Some observations and opinions upon my resignation from the Dargues Gold Mine Community Consultative Committee. My regards to those who remain, community and company members alike. And to the Chair and minute taker. My departing thoughts centre on institutional problems (both governmental and industrial) that are beyond the scope of any one actor.
1. The Dargues Community Consultative Committee involves little to no genuine consultation.
In other words: CCC meetings and associated correspondence involves little to no genuine consultation between the proponent and community representatives.
One shouldn’t have to dig into the guidelines to assert that consultation is the purpose of a Community Consultative Committee. But it’s on page 2: “[The Department of Planning and Environment] recognises that people should have a say in matters that affect their lives… [we] encourage proponents to consult widely with the community and stakeholder groups,” (my emphasis). I think this implies a good definition of consultation, i.e. that it should involve at least a degree of self-determination on behalf of the public. It surely refers to people having an effective say, for example as a patient has a say in their course of treatment. It surely must not be taken to mean that people should merely “have a say” in the form of last words for catharsis or posterity, as a convict may be invited to express his thoughts on a sentence already written, or enter a plea against a verdict already decided upon. That is not consultation. But such is life in the NSW state planning system, and such is life in the Dargues Gold Mine Community Consultative Committee.
No other or more explicit definition for the word consultation is offered in the Guidelines. We understand by deduction that it does not bestow an executive function: “A CCC is not a decision-making body; it performs an advisory and consultative role,” (p.2, my emphasis). Our first question should be “Why not?”. Would it not be proper and truly democratic for project-related decisions to be made by a well-informed and broadly representative body of community members and company staff, mediated by an independent consultant under NSW planning guidelines? It would certainly fulfil the criteria of “having a say in matters that affect our lives”; what goes into the water that goes into our bodies, how we use the dwindling water in our catchment, the health of our national park, the value of our land, and the future of fruit-growing and tourism in the region. But we are not there yet: effective democracy is too radical. Indeed, if the public’s informed will was taken seriously during the so-called “assessment process”, which the Dargues project manager quite accurately insisted at one meeting should be termed an “approval process”, there would be no mine and no Committee.*
*This would have been the best outcome for Committee members: that we need not waste our time. No hundreds of wasted voluntary hours. No contrary or problematic statements evaporated as they leave the mouth, dismissed by the proponent and censored or absent from the meeting records until re-stated in writing. No late-night research and warnings tabled, noted and ignored while the mine crawls ahead like a driverless tractor left in gear, devoid of social license, ethical justification, consciousness of future generations or of the slow-healing beauty of this valley. No years of CCC tedium and futility decreed by an “approval process” built on the casual miscarriage the EPBC Act, the inability of the Land and Environment Court to protect a word of its Orders against bureaucrats in the Department of “jobs and growth” Planning, and the pre-determinations of its executive wing the Planning Assessment Committee. But the mine was set in gear, and the Dargues CCC is required to exist for the foreseeable future.
What, if not to have any agency in decisions, does “consultation” in the CCC bubble entail? In prescribing what the specific purposes of the committee actually are (p.2), the Department flails between various inadequate and essentially indistinguishable iterations of “information sharing” and “feedback”, which the Dargues committee also fails to move beyond. It is unclear how or at what point the sharing of information and feedback amounts to genuine consultation. More specifically: it is unclear how or at what stage the guarded provision of information by an industrial proponent, and objection or suggestion of alternative measures (“feedback”) by community representatives (to be reflexively quashed by the proponent, who hold 100% of the power of determination), amounts to “people having an [effective] say in matters that affect their lives”.
After almost three years with the Dargues CCC, I have witnessed not a single case of substantive change to the mine or the company’s plans or procedures as a result of a public Committee member’s concerns. Apparently, at the single meeting at which I was not present during my time (September 2018), some intention to reduce the noise of mining operations was given by the company in response to a presentation by a committee member. My surprise on hearing this marks it as an exception. But I also understand that the company’s first response to was to reference their license to cause noise pollution, which is more in keeping with my overall experience of proceedings. As a rule, the proponent has simply taken full advantage of its licenses, lectured the Committee on operational trivia, remained silent or skirted around relevant disasters as they occur around the world around the world and in our state, and neglected to acknowledge their causes or concede any specific lesson to be applied at Dargues (eg. Mt Polley TSF – foundational failure; Samarco TSF – lateral extrusion; Cadia – inadequate seismic resistance [?]). I cannot think of any substantive plan or course of action for which the company has sought practicable input from the Committee. The Draft Water Management Plan (WMP) was reluctantly surrendered, at the insistence of community representatives, for a token two-week feedback period. Our submissions on the WMP were taken without response or any commitment or demonstration of which, if any, of our suggestions would be implemented.
