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Op ed: Our future mortgaged to the mining past

Lee's opinion piece on political donations from mining companies was published today.

Last week, Federal Labor voted with the Liberals and Nationals to block a Senate motion calling for a ban on political donations from mining and coal seam gas companies.

It seems that Labor is not prepared to back up Luke Foley’s recent comments about a post-coal future by ending its own reliance on mining donations.

Data recently released by the Australian Electoral Commission shows that political donations in the lead up to the 2013 election quadrupled. Mining companies are big donors, contributing hundreds of thousands to the Liberal, National and Labor parties. 

Santos, Woodside Energy and Hancock Coal were some of the companies that donated more than $1.1 million to the major parties. The implications for democracy are deeply concerning.

At the same time as these donations were being made mining companies have done very well out of federal government decisions – decisions that Prime Minister Tony Abbott regularly boasts about. 

The mining tax has been scrapped saving companies $3.4 billion in taxes. The carbon tax has been scrapped saving companies $6.3 billion in taxes. This is money that should rightfully be paid by companies that profit from Australian resources.

No one knows if governments do deals with companies behind closed doors. We do know that over the same period that the Coalition government is publicly advocating for the mining tax to be scrapped and pushing the change through parliament, political donations from mining companies increased by more than 350 per cent compared to the previous year. 

The controversial company, New Hope Coal, which has recently had its Acland mine in Queensland approved, gave a massive $250,000 to the Liberals, in the last financial year, while New Hope’s Australian parent company, Washington H Soul Pattison, gave an extra $50,000. In fact, between the two, they have given $750,000 between 2011 and 2013.

Adani, the proponent of the Carmichael mine also in Queensland, has also donated $49,500 to the federal Liberals. This mine has also been approved by the federal Liberal/National government despite the fact that it will remove 12 billion litres of water from a drought-prone farming area and result in approximately 130 million extra tonnes of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere very year for 90 years of the mine’s life. 

Santos, the company fined $52,500 for spilling contaminated water in the Pilliga State Forest, donated $27,500 to the federal Liberals. They hedged their bets a little, giving Labor a total of $33,305. This project is on hold at the moment thanks to broad based opposition uniting farmers, other local residents and their supporters. 

Unfortunately, community opposition doesn’t always win out against the moneyed interests of coal, as farmers on the Liverpool Plains sadly witnessed last week. The recent approval for China Shenhua to open the Watermark coal mine has deeply disappointed farmers who have been campaigning for years to protect their rich farming land. 

This approval closes the deal set up by then NSW Primary Industries Minister Ian Macdonald, the former minister who is now facing charges of corruption over – that’s right, the granting of a mining license. 

In 2008 there was surprise when the coal company, China Shenhua, paid the NSW government $300 million for its exploration license. As a NSW parliamentarian at the time, my office investigated what we might usually expect from such deals. The highest amount for an exploration license we could find at the time had been about $10 million. 

Additional to this payment this Chinese government owned business, the second largest coal-producing company in the world, put up $175 million for transport infrastructure, and committed to pay a further $200 million to the NSW government if a mining lease was eventually granted. 

While these payments were negotiated under the previous Labor government, these millions of dollars also bring benefits to the current NSW Coalition government. 

This style of doing business - where companies hand over millions of dollars for their projects before they are approved - makes a mockery of the planning laws and adds to the public cynicism and suspicion that deals are done behind closed doors. 

As long as companies are allowed to hand over large sums of money to political parties, and to governments, there will be the perception that they are doing so to buy influence with decisions makers. 

That’s not good for the democratic workings of our governments and parliaments, let alone for consolidating protection of our invaluable farming land. 

Labor and the Coalition should support the Greens' Donations Reform Bill which would ban donations from the mining industry, if they want to restore the confidence of the Australian public in the political process.

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