THERE is quite enough to be concerned about with unconventional gas exploration and mining without the unseemly carry-on we saw at the South Gippsland Shire Council meeting last Wednesday afternoon.
And what appears to be a radicalisation of the debate in Victoria can only do the cause great harm.
Much of the fault for what happened at last week’s council meeting should lie at the feet of the council and its executive for not advising people about their rights and responsibilities when attending a properly constituted ‘Ordinary Meeting’ of the South Gippsland Shire Council.
These meetings are not like the public meetings or community free-for-alls you might witness at a local hall.
The people who sit around the council table have been elected by the people of the shire, under the Local Government Act of 1989, and it is principally from them that the community wants to hear at these meetings.
The Act requires that the council pass local laws to protect the conduct of these meetings, in effect protecting our democratic rights, so that our representatives can be heard.
Any council that does not, and we saw this in evidence last week, lay down the law about how meetings should be conducted, is itself a threat to democracy.
People attending council may be offered the opportunity to speak but this is totally at the discretion of the council and “due courtesy and respect” must be given to the council at all times.
A person, councillor or member of the public that fails to comply with a call for order from the chair can be fined $550.
The council should put up a notice at the start of every meeting which reminds the public gallery about what it can and cannot do at an Ordinary council meeting.
As well as making laws that govern the conduct of their own meetings, our councillors can make real laws and set real penalties which affect people’s everyday lives and interruptions by unelected individuals can damage the integrity of this process.
It’s not exactly like a court of law but this important process needs to be respected and protected just the same.
Those members of the general community who yelled abuse and interrupted the councillors and officers throughout the CSG debate last week may not have known that they were doing the wrong thing.
But common decency, at least, should have told them that calls such as “gutless” and “piss weak” were out of order.
Just as worrying though, for those concerned about the issues involved with unconventional gas mining, is the recent radicalisation of the debate and the apparent hijacking of the issue by serial objectors.
Back in June 2012, when the council made up its mind to call on the State Government to place “a moratorium on coal seam gas exploration and extraction/mining in South Gippsland pending full public disclosure of all process chemicals used and all other features of coal seam gas exploration/mining being shown to be safe”, there were many local “mums and dads” in the public gallery supporting the move.
They may have clapped and cheered at the end but they generally respected the council process.
It was noticeable last week, however, that the public gallery was dominated by the more radical end of the spectrum.
Not only did the unruly response from these people do their cause a disservice, it has since prompted others to question how legitimate a reflection of public opinion is the declaration of Poowong as ‘CSG free’, given that not all sides of the debate were allowed to be canvassed at lead-up community meetings.
There’s no doubt at all that there is a high degree of concern and suspicion about unconventional gas mining.
And there may indeed be support for declaring South Gippsland ‘CSG free’, but until support for such a move can be demonstrated (by a shire plebiscite or other independent survey), councillors probably shouldn’t vote in favour of such a proposition.
Definitely, it’s of great concern that the State Government moratorium only lasts until May 2015 and election time is a good opportunity to get a political commitment beyond that but such insolent behaviour at a properly constituted local government meeting simply cedes the high moral ground to the oil and gas companies.
Has the CSG debate has been hijacked? – SENTINEL-TIMES COMMENT