Gas hearing in Hamilton

Beach Energy drilling for shale gas in South Australia. Photo: Beach Energy.
Beach Energy drilling for shale gas in South Australia. Photo: Beach Energy.

The Hamilton Spectator – September 26, 2015

A WIDE range of individuals and organisations provided testimony to a Hamilton hearing of Victoria’s parliamentary unconventional gas inquiry on Wednesday.

The individual speakers were local members of a variety of anti-gas groups or alliances, though they had varied opinions on whether the industry should be subject to an ongoing moratorium, a permanent ban, or rigorous regulation that favoured agriculture.

Mineral exploration company Mecrus Resources provided testimony on a potential oil shale deposit in south-west Victoria.

Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation testified about its difficulty in managing native title agreements with gas companies.

Wannon Water gave testimony that it had not completed its own assessment of likely surface and ground water impacts from a gas
Lowan MP Emma Kealy told The Spectator that she was “surprised that the inquiry was originally not going to have a hearing in south-west Victoria, given all the exploration licences we have in the region”.

“I fought hard for a local hearing and that was worthwhile given the
large turnout,” she said.

“It was also an opportunity for myself to hear from local farmers, especially towards the end of the hearing when they spoke of their passion for the land and their views and concerns about unconventional gas.”

‘Risks not fully understood’: Mayor

HAMILTON’S State Government Gas Inquiry hearing
kicked off with an audience of about 40 people from
the local and Portland regions.

At the time of publication, representatives from four local governments had given testimony about a potential onshore unconventional gas industry on Wednesday.

A representative from Glenelg Shire said there was a concern that the industry would result in a reduction in environmental standards and risk to water and might damage the region’s green image.

Southern Grampians Mayor Peter Dark said that he shared those concerns and pointed to two separate motions passed by councillors that backed the “importance of protecting food, fibre, water aquifers”.

“In June 2015 The Southern Grampians Shire Council formally declared itself a gasfield free region due to community concerns,” he said.

“There is possibly a significant risk to agricultural

“The risks are not fully understood.”

Southern Grampians Shire Mayor Peter Dark. Photo: Hamilton Spectator.
Southern Grampians Shire Mayor Peter Dark. Photo: Hamilton Spectator.

Cr Dark said Southern Grampians was “dependent on agriculture” as it was the sector that provided the largest source of employment.

He said that the region had higher value per hectare than many other areas and “we have half a million hectares in agricultural production”.

“Southern Grampians Shire has invested heavily in a land use study to diversify local agriculture,” he said.

“We have untapped potential; we are well-placed to continue to support global food production with all the conditions to be a significant player.

“We have an obvious natural advantage: groundwater. The impact of gas needs to be considered.”

Cr Dark said that, compared to the “10/15 year lifespan of a gas field”, the “potential adverse impacts have a much longer lifespan”.

“The royalties paid to the State Government are potentially much less than the cost of damage,” he said.

Cr Dark’s testimony was met with a “hear hear” from
some in the audience.

A representative from Conrangamite shire said that the region’s existing onshore conventional gas plants provided significant employment.

He said that Conrangamite was one of the few areas that had “direct experience with onshore gas” and non-hydraulic fracturing operations “should be exempt” from the current moratorium.

“It is difficult to make informed decisions unless we know that the resource exists,” he said.

The Corangamite representative also said that there was a risk of the existing local gas operations could be put at risk by getting caught up in the push against unconventional gas.

A mineral exploration company, Wannon Water, local farmers and an anti-gas activist group were scheduled to give testimony at the hearing.

The human cost to farmers

SOUTH-WEST Victorian farmers have all spoken against the prospect of a new onshore unconventional gas industry, giving extensive and at times emotional testimony to a gas inquiry hearing in Hamilton on Wednesday.

Victorian Parliament’s Environment and Planning Committee, made up of MPs from a wide range of parties, heard from a mineral exploration company, Wannon Water and local Aboriginal traditional owners.

By far the largest number of individual speakers was made up of farmers from around the Hamilton and Portland regions, along with other locals.

Unconventional gas and hydraulic fracturing technology were compared by one farmer with the past industrial contamination scandals of DET and asbestos.

Another farmer said that he and his peers just wanted “to be left

Branxholme farmer Colin Frawley said an unconventional gas
industry would “put us at risk”.

“For our livestock, we must have underground water,” he said.

Without groundwater, he said his farming business “would be totally compromised”.

“Gas may be very profitable but we as a farming community have
to carry the risk,” he said

“They will walk away in 10/15 years. We would still be here paying taxes and contributing to the community.”

