Having progress into the writing of my book about the NSW coal explorer NuCoal and the outrageous way in which it was stripped of a $360m coal project, I am fast reaching the conclusion that ICAC destroys far more than it can possibly create. It is renegade force without and its ‘independence’ is leaving a path of corporate, financial and personal wreckage across NSW.
A report to NSW Premier Baird last week by ICAC’s Office of the Inspector raises some serious questions about its legal conduct. Were it more widely understood outside of legal circles what it has much it has wrecked and how rampantly unfair and unjust it is toward the innocent then I would think any fair minded Australian would want it abolished.
It has never been acceptable morally or at law to take down innocent people in pursuit of criminals but that appears to be exactly ICAC’s MO. The lives and businesses of innocent people have been wrecked. In the case of NuCoal the $360m Doyles Creek Coal Project has not only been confiscated from it in the wake of an ICAC hearing that found it the company innocent, but further to that it seems the project is lost to the state.
Before ICAC’s ransacking, it was ranked by MD Glen Lewis as ‘the best coal resource in the Hunter’. When I visited the site last week, only tatters of the landholdings remain and its East Maitland office is about to be taken over by a vet. A skeleton board remains and Lewis is looking forward to a long road trip with his wife to recover from an ICAC experience that destroyed a promising new underground coking and thermal coal mine that had the Hunter’s infrastructure at its feet, and left him psychologically scarred.
Careers and livelihoods have been destroyed by a hearing process where even witnesses are regarded as suspects. Simply having appeared creates a reputational ‘leprosy’ according to Lewis. Former financial adviser Paul Chester who was forced to fold his livelihood after being touched by ICAC.
The Independent Commission Against Corruption is a grandiloquent name obscuring casual regard for the innocent it is also against. Geological consultant Colin Randall who appeared simply as a witness spent an unrecoverable $30,000 on his counsel just to stay safe from the whims of ICAC.
But the biggest loser is the Hunter valley and NSW economy which will now be 350 jobs shorter, in a market where 20% of miners lost their jobs in the past year, and taxes and royalties of $2.6 billion will not be seen. The multiple of flow on jobs largely going to the regions of Sydney will also be lost. If it were offered the project back NuCoal says it wouldn’t take it because the community now believes that the company is corrupt. The moral high-ground could never be regained says Lewis.
Glen Lewis has had a stellar career. His first job was washing his dads coal truck when he was nine for $10 a pop, solid money in 1974. Soon he was doing seven trucks a weekend and paper run, then another. From a multi-generation Cessnock coal family he rose through being a young mine deputy at age 21, to eventually heading up all of Xstrata’s Queensland and New South Wales coal operations. This massive corporate role was reached after filling every position in coal mining on the way up and gave him the respect of many despite the lack of university start. Others in this promising young coal company were also the pick of the crop.
Little did this matter to ICAC which had to be given a course in coal resource estimation so green was it to the business. Its narky and narrow pursuit of the corrupt ignores the massive cost to the economy and to the many lives it trampled. It was ICAC that recommended that NuCoal’s Exploration Licence 7270 be cancelled because it believed Minister Ian MacDonald was corruptly trying to favour and pay back former union boss John Maitland who has also been charged.
Herein lies a very nasty twist… NuCoal and its initiating entrepreneurial spirits Craig Ransley and Andrew Poole set out to create a company that was visionary in its outreach to the community. Born into a mining boom, and a skills shortage, one of the key programs was a ‘training mine’ separate from but linked onto the Doyles Creek underground longwall operation.
It was considered a way of putting back into the community, as were annual contributions to the Westpac Rescue Helicopter, a new Chair of Geoscience at the University of Newcastle, plus a community group and training school for miners, that would account for 5% of the profits throughout the 25 year life of the mine. Despite the training mine being a long-held dream of several of the lads, in particular John Maitland, this was something innovative new in corporate world. It introduced a deliberately philanthropic outlook and a clear demonstration of the company’s preparedness to invest in the building of its social licence and the skills base of the district – ‘workers capital’ as its proponents called it.
Now in NSW new coal areas are offered out to tender so that the Government of NSW can be seen to getting the best deal for its resources. It’s a fraught system when compared to say the vast coalfields of Queensland where first up best dressed generally wins the grant. In NSW the initiative of the first mover is not so rewarded, but instead a point system is used that tallies such things as technical ability, track record and financial capacity into a final score.