By David Paull
“It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth’s dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be let alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.” (H.P. Lovecraft At the Mountains of Madness, 1931).
Since the state of affairs with the Department of Planning and Environment in NSW was reported on, the wizards in question have moved location and have a new boss, no longer looking like amateurs you find in Hogwarts, but have risen to new heights of legal and social manipulation that would make Lord Voldemort blush.
The Telstra Plaza Building in Pitt St is certainly a much more suitable location for the masters of how NSW is developed, but there is a new arrival, his office hails from a dark, watery place, and now firmly in control of perhaps the most important department in government. The Dark Lord himself, to many also known as Anthony Roberts, the Liberal member for Lane Cove.
Formerly the Minister for Resources and Energy (and Utilities), Mr Roberts took the reins of the new department in January this year. While Mr Roberts’ vision for NSW is not entirely clear, because he can be a man of few words, one of his first moves was to centralise planning powers by stripping councils of their power to determine development applications above a certain value and mandate the use of Independent Hearing and Assessment Panels (IHAPs) across the major city centres of Sydney and Wollongong.
The SMH reported in May this year that the move is being seen within government as a ‘… probity measure that is hoped will also trump the Labor’s call for property developers to be banned from election to local government’. Of course, given Mr Roberts’ past, it is easy to see why he may have some concerns.
Roberts started his political career in Lane Cove Council where he also served as mayor for two terms, between 1995 and 2003. While busy doing this, at the same time Roberts was also employed as an electoral officer to the Prime Minister John Howard. Apparently, his main role was to act as a go-between for Howard and ‘the Parrot’, Alan Jones.
A friendship with Jones lasted right up until the Bentley Blockade coal seam gas protest on the North Coast. Jones had not talked about this particular people’s movement because of his friendship with Roberts, the then NSW Resources and Energy Minister. However, Jones came out against the gas development once he learned about Roberts’ comments attacking protestors, on behalf of Metgasco, the operator.
Roberts’ links to the onshore gas industry further became apparent in 2016 when the close relationship with the gas giant Santos was revealed with their collusion on the drafting of new anti-protest laws. More of this later.
During the years prior to his election to State Parliament, Roberts was also a Director of Flagship Communications, a high end of town PR company based in Sydney. He was a very busy individual indeed. This firm was dragged into disrepute when the Orange Grove affair was heard before the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). There were no corrupt findings from this hearing, and despite the PR firm acting for the developer Gazcorp after Mr Roberts’ election as a state member in 2003, Roberts gave evidence in Parliament that he had resigned from Flagship Communications prior to his election as a state member.
However, as Bob Carr revealed in 2004 in Parliament, while Roberts’ PR firm was lobbying for Gazcorp, its owner, Nabil Gazal, was Roberts’ landlord renting out some of office space to Roberts, alongside office space rented out by Mr Howard, the former Prime Minister Howard that is.
Mr Carr said there had been 13 proposals for factory outlets in NSW in the past eight years. While none had been approved, the Liberal Party had sought to introduce special legislation only for the Orange Grove Road site owned by Mr Gazal. Mr Roberts is alleged to have had a close relationship with Mr Gazal during this time. Mr Gazal pops up later while helping Mr Roberts in his election campaign of 2007, where he is alleged to have donated some $40 000 to the Liberal Party. That’s how you repay old friends.
Today, Flagship Communications is going strong.
With these minor distractions behind him, Mr Roberts leapt into a safe Liberal state seat, Lane Cove in 2003 as part of the O’Farrell Government which promised to fight corruption and restore the public’s faith in politicians.
Roberts has been the member of this seat ever since, increasing his electoral margin by 3.2 per cent to 12.4 per cent in the 2007 election and again another swing of 13.4 points in 2011. Roberts was appointed Minister for Fair Trading following this election. You would have to admit, this man sure knew his PR.
