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Stokes must cancel Narrabri public hearings amid escalating COVID-19 crisis

Lock the Gate Alliance has renewed its calls for any public hearing associated with Santos’ Narrabri coal seam gas project to be put on hold, following the latest public health restrictions put in place to respond to the coronavirus crisis.

Earlier this month, NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes directed the Independent Planning Commission to proceed with public hearings, despite the health crisis and associated restrictions on public gatherings and unnecessary travel.

Since then, at least 1553 people have written to Mr Stokes, urgently calling on him to delay the public hearings until the health crisis has passed.

The Alliance believes the release of the Department of Planning’s “assessment report” on the project is imminent which would trigger the need for public hearings to be held.

Among the groups to have sent the Minister a letter is the North West Alliance, a network of community groups in North West NSW. Mullaley farmer Margaret Fleck said it was negligent and irresponsible for Mr Stokes to direct the IPC to proceed with the hearing.

“Almost 23,000 people made submissions on this project. The public is simply not going to have a fair and just hearing of objections to this gasfield if the hearing takes place during this health crisis,” she said.

“It has been suggested that a hearing could take place via the internet, but many residents in the North West who would be impacted by this project are on the wrong side of the digital divide and have too poor a web connection to take part. According to the ABS, 14 per cent of households in New South Wales don’t even have the internet. 

“In addition, many people who will be affected are elderly and lack the necessary computer literacy to fully engage in what should be an open and transparent process.

“What’s more, after years of severe drought, people in the north west are now desperately trying to invest time in their businesses and grow food for Australians.

“The NSW Government has made public health orders limiting our freedom of movement and activity. They have suspended parliament, but have not had the decency to do the same for a public consultation process that will affect our region for generations to come." 

Lock the Gate Alliance NSW spokesperson Georgina Woods said the Alliance had written to Mr Stokes on 4 March asking him not to proceed with public hearings, but had received no response.

“The Berejiklian Government is acting swiftly to halt daily life for the people of New South Wales. This process must also be halted. For it to proceed would have very serious implications for the justice and fairness of the planning system, for the environmental and social wellbeing of communities in the North West,” she said.

“Rob Stokes needs to prioritise public health, common sense and basic fairness and allow the IPC to suspend its consideration of the Narrabri gasfield until the pandemic has passed and people are able to fully participate, as is our right.”

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