The mining company also neglects to consult with the CCC in the development of future plans or applications. Under “Responsibilities of the Proponent” (p.12-13), it is written: “The proponent should consult with the committee before it lodges any application with the department, and notify committee members when these applications are lodged”. Emphasis must fall on the requirement to “consult” prior to lodgement, as opposed to merely “notify” or “inform”, which occurs afterwards. This implies that the committee should be included in the actual formation of plans for expansion of operations or privileges (known somewhat euphemistically as “modifications” to the mine). For example, the Committee should be invited to discuss and review a draft application, and to provide feedback and suggestions which the company will itemise, respond to and implement or otherwise address. If, during this consultation, public Committee members express an overriding (majority or unanimous) wish that the application for alteration to the project not be made, then the only outcome befitting of genuine consultation would be that the application be shelved. The current practice, though, is for the company to exclude the committee from applications until they have been lodged, approved, and returned with a minister’s signature.
This is what occurred with the extension of the mining lease (from 2025-2045) via the Department of Resources. In an email to Elton Consulting, dated 22/12/2018, I wrote:
The company state (page 3, paragraph 4) that they received the mining lease extension (of more than two decades) the day before the meeting. I think this came as a surprise to most. I do not recall the company informing the CCC that they were seeking an extension. Nor do I recall the company admitting that they intend to mine until 2045, although the CCC understand by now that the company will seek whatever extensions suit them at the time, without consulting the community prior to seeking that extension. This follows suit with previous ownership. If the company want to cultivate any trust whatsoever with CCC members, they could begin by practising the openness alluded to by the company in their own CCC Charter. Perhaps you as Chair could encourage them to do so.
Another thing that concerns me about this document is that it was provided to the company ‘the day before the CCC meeting [of December 12, 2017]‘. This would of course forestall the 20+ year extension actually being discussed by the CCC prior to its being applied for, or its approval by the Minister for Resources. I understand that the company would still require a modification to the conditions of approval under the Minister for Planning to allow them to mine until 2045. However, at the present rate, that is likely to be sought and approved in the same way as in previous years (i.e. sought without consultation, approved despite general objection, issued immediately before or after a CCC meeting). Indeed the Recommendation from the Department of Planning to approve modification 3 was signed on the day after the 20th CCC meeting of June 21st, 2016, and the contents of that recommendation witthehld until that time (i.e, immediately after the meeting). It seems these approvals are made to order, to minimise pre-approval scrutiny by Committee members, rather than to encourage or enable our involvement in the process.
I was not around to see whether the mining company, under its name at the time (Unity Mining), “consulted” with the CCC before applying to introduce on-site cyanide processing, jettison most of its statement of commitments and exceed or delete key limitations, prohibitions and deadlines imposed by the Land and Environment Court Order of 2012. All of which were sought from the Department of Planning (and granted, with the exception of cyanide), under Modification 3. I doubt the Committee was consulted, and further doubt that they would have consented.
In sum, in my time with the CCC, little to no effective consultation has occurred. This appears to be symptomatic of a broader institutional doublespeak, whereby the entire state and national planning apparatus is designed to prevent people from having an effective say, whilst allowing them to feel that they are participating in shaping their future. Anyone who has spoken in the full gamut of prescribed public forums leading to the approval of a state-significant project or modification – submissions to the Department of Planning, presentations to the Planning Assessment Commission, submissions to the Federal Department of Environment, joining a Community Consultative Committee, will come to the realisation that that their voice and that of their peers is “noted and ignored”. You learn that the determination is pre-written, and that determination is “approval with conditions” (unless it’s a renewable energy project, which the government is still uneasy about). These conditions, in turn, are eroded in the next modification, which is approved with conditions, and so-on. The whole process is a façade. There are no checks and balances, only checkmarks and sandwiches. Meanwhile, exploitation and environmental degradation continue under the guise of democratic process and moderation.
From the commissioning of an “Environmental Assessment” by an industrial proponent, to the long-awaited “Recommendation” of the Department of Planning to the final say of the “Independent” Planning Assessment Commission, to the hijacking words like “sustainability” from the EPBC Act by the Department of Environment… from the inevitable finding of “no significant impact” by all who stand to profit or claim a part in recovering a fraction of the expense made in running the apparatus of industrial “development” from exhibition to approval to the endless monitoring and management of toxic legacies and scarred landscapes… This whole process exists only to keep a cast of consultants and bureaucrats employed, to distribute accountability as thinly as possible, and satisfy the public that their best interests must – for all that time, tedium and expense – be being looked after. Meanwhile the Dargues gold, which belongs to the people of Australia, is being mined and sold without our consent, against the express wishes of those who engaged with the process. One thing is clear: we need no longer consult with the proper channels, these institutions that fail to protect our health, further our will, or defend our future. We speak among ourselves, and one person at a time, our disillusionment will seep into public consciousness.
2. The public record of these meetings, without laborious revision, does not faithfully reflect the content, intonation or sentiment of the meetings.
