A couple of months ago, the NSW State Government approved the expansion of the Boggabri coal mine to allow it to extract up to 7 million tonnes of coal a year. Now we all know that the NSW government is broke, that economic conditions are poor, and that in the midst of all this mining has been the great saviour of the Australian economy. So surely something that is good for business and good for the state government coffers is good for all of us?
But scratch a little below the surface and something seems to have gone thoroughly wrong. The expansion of the mine involves clearing about 1300 hectares of the Leard State Forest, the single biggest remnant of native vegetation left in the Liverpool Plains, home to up to 34 threatened species including the koala and the masked owl, and of one of the last remaining stands of the nationally endangered grassy white box ecosystem. The NSW Government itself classified the forest as a Tier 1 Biodiversity area meaning it is an area that "cannot sustain any further loss" and is "critical to biodiversity persistence". The simple answer to this question is - money, and lots of it - annual royalties are in the order of $40 million and expansion plans will mean several hundred new jobs on top of the 450 or so now employed.
The dilemma in the Leard State Forest is a classic example of the conflict between what's good and what's right. If there was a train heading into the future, at the very front of the train would be the visionaries and idealists fighting for a cause, and at the very back would be the wheelers and dealers making a buck by creating beneficial outcomes. Somewhere in the middle, we hope, sit those entrusted to govern our affairs. Ideally, they will weigh up the arguments from both sides in an impartial manner, carefully considering not only our short-term welfare but also the long-term welfare of our state and the rights of future generations to benefit from its great gifts as we do.
We expect business to strive for profit and expansion. But what of governments? Surely a government is beyond a business and should be run with higher values, principles and standards?
The overwhelming focus of governments, state and federal, on money and short-term outcomes is a grave lapse in moral responsibility. Yes we need jobs, yes we need money but we also have a responsibility to future generations not to steal their right to abundance just to save ourselves. Commitments to rehabilitate the environment after mining are good but when it is estimated to take 200 years to rehabilitate a sensitive area like the Leard State Forest who are we kidding? There needs to be a balance between what's good and what's right and surely that means if your own people classify an area as Tier 1 Biodiversity it's time to listen?
A.C. Ping teaches Applied Ethics and Sustainability at Southern Cross University and is an internationally published author.
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