His rise happened quickly, becoming Minister for Resources and Energy in 2013 and Special Minister of State, following the resignation of Chris Hartcher from Cabinet. Roberts also assumed the role of Leader of the House in the Legislative Assembly, in addition to his Ministerial responsibilities. Following the 2015 state election in the new Baird Government, Roberts was sworn in as the Minister for Industry, Resources and Energy, and retained his role as Leader of the House. Roberts was also tasked with the creation of 150,000 jobs in NSW over four years, by promoting industry development and creating a new Department of Industry, Skills and Regional Development.
Despite his leaders’ claims of accountable government, it was during his time as Minister for Resources and Energy when his ‘lassiez-fare’ attitude to economics and corporate favours started to show. In one of his first acts as Minister, he focused on energy market reform, including deregulating electricity prices and announcing a market-led rollout of smart electricity meters.
With a firm belief in future of onshore gas development in NSW, Roberts also delivered the NSW Gas Plan, facilitated land access reforms and commenced the first NSW Minerals Industry Action Plan. His focus was squarely on getting more holes in the ground, as the Courier Mail reported in 2015 on his visit to Narrabri:
“The Minister said it was ‘critical’ to the economic future of NSW that the Narrabri project went ahead.”
Apparently, it is not the Minister of Resources’ job to consider that there may be adverse social, environmental or economic impacts from large scale mining projects, but hey, that’s not how they roll in the Department of Holes, after all, it is the Planning Minister who makes those kinds of decisions for the larger projects. Hold the bus.
Following his role as Resources and Energy Minister and his ‘business as usual’ approach to mine development, Roberts assumed ministerial responsibility for the Department of Planning and Environment in January 2017, with the swearing in of the Berejiklian Government. His role in the old department was taken by Don Harwin, a move lauded by the NSW Minerals Council.
He had risen to the top of the pile. He also was awarded the role as Minister for Housing and the Special Minister of State and retained his responsibilities as the Leader of the House. Mr Roberts perhaps the most powerful politician in the NSW government today.
But what are his objectives as the master at the helm of the planning department? All evidence indicates that his motto is to ‘streamline’, including reducing the size of the public service, to hamstring troublesome departments, to centralise decision making and to reduce perceived ‘red-tape’ all of which have been utilised by Mr Roberts. It is alarming that a remarkably similar strategy is being followed in Trump’s USA, where the EPA and State Departments’ have been gutted and their powers curtailed.
Apart from winding back local government powers with respect to development, now with the Dark Lord firmly in control, the Department of Planning (and Environment) this year has undertaken a number of measures that have shocked many throughout the community.
Perhaps the most drastic measure clearly destined to prop up polluting and failing fossil fuel operators was the rushed legislation effectively making it OK for the Springvale Mine to continue to pollute Sydney’s drinking water. This is despite a recent audit found Sydney’s drinking water as being subject to declining quality particularly from mining activities within the catchment.
The attack on the natural heritage agencies has continued with further cutbacks to funding, job losses and new guidelines which will see a brain drain from within the NPWS. These measures will see the NPWS become practically redundant as a land management agency and is an abjuration of the public interest. This pattern of reducing staffing and functions of agencies which look after natural resources and data has already been metered out to the Department of Water and the Australian Museum by the Liberal Neocon regime.
Recently, Roberts announced that he would be over-hauling the powers of the Planning Assessment Commission, to be called the ‘Independent Planning Commission’ though not however independent from the Minister. The review powers of the Commission will be reduced, but not to the extent that a public merit review can be re-instated, despite calls for such from ICAC. Some of the details of what is being proposed is unclear as the bill has not gone through the lower house, though one noticeable omission is the lack of any mechanism to address Climate Change. The consensus on these changes, all spin and little improvement.
But why you may ask. Is it the power of the corporations, the Call of Cthulhu, particularly from the development sector? These are the ones who certainly will benefit from the curtailment of perceived government ‘interference’. After all, these are the major donors to the Liberal and National Parties. While in the past Roberts had courted property developers, as Minister, he moved onto bigger fish.
