A contentious Queensland coal project pushed by a major Liberal party donor will likely be challenged in court after the state’s Labor government moved to restore community objection rights.
Environmental lawyers and activists have praised the Palaszczuk government after its urgent motion in parliament on Wednesday night to table a bill reversing changes by the former Newman government that would have halted land court actions against big miners.
It follows an 18-month campaign led by the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) Queensland, which expects to bring a case against New Hope Group’s Acland expansion if the Labor bill is passed.
New Hope, which has donated almost $1m to the Liberal party in recent years, has applied for a mining lease and an environmental authority to proceed with a $896m expansion of mining on strategic cropping land on the Darling Downs.
The LNP reversed its opposition to Acland while in government and, after lobbying from the mining industry, passed laws preventing land court challenges to mines on environmental grounds.
The former co-ordinator general signed off on expanding the open-cut mine to 7.5m tonnes of coal a year just before Christmas.
Broadcaster Alan Jones was sued for defamation by former premier Campbell Newman and other senior government figures for his criticism over their support of Acland. The actions were dropped after the LNP election loss in February.
The state development minister, Anthony Lynham, said Labor’s bill, introduced with support from the Katter party MPs, would restore objection rights by the end of the month if passed this week.
He said where the LNP had “deserted rural landholders”, Labor had “listened to community concerns that their laws restricted landholder and community rights and our proposed changes seek to rectify this as soon as possible”.
“Most importantly we have stepped in to restore these rights before the LNP’s laws have had any practical effect. No project has proceeded under the LNP’s laws,” Lynham said.
The attorney general, Yvette D’Ath, said the Labor bill would also ensure that land court members could not be sued by aggrieved parties.
One member, Wayne Cochrane, refused to hear a mining case earlier this year after the supreme court cast doubt over the legal immunity of land court decision-makers. This was unrelated to the LNP laws.
The chief executive of EDO Queensland, Jo Bragg, said the return of objection rights was “a very important reform for democracy in Queensland and we think the Palaszczuk government is to be commended for delivering on an election promise”.
“The only supporters for removing objection rights were the mining industry [which] pushed and pushed the last government to put through midnight amendments to strip away people’s objection rights on big projects,” she said.
“We actually advocated to government that they speedily restore those rights so that the Oakey Coal Action Alliance [which opposes Acland] and other rural clients don’t miss out.”
Bragg said EDO “fully expects” their client will take New Hope to the land court for the kind of scrutiny previously shown Adani’s Carmichael mine and Gina Rinehart’s Alpha mine.
She said those cases, also run by EDO, “exposed the inadequacies of the assessment process by the coordinator general of these big coalmines”.
The Adani case heard that the jobs, royalties and state taxes accruing from Carmichael would be a fraction of that previously claimed by the Indian coal giant.
Guardian Australia reported this month that the state government would miss out on most of the royalties from Acland under a century-old legal loophole.
Bragg said the Katter party MPs’ support for Labor’s motion “showed both rural and urban interests strongly support having these public objection rights and exposing costs and benefits of major projects in the land court”.
Lock the Gate activist Drew Hutton said it was “wonderful to see politicians sticking to their word”.
“This is a really important day for Queensland, and a particularly important day for the people of the Darling Downs who may yet have the chance to tell the court about the impacts Acland will have on their water resources, agricultural businesses and health,” he said.
“We are, however, incredibly disappointed that the LNP voted against the motion and continues to oppose the basic right of landholders to object to mining projects.
“It seems extraordinary that the LNP has learned absolutely nothing from the election and is still intent on kowtowing to mining giants at the expense of farming communities. It is a betrayal that many farming communities will never forget, or forgive.”