Mr Frawley described the prospect of fracking as a “marketing nightmare” for the region’s “clean and green image” with wholesale and retail buyers.

After 18 months of fighting the proposal for an onshore unconventional gas industry, signs of wear and tear are staring to show.
Drumborg farmer Gary Everett, who described himself as a “passionate lamb producer”, talked of the “psychological burden” from campaigning.

He said stress had been placed on families and marriages.

Mr Everett primarily talked about his own land, saying his father bought the property 63 years ago and was a “pioneer” in a new community.
“You could buy land, you could buy a house, but you made the
farm and the family home” he said.

“Drumborg is a great community. We are fighting for our survival.”

Mr Everett said he was a member of one of the 67 anti-gas groups across the state, and they were gaining considerable followers on a daily basis.

“Some of us have become dismayed, let down or left angry by people in Government departments, politicians, energy companies, our own farming bodies the VFF and UDV, because for saying this industry can coexist with our farms.”

“This isn’t true.”

He became choked up when talking about the possibility of farmers being arrested for “trying to protect the land for future generation”.

Byaduk farmer Aggie Stevenson told a “story of little girl on a farm” who grew up with clean and fresh food, water and air.

“Someone is threatening to take away all these things, purely
driven by greed,” she said.

“I implore you not to be the villains in the story, be the heroes.”

Eastern Metropolitan Greens MP Samantha Dunn told the hearing that Mrs Stevenson’s story “goes to the heart of the level of anxiety, the psychological burden that is taking its toll”.

Eastern Metropolitan Labor MP Shaun Leane asked Mr Frawley to expand on the marketing issue.

Mr Frawley said he had neighbours that export food to Asia and that “Our point of difference is our image, and it you compromise that, you lose it.”

Mr Everett said that he had consulted with Meat and Livestock Australia, which had told him that the responsibility for meat contamination from petroleum was with the owners.

The Victorian State MPs on the committee for the inquiry into onshore unconventional gas in Victoria. Photo: Parliament of Victoria
The Victorian State MPs on the committee for the inquiry into onshore
unconventional gas
in Victoria. Photo: Parliament of Victoria

It has been almost 18 months since one of the first anti-fracking
meetings in south-west Victoria.

The one meeting in Digby saw many others follow and the ‘Lock the Gate’ movement grew from an outsider curiosity to spawning local variants.

Some of those local variants are now apparently trying to assert their independence from the ‘Friends of the Earth’ network of professional activists, possibly to gain more credibility with conservative MPs.

Western Victoria MP Simon Ramsay said during the hearing that he found it “troubling” that there were so many anti-gas groups “running around with different agendas”.

Along with committee chair David Davis, Mr Ramsay appeared to have difficulty at times with establishing the organisational and financial structures of various anti-gas groups and regional alliances, as well as their core beliefs.

Eastern Metropolitan Liberal MP Richard Dalla-Riva said the testimony given on Wednesday was similar to that from Gippsland but in Hamilton he had been given the “most detailed, real world example” of potential
agribusiness impacts.

It has been almost two years since the State Government’s ‘Independent Gas Market Taskforce’ report, now colloquially referred to as the ‘Reith report’, which recommended that Victoria “proactively” seek
onshore unconventional gas development.

With about a year to go before an election, the then-Victorian Coalition Government played down the report and recommitted to an industry moratorium.

Aboriginal owners not informed of fracking

GUNDITJ Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation was forced to renegotiate a prior Native Title Agreement due to a gas exploration company not mentioning that it planned to use hydraulic fracturing.

Gunditj Mirring chief executive Damein Bell told a Hamilton hearing of
Victoria’s parliamentary gas inquiry on Wednesday that the Aboriginal corporation had held a number of meetings and exchanged “hundreds of pages of documents” with an unnamed gas company.

“But nothing mentioning it (fracking),” Mr Bell said.

He told the hearing that the potential for fracking, the controversial gas
extraction technique at the centre of protests against unconventional gas, was only discovered when Gunditj Mirring members read the terms of the State Government exploration permit.

“The only reason they had to consult with us was the Native Title Act; I don’t know how they would have negotiated if they hadn’t been forced to.
“The second round of negotiations was friendly, in good faith; we asked why they didn’t mention fracking in the first round.

“They said it wasn’t a public issue back then.”

Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Damein Bell. Photo: GHCMA
Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Damein Bell. Photo: GHCMA

The inquiry’s committee of MPs asked Mr Bell which gas exploration
company had required a second round of negotiations.

Mr Bell declined and said it was “confidential” but invited the committee
to look up which companies held Petroleum Exploration Permits (PEP) over Gunditjmara land.

