THE NSW Minerals Council had two meetings with Planning Minister Rob Stokes to lobby for a review of the Independent Planning Commission after high-profile Hunter mine project refusals, the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption has been told.
Minerals Council chief executive Stephen Galilee told ICAC on Monday that the meetings were in addition to its "very public campaign" seeking planning reforms, in which it argues the IPC is an "unaccountable and part-time panel making decisions on behalf of the NSW Government".
The campaign was launched after three IPC Hunter mine decisions, including refusal of the KEPCO Bylong coal mine project, refusal of a five-year extension of the Dartbrook mine that raises questions about whether the mine will go ahead, and a United Wambo approval that links a NSW mine to Australia's Paris Agreement commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the first time.
Mr Galilee gave evidence to the ICAC Operation Eclipse inquiry into the regulation of lobbying, access and influence in NSW only two days after terms of reference for an IPC review, to be headed by former NSW auditor-general Peter Achterstraat, were made public.
The inquiry is considering whether legislative amendments are required to address potential corruption risks associated with lobbying and influencing practices.
Mr Galilee told ICAC chief commissioner Peter Hall, QC, that there was "a lot of smoke and no fire" when it came to accusations about the mining industry and its influence.
"The thing my industry is accused of doing, harking back to previous days, just aren't happening," Mr Galilee said.
He supported transparency in the planning process, but questioned Mr Hall's proposition that increased transparency for people affected or aggrieved by a mining decision would ensure that "false issues don't start to grow legs and run" and ensure public trust in the system.
"Those that are aggrieved and those that would take the time to go through diaries are a very small group of people, and no matter what level of regulation you impose upon the activities of an organisation like mine they will continue to be aggrieved and they will continue to claim we are acting in some untoward way, because they disagree with the issues we are advocating," Mr Galilee said.
He told the inquiry only a small minority checked ministerial diaries for meetings with mining industry representatives and then "give them to journalists and the media".
Mr Hall responded that "the decision to publish the ministerial diaries was not a decision of the aggrieved".
"It was a decision of the premier of the day, seen as a necessary step otherwise it wouldn't have been taken," Mr Hall said.
Mr Galilee rejected claims the mining industry had undue influence with governments.
"If things were going so well for us we wouldn't be getting project refusals and we wouldn't be getting increased regulation. Time frames for assessment wouldn't be going up and the number of mines in NSW wouldn't be falling, investment wouldn't be dropping and we wouldn't be running a public campaign against the planning minister and his planning system," Mr Galilee said.
He also partly rejected Mr Hall's proposition that there should be greater "stringency and rigor" on an enterprise "seeking to advance its business interests commercially" than on an "agitator who doesn't like mining".
"There's often as much of a commercial advantage for preventing something from proceeding," Mr Galilee said.
Lock the Gate NSW campaigner Georgina Woods told the inquiry a recent investigation of NSW Government records showed her group has had 19 meetings with ministers over the past four years, compared with 280 by the mining industry.
Ms Woods told Mr Hall the major issues raised by mine critics in the Hunter were air quality, regulatory breaches, noise, the social impacts of mining on small communities, biodiversity and water.
She told the inquiry Hunter residents affected by mining were denied access to documents under freedom of information legislation, including information about industry working groups established by the Department of Planning in the wake of the Warkworth mine refusal in the Land and Environment Court.
"We certainly thought it was wrong. The project had been deemed by the court not in the public interest, so the Department of Planning worked with Rio Tinto, changed a policy and regulation to remove impediments from the mine proceeding. Whether or not the community of Bulga was invited to participate, they at least had the right to know of its existence," Ms Woods said.
"The actions of the department were very clearly geared towards wanting that project to go ahead against the interests of the people of Bulga."
Ms Woods told the inquiry the Department of Planning "needs to go out of its way to balance the contact with the community that it has had with the mining industry".
"The profound environmental and social consequences inflicted on people are not treated with the same degree of seriousness as the financial and economic arguments of the companies," she said.
Ms Woods told the inquiry the conduct of the Independent Planning Commission in the past year had been "tending towards an impartial" decision-maker but the impartiality had prompted "a vicious backlash by the Minerals Council".
The inquiry continues.