What more neat and exact symbol of capitalism could you want than a mining magnate having mining banned on his property? Midway through his barnstorming tour trying to sell the highly dubious cashless welfare card, Andrew “Twiggington” Forrest has scored a victory in the High Court against a rival mining company, and the ramifications for mining in Australia could be … interesting.

Twiglet, through the family company Forrest and Forrest — the Forrests are an old WA family, it should be remembered — has been fighting a mining lease taken on his Minderoo cattle station by Yarri Mining, which is run by rival WA miner Doug Slater. Slater wants to mine sand around the Ashburton River, Australian sand being a lucrative product used in construction (Arabia is a big export market for it — yes, we literally … you know the rest).

Since 2011, the Twigster has been trying to have the lease thrown out in lower courts, on procedural technicalities, something that farmers and communities try to use all the time to stop destructive mining devastating their lives. Lower courts are loath to see filing irregularities stop a business in its tracks, and throw them out, which is where the matter usually ends.

But Twiglet’s mining billions mean there is no barrier to justice, and the High Court has now upheld his appeal. The key matter at issue was whether Yarri Mining had submitted an environmental impact document — “mineralisation report”– at the same time as the lease application, as required by law. It hadn’t; the report was submitted two months after the application, and that, for the Court, was sufficient to render the application invalid.

This may well count as a genuine and inadvertent piece of community service on His Twiggishness’s part. For precedent has now been set on just how much Twiggle room mining lease applicants can be allowed in the filing of applications. The Minderoo decision has now thrown 50 WA mining leases into doubt.

It’s unlikely to stop there. For the plain fact is, that in order to ramrod the mining boom, state governments have been playing fast and loose with procedural rules on filing for more than a decade. Governments wanted mining to happen fast, and even if it didn’t happen, they wanted the lease payments coming in, and the complex set of reports required — to mine on other people’s land, among their communities — have been treated in an ad-hoc fashion.

This was particularly so in NSW, under the reign of the now-disgraced resources supremo Ian MacDonald and other troglodytes from the NSW right, who wanted to turn the state into a resources player as fast as possible. The problem for NSW was settlement patterns, and the competition between farming and mining. That was “solved” to a degree by the rise of the coal seam gas industry in the 1990s, one made possible by re-regulation by Coalition governments, and then run almost entirely by — oh, what a coincidence! — grandees from the National Party.

Most farmers in NSW hate the CSG industry, which contaminates soil, leaves their farms open to incessant coming-and-going, and pays peanuts in royalties comparative to its profits (or hoped-for profits). In the coal rush to get as much mining done in NSW before the boom bust, the leasing process was a chaotic open-slather, in which many waivers were given on timely filing of supporting documents for lease applications.

Australians know the rest of this story. The CSG “boom” wasn’t intended for Australians’ benefits. The gas is transferred to refining facilities at Gladstone, Queensland — unnecessarily duplicated plants, costing billions, and with huge state subsidies — to be shipped to Asia. The market for the gas never appeared, the lead company Santos is now a basket case, and the invasion of communities created the “Lock the Gate” movement, which has transformed relations between communities, farmers and Green activists, contributing to the unviability of coal mines as an investment prospect in Eastern Australia.

Now his Twigosity may have given the movement yet another gift from within mining, by having the High Court set a relatively precise standard for filing and lease validity. I would imagine that community campaigners from the Hunter Valley on up to the Darling Downs in Queensland will be dusting off the lease documents with a new sense of what’s possible.

Ironic, really. Fortescue appears to have contributed to tearing a community apart through running rival native title claims in Roebourne in the Pilbara, in a bid to get another mine up and running, using a community splinter group to run a claim that would have generated $4 million in royalties (against a full potential royalty yield of $200 million). Legitimate ownership appeared to be judged less important than the big dig.

Apparently that does not apply to the “ancestral” cattle station of the family descendants of WA Premier John Forrest, whose heritage stretches back, gosh, almost 150 years. Some things are just too sacred to let grubby commerce despoil.

Peter Fray

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