Earlier in the hearing, Mr Bell said that the Aboriginal Corporation had successfully negotiated native title land use for exploration in 2013.

Several ‘monthly full briefing’ meetings were then held in 2014 to discuss
the issue of potential fracking on land within the Gunditjmara Native Title

Mr Bell said the purpose of the briefings was to “gather all members to discuss business and make decisions” and said the gas company in question also attended some of those briefings.

The Spectator reported in April 2014 that Gunditjmara People were
to, in the words of Mr Bell, “revisit” their previous native title agreement over shale and tight gas exploration permits in south-west Victoria.

Adelaide-based oil and gas company Beach Energy had a large stake, along with other companies, in two major exploration permits in south west Victoria.

Beach Energy’s 2013 annual report stated that the company “and its
participants were awarded PEP 171 and PEP 150 in Victoria after completing negotiations with Native Title Claimants”.

At the time, a spokesperson for Beach Energy did not deny being involved in Native Title renegotiations but said it was committed to fulfilling its obligations under Native Title.

Beach Energy's gas drilling rig in the Cooper Basin, South Australia. Photo: Beach Energy.
Beach Energy’s gas drilling rig in the Cooper Basin, South Australia. Photo: Beach Energy.

Mecrus Resources, Somerton Energy, Bridgeport Eromanga Energy, Bass Strait Oil Company Limited and Mawson Petroleum also hold Petroleum Exploration Permits in areas covered by Gunditjmara Native Title areas.

When asked about the status of the Native Title renegotiation, Mr Bell said the Aboriginal corporation was “taking advantage of current moratorium” on onshore gas and the dispute resolution process was still open.

Eastern Metropolitan Greens MP Samantha Dunn asked Mr Bell if all extraction techniques should be included in native title negotiations.

Mr Bell said negotiating parties “shouldn’t hide that from one another”.

The gas inquiry committee was itself the subject of another complaint from Mr Bell.
Mr Bell said he was “extremely disappointed” that the inquiry’s interim report, which was handed down on September 1 this year, contained “no references to traditional owners”.

Inquiry committee chair David Davis MP said that it was only an interim report and that the committee “will have more to say” in the final report.

Mr Davis asked Mr Bell how indigenous views could be adequately represented in the report.

Mr Bell said that Native Title holders were the “first port of call” for new
industrial developments but the State Government process needs to provide opportunity for comment from Indigenous people.

He noted that Native Title holders could be taken to national arbitration, or be subject to overrides from the State Government, if companies accused them of negotiating in bad faith.

Northern Victoria Shooters and Fishers MP Daniel Young asked Mr Bell how the State Government could override native title holders.

Mr Bell said the Government had to “prove that they will not destroy our land” but Indigenous people “have no guarantees”.

Inquiry told further studies
needed in risks to water

WANNON Water has told a Hamilton hearing of Victoria’s parliamentary unconventional gas inquiry that it has not done its own assessment of the risks from a proposed onshore drilling and fracking.

A committee of MPs was told that State Government would most likely be left liable for cleanup costs if something went wrong with water supplies and the gas company responsible was unable to pay.

Branch manager of asset planning, Peter Wilson, told the hearing that a Victorian Government report had found a “low risk of aquifer depressurisation”, a low risk of water contamination, and a low risk of land subsidence from potential gas development.

Mr Wilson did say there was still “considerable uncertainty” due to “limited data availability” and risks to ground and surface water “need to be further studied”.

“The region is highly variable and some sites may have an unacceptable risk, particularly if community drinking water is present,” he said.

Gas inquiry committee chair David Davis MP asked what consultation had occurred between Wannon Water and gas exploration companies. Mr Wilson replied that he had “been in the role of planning for 15 years and been never approached by gas company”.

Eastern Metropolitan Labor MP Shaun Leane asked if the use of steel and concrete well casings could prevent cross contamination between saline and fresh aquifers.

Mr Wilson said that “concrete is a very robust material, considered to be best practise” but he would not say whether it would last indefinitely.

Northern Victoria Shooters and Fishers Party MP, Daniel Young, asked if the issue of well failure could apply to ordinary water bores as well.

Mr Wilson said it could but the “ramifications were different”.

“Linked wells won’t destroy the water resource with salinity, but things like introducing chemicals unfit for human consumption will,” he said.

Mr Wilson also said Wannon Water does not have a direct role in applications for drilling under Victoria’s mining and
petroleum acts.