At the federal level, the big donors are mainly through an associated entity of the Liberal Party, the Cormack Foundation, funded by big resource players, Telstra and the big four banks. An associated entity currently does not require the Liberal Party to disclose the details of any donations above $12,800, though Australian Electoral Commission declarations show last year the Foundation made nearly $4 million in payments. Of the other substantive donors in 2015-16 were the gambling lobby and the tax-payer funded Parakeelia along with an individual Paul Marks – actually a director in the resources company Nimrod, brought into disrepute last year through dealings with the Chinese Government.
Of course, political donations from developers are banned in NSW, though donations from associated entities, such as the Cormack Foundation, Parakeelia and the Free Enterprise Foundation are not. Last year however, the NSW Electoral Commission found that the latter was merely a front to hide illegal developer donations.
But the Liberals have largely avoided public scrutiny as donations from developers to the federal party are not illegal and it seems they do not make much internal differentiation between the two levels of the party when it comes to dollars.
But all has not gone smoothly. Roberts’ baby, the NSW Gas Plan, is now faltering. Still only one project is actively under consideration, the Narrabri Gas Project, itself beset by major issues, particularly as the owner, Santos Ltd, is not in a good financial position. Despite this, Santos have recently renewed their push to get this project over the line, with great support from the Department of Planning (and Environment), including:
- In a media statement following the submission period for the EIS, NSW Planning announced that most people within the Narrabri LGA were supportive of the project, however following a final count of the massive 23,000 submissions, realised that in fact the majority did not support the project by 319 to 180 much later. This first statement has never been retracted.
- Sending departmental staff and also members of the supposedly independent Planning Assessment Commission to view how coal seam gas activities are managed by Santos in Queensland, mainly it seems to cement the good relationships that exist between Roberts’ staff, Santos and the commissioners, prior to the project being referred to the Commission.
- Set up a panel of ‘water experts’ loaded with industry connected individuals including the chair Prof Peter Cook from Melbourne University where he heads the ‘Peter Cook Centre for Carbon Capture and Storage Research’, a body funded by Rio Tinto.
- And finally, the appointment of the Chief Scientist and Engineer, Mary O’Kane as the new chair of the soon to be Independent Planning Commission to commence next February. O’Kane put some recommendations about the coal seam gas industry to the government a few years ago, so this is a move which no doubt Roberts hopes will bring some muscle to the government side. However, a key issue for O’Kane is that most of the detail of her recommendations to make the industry workable still have not been met.
- There are also questions over an ongoing relationship with geothermal energy company Kuth Energy Ltd which also use fracturing technology and O’Kane.
These types of artful manipulation of the goal posts should be of concern but in truth are typical of the sort of uneven playing field that communities have to navigate across NSW in relation to large development. In relation to the controversial Narrabri Gas Project, it is an issue of great anticipation as to whether or not it will go ahead, both for the community who generally hate the idea and Mr Roberts himself, as he has already vested so much in getting this one up.
Whatever happens, one thing is for sure; the meteoric rise of Anthony Roberts from being a council mayor in his 30s to a powerful player in the state government has been remarkable. Mr Roberts is a skilful operator, but evidence also seem to suggest he is simply dancing to the dark tunes of the creatures of the underworld better than most. There is only one direction for Mr Roberts to go now, and that is Premier. But a lot is riding on the being able to save face in relation to his stalled Gas Plan.
From whichever way you look at it, the direction of Planning in NSW is seeing a widening gap between public expectations and the reality of the policy as it is currently being implemented. Words like ‘efficiency’ and ‘red-tape’ should sound alarm bells. These are key signs that the government is implementing a Trump-style attack on the bureaucracy, with the effect of less public scrutiny, less transparency, less accountability and less institutional wisdom.
This is what the ‘old regime’ want, I dare say most likely because they know their days of controlling energy sectors are limited. Not until they are prepared to participate in the energy transformation will we be rid of community angst and health impacts, environmental damage and the market uncertainty, the very things these same players claim to be managing for us.