Exaggerated claims have recently been made about what will happen if sand mining ends on North Stradbroke Island “prematurely”.
In a recent Redland City Bulletin article, Cleveland MP Mark Robinson is reported as claiming there will be a loss of 600 jobs if mining ceases. A Sibelco manager is quoted saying that ‘winding up mining prematurely would jeopardise the future of 50 indigenous families and up to 400 contractors’. Much of this is rehashing numbers, and conjecture, from three or four years ago.
Federal member for Bowman, Andrew Laming, took the prize for exaggeration when he claimed that ‘Straddie without mining risked becoming the next Palm Island’. He said the opposition to sand mining was only from what he called ‘an anti-sandmining coalition, comprising Labor-leaning inner-city lawyers and selected Indigenous locals’.
Mr Laming is clearly wrong on both points. Mining is not as important to the Island as he thinks and the concerns about getting a more equitable and more environmentally sustainable future are much more widely shared than he says. The Quandamooka people and their representatives will be the prime movers in securing such a future.
The community deserves more responsible, and accurate contributions to political discussion about sand mining on “Straddie”.
What is mined?
Three different products have been mined: minerals, silicia sand and construction sand. There is now one sand mining company, Sibelco. The largest operation is mining for minerals: rutile, zircon and ilmenite for export. This is dredge and dry mining and around one tonne of mineral is extracted for every 100 tonnes of sand dug up. Currently two mines are operating with the company announcing they will stop mining at Yarraman in the north of the Island later this year as all the lease has been mined. Enterprise Mine will continue.
Silica has been mined for making glass for bottles and other uses with sales in Australia as well as some exports. The small Vance silica mine has not operated with a permanent workforce since 2014; this seems to have been a commercial decision because of price and/or lack of demand. In the past, construction sand has been shipped from the Island for use in South East Queensland. The mining company was refused a quarrying licence in 2010 and there is a current court case about unlawful taking of construction sand. But in its 2010 ‘vision’ for the Island, Sibelco made the taking of construction sand one of its ‘continuing activities beyond 2027’.
In 2011, the then Labor state government decided that mineral mining should end by 2019 and that 80 per cent of the Island would become national park. As part of the settlement of Native Title, the Quandamooka people consented to their Aboriginal land being gazetted as national park, and became joint managers.
Legislation was passed in 2011 setting 2019 as the closing date for mineral extraction from Enterprise Mine and defining the mine path to that date to protect high conservation value vegetation.
Sibelco responded with a corporate campaign under the name ‘sustainable stradbroke’. The public relations firm Rowland was, in their own words, ‘engaged to develop and implement a public affairs strategy to influence public opinion and political decision-making, to ensure the continuation of sand mining until at least 2027’. They were explicit about their campaign to get the (then) opposition leader Campbell Newman to publicly endorse ‘continuation of Sibelco’s NSI operations until 2027’.
The campaign included spending almost $92,000 in the Ashgrove electorate in support of Mr Newman and the ‘Straddie Mothers’ campaign with 98,980 personalised letters distributed to key mainland suburbs between February and April 2012. Rowland also recommended that Sibelco establish a community benefit fund as a way of convincing Islanders that it cared for the community.
As Rowland says, ‘The strategy was extremely successful with all objectives met or exceeded, and the overall goal exceeded through the government’s commitment to extend sand mining operations to 2035’ . In November 2013, the Newman LNP government amended the 2011 legislation and gave Sibelco the right to apply in 2019 for extension of mining leases to 2035. If Sibelco applied for an extension, the Minister was obliged to grant it. Rumour says the cost of the corporate campaign was some millions; this is very small compared with the value of the extra production estimated at $1.5 billion.
Labor voted against the 2013 amendments and made it clear that they would repeal them if returned to government. This was clearly stated before the recent election. In addition, the Quandamooka people have taken a High Court case against the 2013 legislation arguing that it undermines the Federal Court determination of Native Title, and their Indigenous Land Use Agreement. This is due to be heard later in 2015.
Making sense of this
There are three important points:
- Sibelco currently (2015) holds a mining leases at Enterprise mine only to 2019 – it has under the 2013 legislation right to apply for an extension in 2019.
- Labor has been explicit in its support for the cessation of mining in 2019 and legislated for this. Moreover, it took considerable criticism from parts of the conservation movement for not ending mining immediately.
- The issues are between the State Government and Sibelco. While the Quandamooka people are native title holders and have a High Court case against the Government, they are not the legislators.
The corporate campaign run for Sibelco was very sophisticated and successful. It opened the doors of the LNP to Sibelco. It is a matter of record that Sibelco provided a draft of the 2013 amendments to the Government, and the Bill itself had maps with the Sibelco logo on it.
The LNP Government relied on Sibelco’s economic analysis rather than commissioning their own. Some commentators, including Stephen Keim SC, argue that this is one of the two most disturbing reports of concern about favourable decisions being made by ministers, the Government or the Parliament for persons who had made donations to the LNP.
A separate point is that Sibelco must surely have recognised that either of two events could lead to the extension of leases to 2035 not occurring. One is the election of a Labor Government before 2019. The other is a decision against the Queensland Government in the High Court. Sibelco, as a rational corporation, must have assessed the chances of either of these events. Accordingly they are liable for the consequences of their calculation.
Economics and the politics of mining on “Straddie”
In my next post I will dissect exaggerated claims by Sibelco and politicians about the economic benefits of sand mining.
Howard Guille – 22 February 2015
In the interests of full disclosure, Howard Guille is a member of the ALP and currently Secretary of the Stradbroke Island Management Organisation (SIMO). However this article expresses his own views and does not purport to be the views of either organisation.