360 million barrels under western Victoria

SOUTH – WEST Victoria’s oil shale deposit is between 15 and 30 times thicker than commercially viable deposits in the United States, according to mining exploration company Mecrus Resources.

Mecrus Resources believes there is a deposit of 360 million barrels of oil contained within its two exploration licence areas between Casterton and the South Australian border.

The exploration licence areas EL5298 and EL5297 in south-west Victoria, held by Mecrus Resources and believed by the company to contain 'world class' shale oil deposits. Graphic: JASON TULLY.
The exploration licence areas EL5298 and EL5297 in south-west Victoria, held by Mecrus Resources and believed by the company to contain ‘world class’ shale oil deposits. Graphic: JASON TULLY.

The company’s ultimate plan to develop the deposit would see a total of 16 wells drilled on a single site about one hectare in size.

These wells would go down 2500 metres to access the oil shale, which is believed to be contained in a layer that is 1500m thick.

Horizontal drilling would be used, with side wells trailing off between two and 3.5 kilometres in any direction.

If one of these sites were successful, then Mecrus could “clone” the operation for “multiple” potential oil deposits thought to be in the region.

These new details were contained in spoken testimony to Victoria’s parliamentary inquiry into unconventional gas, which held a hearing in Hamilton on Wednesday.

Mecrus Resources managing director Barry Richards told the inquiry committee of MPs that Mecrus was a private company that was not obliged to give public statements, but it wanted to engage with the community.

The Spectator reported on Tuesday that a written submission from Mecrus to the inquiry stated that the “prospectivity” of the south-west Victoria deposit was “beyond doubt”.

Mecrus indicated that the deposit could produce $600 million in royalty payments to the State Government over 40 years, putting its commercial value at up to $6 billion.

Almost all the information that Mecrus provided to the inquiry has been in relation to a potential oil shale deposit contained with an 1500 square kilometre exploration region between Strathdownie and Lake Mundi, about 10km west of Casterton.

Mecrus senior petroleum consultant, Dr Rodney Halyburton, told the hearing that the oil shale industry in the United States “got very excited” when they found deposits of between 50 and 100 metres in thickness.

Dr Halyburton said the company’s assessment, along with an independent
study, of the potential deposit was “based on very conservative numbers”.

He said the study was “focused primarily” on a well drilled in 2006 that was the “only onshore well in Australia” that had been producing oil shale, and he found it “amazing” that oil had started flowing from the test well while it was being drilled.

Mecrus Resources managing director Barry Richards. Photo: Mecrus Resources
Mecrus Resources managing director Barry Richards. Photo: Mecrus Resources

Mr Richards also said the company’s report on south-west Victoria was “conservative, but it does indicate significant resources in our area”.

Eastern Metropolitan Liberal MP Richard Dalla-Riva said the inquiry had previously heard from areas in Victoria with “lots of population, lots of dairy,” but not so much over near Casterton.
“I’m not talking any disrespect to be people over near South Australia; it seems to me that that’s an area where it may have limited impact. Could that happen in this area?” Mr Dalla-Riva asked.

Mr Richards replied that everything the company had been talking about
at the hearing concerned its exploration permits between Casterton and SA.

He described Mecrus as a “diverse organisation” and a “significant explorer of resources in Victoria” with over 140 employees, a “large percentage” of which were in Victoria.

Mr Richards said Mecrus itself had completed no drilling in south-west
Victoria and its further assessments since gaining the exploration licence were based on soil samples, water samples and ground
surveys. “Our people get out and talk to the landholders,” he said.

“That provides feedback to management and as exploration continues we will make ourselves available to the community.

“We have licences in Victoria that have Native Title negotiations and
agreements in place. We believe we are a very responsible community member.”

Mr Richards said the company had tried to contact various groups about its oil exploration, including the Victorian Farmers Federation, but claimed that emails had not been returned.

Mecrus’s written submission stated that hydraulic fracturing, AKA ‘fracking’, would not be an “enabling technology” for shale oil in south-west Victoria as the rock layers were “naturally fractured”.

However, fracking would likely be used to multiply the oil “recovery factor”, or percentage of oil that can be successfully extracted from the ground.

In response to the committee’s questions about safety precautions, Dr Halyburton said that “fracking has been conducted for 50 years, it’s nothing new”.

“People have to be careful. With cowboys, things can go wrong. But we will do everything according to the book,” he said.

Dr Halyburton said the oil industry had learned to be careful with spillage because accidents at offshore rigs were much more difficult to clean up than at onshore operations.

Eastern Victoria Labor MP Harriet Shing asked if an oil industry would create a net economic loss for agriculture, particularly if the marketing image of prime beef was damaged by the proximity to an oil field.

