn’t already been set elsewhere (Shire of Glenelg in the state’s west declared itself CSG Free in August 2014). We’re only asking the government to protect this area for future generations.”
The Mayor’s view
The Mayor Cr Jim Fawcett said he wasn’t against the idea but encouraged council to do it “when it would have the most impact”.
“We have a moratorium, we have a flow of information and the reports (by the State Government) have not been completed,” said Cr Fawcett referring to the watershed motion passed by the council in June 2012.
“It’s not going to be an election issue anyway because both major parties hold the same views.
“A yapping dog does get brief attention but we have to be careful in our criticism of government to get the best results.”
“We just want you to support the ratepayers,” they called from the gallery.
“There’s no point yelling from the tree tops,” he replied.
“Fence sitter, gutless,” was the response.
Cr Lorraine Brunt agreed the timing was wrong but denied she was singing from a pre-arranged hymn sheet.
Afterwards she said the Notice of Motion was poorly worded and referenced, making it problematic to support.
“Endorse a policy of seeking exemption…?” We don’t have such a policy in place,” she said.
Crs Davies, Newton and Hill all spoke in turn, accused of “weasel words”, told to “shut up” and congratulated by the gallery in turn.
Cr McEwen closed the debate saying it was critical that agriculture and the community be protected but it was to no avail with the motion being voted down, five votes to three.
“Shame on you, gutless, we’ll remember,” said members of the crowd as they waved their banners and took their own time to file out.
Members of the CSG lobby have since continued to pressure councillors about the way they voted but, based on meeting rules, it will be at least three months before a similar vote can be called, taking it out past the November 29 state election.
They pitched for a ‘CSG Free’ shire
EIGHT South Gippsland communities have already declared themselves Coal Seam Gas Free and another three are on their way – Nerrena, Koonwarra and Korumburra.
Now the local branch of Lock the Gate Victoria is after the whole enchilada – getting the local council to declare all of the South Gippsland Shire CSG Free.
Last Wednesday the council was being asked, by a notice of motion from Cr Andrew McEwen, to call on the State Government to make South Gippsland exempt from unconventional gas and coal mining and exploration, while also banning the practice of fracking.
And while the council ended up rejecting such a move for now, the opponents of CSG style mining made their fears known at a public briefing session.
Speaking at the briefing was CSG campaigner Wendy Davis together with David Arnault and Phil Piper, who’ve both recently declared themselves Independent candidates for the State Election in Gippsland South.
Wendy Davis is part of the organisation which delivered the first CSG free town in Victoria, Poowong, and she wants to see every town and district in the state going the same way “to prevent the invasion of CGS mining in our state”.
“It is a dreadful shame that New South Wales and Queensland were overwhelmed by this industry which came in under the radar before its effects were published and common knowledge.
“Victoria has benefitted from our neighbours’ misfortunes and we are aware of the environmental hazards and negative community issues accompanying CSG mining. There is massive information available on the net, in the press and on radio; the only pro-CSG comments are being made by the mining and power supply multi-million dollar corporations,” Ms Davis told council.
She said that every community surveyed had so far expressed 95 per cent opposition to CSG and it was time council reflected those views in its own policy settings.
Mirboo North resident David Arnault supported the calls for council to vote in favour of Cr McEwen’s motion by giving a wider perspective on the impact of CSG mining and the lack of any benefits flowing from the multi-national companies who mined the gas.
Phil Piper said unconventional gas and coal mining represented a great threat to the lifestyle of South Gippsland residents and it was time council took the issue seriously, not simply paying lip-service to the community’s concerns.