Over a year after promising to conduct consultations with communities affected by unconventional gas mining, the State Government recently held 16 ‘open days’ across rural Victoria.
Community consultation is an essential and welcome process, which should have been undertaken long ago, before the allocation of gas mining licences on Victorian land.
But communities have found the process to be highly flawed, creating the feeling that the government was only holding consultations to placate us before giving a green light to the industry.
According to the Energy Minister Russell Northe, the “feedback from community and those that are doing the facilitation has been quite positive”. But this is a completely different story from what many disappointed community members have reported.
The consultations were poorly publicized, with many locals totally unaware that the open days were on, and so missing their opportunity to speak. For most open days, there was only a small ad in the local newspaper. Without promotion from active local groups and Lock the Gate, there would have been practically no-one there.
The consultations were held in strange and almost irrelevant locations; in Western Victoria, nearly half the consultations were in areas that are not covered by exploration licenses, while many residents who are directly affected by plans for unconventional gas had to travel nearly three hours to attend a session. Interestingly, there were no consultations held in Premier Napthine’s electorate, despite the fact that exploration licences cover nearly all of the area.
Many people also felt that the sessions were poorly run, with no one at the door to direct people about the procedure. The low number of the consultants facilitating the sessions meant that people faced a very long wait, some people weren’t able to stay for their chance to speak, and many people were obliged to talk to a facilitator in a group rather than individually. Many community members left saying they felt ignored and unheard.
These consultations have shown that the government does not really want to hear what the communities have to say.
Since the threat of unconventional gas mining came to regional Victoria, many community groups have already consulted amongst themselves, through a democratic surveying process of all town residents asking people whether they accept or oppose unconventional mining in their town. Since 2012, more than 55 communities are actively fighting this industry. 23 Victorian communities have officially declared themselves ‘Coal and Gasfield Free’, with every one of these towns having more than 90% of residents voting yes.
This is a real democratic consultation process, and the message is very clear. If the government is serious about consulting the community, it’s about time they understand that Victorian communities do not want the unconventional gas industry, and will do everything it takes to stop it.