In an email dated 12/01/2018, I wrote:
While the minutes are generally good and accurate [I now question this], I have observed over the years a propensity for sanitisation. This takes the form of reducing or eliminating the actual conflict that occurs during the meetings – whether it be difference of opinion or contention over facts. At most meetings, there are points of disagreement in both the subjective and objective realms that survive the meeting. These tend to be watered down in the minutes, which consistently give the impression that – with some ‘clarification’ from the company, all are satisfied. Sometimes, a whole exchange between mining company and community member is omitted in the draft minutes – for example, my heated exchange with [the company CEO] (over responsibility for pollution) a few meetings ago, or [a community rep’s] challenge to [the project manager’s] generalised ‘misinformation’ claim. My request is that where conflict exists and is expressed, it should be recorded in the minutes as a more truthful reflection of what has and continues to take place.
For those discontents that are recorded, the current narrative structure goes like this: concern from community member + information from proponent = issue resolved. This may be true for some members. For others, including myself, the actual formula is: concern + information from proponent = equally if not more concerned.
Most of the minutes that have been produced during my time with the CCC have required heavy revision, and the “e-reams” I have produced in trying to correct the record attest to this. As a committee member, it is not enough to state a case once. It goes like this: in your own time, identify an issue affecting the public interest (at Dargues, there are many), conduct research into that issue, prepare statements and/or questions, raise the issue in writing before a meeting (or stick your neck out at the meeting itself), entertain a reflexive rebuttal or rebuff from the company in either case, hope that others see through the inadequacy of the response, read the draft minutes only to find your salient points omitted and any remnant of your case given the appearance of being dismissed by the proponent. Spend further hours piecing together the actual dialogue of the meeting, explain why the concern has not in fact been allayed, and hope that some of sticks in the final minutes and in the mind of the Chair. Repeat for the next meeting.
3. Despite the best intentions of the Chair, the business and funding model of the consultancy to which he belongs (especially after its acquisition by industrial consultant Veris) precludes genuine independence.
The only declared pecuniary interest within the CCC is that of Independent Chair himself (minutes, 27th meeting, March 2017). This renders true independence impossible. While I understand the Chair to have been critical of the direct funding model (company to consultant), this has apparently not been insisted upon. Nobody is immune to the conflict of interest that occurs when one’s ostensible duty is to impartial mediation in the public/private interest, but one’s financial dependence is on the mining company, their satisfaction and their success. Under the current model, the Chair has a clear incentive to give the impression of a harmonious relationship between company and community, mine and members (which it consistently does via the minutes, especially in draft). It has an incentive to curtail or omit discordant statements by community members (which it does in the minutes, requiring substantive revision by somewhat muted committee members), to show every concern nullified by the company’s response no matter how inadequate, disappointing, evasive or irrelevant that response may be. The Chair has an incentive to be satisfied with the final word of the proponent on any given issue, to look no further, downplay dissent, and report to the Department that everything is humming along.
Meanwhile, the direct funding model confers a disincentive on the Chair to participate in the delving for truth in contentious, unresolved, or otherwise pertinent issues (such as tailings toxicity in the context of downstream ecosystems, the potential effects of drawing down a low-volume water table in the grip of state wide drought, the role of seismic activity and TSF design in the Cadia TSF failure, and more). The Chair has a disincentive or to seek independent expert adjudication or comment on such crucial things, unless it promises to allay, rather than heighten concern. The Chair will hesitate to inconvenience the proponent with any unpalatable facts or reason to change its plans or designs. He or she has a disincentive to press the company for a response to problematic ex-meeting correspondence, or to report faithfully on community dissatisfaction that despite all battle-weariness may be clear and present in the meetings, but absent from the minutes.
Re: acquisition of Elton Consulting by Veris. Among my notes following the announcement:
On the acquisition of Elton Consulting by Veris (https://www.veris.com.au/news-media/2018/march/veris-acquires-elton/). Veris is a corporate conglomerate of industrial consultants (offering survey, and planning, design, construction, IT, and now: community engagement services to major urban developers and mining companies). While Elton Consulting is already contracted directly to the Dargues proponent (Diversified Minerals), their acquisition by Veris grounds the consultant in the position of ‘offering services to developers and mining companies’, as part of a team whose express intent is to facilitate industrial projects “from concept to completion,” (Veris website). This is problematic for an ostensibly neutral, “independent” liaison between company and public, such as the Chair of a Community Consultative Committee. Because, regardless of the character or integrity of the chairperson, their underlying (financial and official) loyalty is to the corporate client and – by extension – the smooth rolling out of the project they represent. This involves the quelling of conflict between communities and companies by means of polite diplomacy, rather than the pursuit of truth in any controversial matter (which may well upset the client company). This dual-pillared structure of (a) direct funding by the proponents (such as Diversified Minerals) and (b) being incorporated within a fraternity of industry-bound consultants (such as Veris), means that affected communities will continue to be consoled, but not served, by Committees such as the Dargues CCC.