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For all the skullduggery being revealed at the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption, Liberal Party donor Australian Water Holdings did not succeed in getting up its coveted $1 billion public-private partnership to deliver water infrastructure in Sydney’s north-west. And former billionaire Nathan Tinkler did not succeed in getting up his own $2 billion coal loader at Mayfield in Newcastle.

The company that really did get traction was South Korean miner Kores, which engaged Liberal donor Nick di Girolamo’s lobbying firm Westin Strategic Consulting and somehow managed to convince ex-premier Barry O’Farrell and his then-energy minister Chris Hartcher to execute a spectacular backflip and entertain approving the hugely controversial Wallarah 2 coal project on the Central Coast.

Spectacular is an understatement. The soon-to-be-premier’s commitment to stop the Wallarah 2 underground mine ahead of the March 2011 state election was unequivocal, in writing, and by the government’s own admission had a dramatic impact on the Liberal Party’s electoral fortunes in what was traditionally a staunch Labor area.

At a rally organised on behalf of the Liberal Party at Woodbury Park on the Central Coast on January 29 in 2009, O’Farrell said:

“The next Liberal-National government will not allow mining to occur here, will not allow mining to occur in any water catchment. Mining leases and mining permits will reflect that common sense. No ifs, no buts, a guarantee.”

The next day O’Farrell confirmed in a thank-you email to rally organiser and mine opponent Alan Hayes, campaign director of the Australian Coal Association:

“I especially appreciate the opportunity to re-iterate the Liberal Party’s opposition to the coal mining proposal and our determination, in office, to prevent it from going ahead.”

In December that year, in another email to Hayes, Chris Spence — then staffer to Hartcher (and now sitting MP) — approved the distribution at the Central Coast Mardi Gras of ACA brochures, urging a vote for the Coalition including the words:

“The LIBERALS POLICY is that there will be NO LONGWALL COAL MINING beneath our drinking water catchment valleys.”

Liberal candidate Darren Webber wore his red “Water Not Coal” T-Shirt on the float, and he wore it proudly again — alongside O’Farrell, Hartcher and three other local candidates — in a much-replayed photo, taken out the front of Webber’s campaign office on January 16, 2011 …

Left from right: Chris Holstein (Gosford MP), Darren Webber (Wyong MP), Barry O’Farrell (former premier), Alan Hayes (Australian Coal Alliance), Chris Spence (The Entrance MP) and Chris Hartcher (Terrigal MP)

Hayes recalls that after the March election, Hartcher admitted on ABC Local Radio that “no candidate would have been elected had they [the Liberals] not opposed the Wallarah 2 coal mine”.

The Liberals’ firm commitment, Hayes explained to Crikey, was to introduce legislation to protect the Wyong water catchment. Hayes says the backflip started on the eve of the election, when he spoke to Hartcher to follow through on the commitment and “the excuses started straight away”.

Instead, Kores simply re-submitted — unchanged — the application that had already been knocked back by the previous Labor government and that is now three years later wending its way through the system, with a preliminary planning department recommendation in favour of the project now being assessed by the Planning Assessment Commission.

Hayes told the PAC — which held a public hearing into the Wallarah 2 project on April 2 in Wyong — that he had:

“… provided to the ICAC a comprehensive statement along with supportive evidence of alleged inappropriate behaviour by certain persons in government and the process of the Wallarah 2 coal project, which also includes alleged inappropriate behaviour by senior Wallarah 2 executives.”

In a statement to journalists after yesterday’s dramatic evidence, Kores insisted it was:

“… NOT being investigated by ICAC, and no current or former executives have been called to give evidence.”

It’s hard to see how Kores can be so confident. Hayes himself is set to give evidence to the ICAC on Thursday.

“When I see what’s going before ICAC, I can understand what’s been going on … clandestine meetings with lobbyists and ministers of the crown,” Hayes told Crikey. “If the [assessment] process was at arm’s length, why was it necessary to have these meetings?”

The Wallarah project itself is now political poison, opposed by Labor and the Greens, and the PAC will soon hand a fraught recommendation back to the government.

Meanwhile ACA, advised by the NSW Environmental Defenders Office, is considering a complaint to the ombudsman on the grounds that PAC member Neil Shepherd was also the chairman of quango Coal Innovation NSW, a potential conflict of interest.

With pressure on the federal government from South Korea and Kores, which wants the Wallarah coal for its own supply, federal Liberal MPs from the Central Coast Karen Mcnamara (who ran Darren Webber’s state campaign) and Lucy Wicks are keeping their heads down.

It is more than a headache for NSW Premier Mike Baird. “Mike Baird can’t just say it was Barry O’Farrell’s promise,” Hayes said. “Every letter that came out was always on Liberal party letterhead.”

Peter Fray

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