Mr Richards said “I actually fail to see how our industry would damage other industries.”

“Victoria’s lobster industry is huge throughout the world, yet we have
Bass Strait (offshore gas production).”

When asked who would pay for costs and damages in a “worst case scenario”,

Dr Halyburton said the company would take out “significant insurance” for any oil production operation.

According to Dr Halyburton, rock cuttings and excess gas from any oil project would be “reinjected” into the ground.

Gas could also be burned off in a ‘flare’, but that was not likely to happen and a local landfill would also be needed for some waste.

In terms of water management, Dr Halyburton said “Mecrus
will use proprietary technology” from its wholly owned subsidiary company ‘Desalin8’.

According to Desaln8’s website, the company offers “opportunities for extracting high quality freshwater supplies from poor quality brackish groundwater using In Situ Desalination (ISD) technology”.

Farmers voice concern over proposed oil shale project

The Hamilton Spectator – September 24, 2015

SOUTH-West Victorian farmers have expressed concern about a proposed oil shale drilling project between Casterton and the South Australian border.

They say that their focus is on what will happen to food production over the next century, rather than the economic benefits over the lifespan of an unconventional oil or gas field, which can be as low as a few years.

The Spectator reported on Tuesday that a Melbourne-based industrial engineering and miner exploration company had told the Victorian Parliament’s gas inquiry it was “beyond doubt” that there was a prospective oil shale deposit in the south west.
Mecrus Resources wrote in a submission to the inquiry that it had “invested significant money to date in detailed exploration” and it believed the deposit was “world class” and could last 40 years.

The company has two exploration licences covering 1500 square kilometres between Strathdownie and Lake Mundi.

The exploration licence areas EL5298 and EL5297 in south-west Victoria, held by Mecrus Resources and believed by the company to contain 'world class' shale oil deposits. Graphic: JASON TULLY.
The exploration licence areas EL5298 and EL5297 in south-west Victoria, held by Mecrus Resources and believed by the company to contain ‘world class’ shale oil deposits. Graphic: JASON TULLY.

Mecrus will probably have to use the ‘fracking’ extraction technique to improve yields at the oil field if the project goes ahead, and there is the possibility of natural gas at the site as well.

The issue of fracking has generated a considerable groundswell of opposition, which includes many local farmers who see it as a threat to agriculture.

Mecrus has stated that a successful shale oil project would bring “massive flow on effects for local communities” in terms of new jobs and businesses.

With beef, lamb and wool prices at high levels, farmers are planning to tell Victorian MPs that there is a strong economic case to give priority to farming.

Byaduk North prime lamb and premium beef farmer Mal Rowe told The Spectator that “extremely productive agricultural land” was being put at risk from oil and gas development.

He said south-west Victorian pasture was averaging 20 sheep per hectare but Queensland and NSW could only manage one to three sheep per HA.

“We are adamant; we are not going to back off,” he said.

“There is a buyer who has been sourcing steers form this region for 25 years.

“They are sent to Japan as top-quality restaurant beef. He knows exactly what animals he is going to get.

“It would only take one thing to upset this.”

Mr Rowe believes that oil drilling between Casterton and South Australia would threaten aquifers that provide water for local towns and farms.

“You have got to look at the percentage of wells that will fail: about one per cent. I don’t know the number of wells they might drill but some of them will eventually fail and that will put aquifers at risk,” he said.

“Forever is a very long time; I know that wells are encased in a number of layers of steel and concrete but they will never be as strong as the substrates.”

Mr Rowe pointed to recent ‘Food Not Gas’ rallies across the region, which have attracted 100 to 300 people at each event, as evidence that many other locals shared his views.

Mecrus specifically mentioned local aquifers in its submission to Parliament, stating that “The oil shale is quite deep and it is significantly separated from any utilised groundwater aquifers”.

A number of local landowners, along with about 1000 people, attended an anti-gas rally in Melbourne on Sunday that called for a permanent ban on fracking and onshore unconventional gas.

Victoria currently has a temporary moratorium on most aspects of onshore gas but its future will be influenced by the inquiry that received Mecrus’s submission, along with 1700 others.

The inquiry was due to hold a hearing in Hamilton yesterday, with speakers from local Aboriginal groups, governments, farmers and Wannon Water.

Mr Rowe said he was “pleasantly surprised by the number of people and overwhelmed by the support we got from both country and city people”.

“There are so many people opposed to the development of an unconventional gas industry, right across Victoria from Gippsland and the south west.”

Mr Rowe said he would be willing to support a strict regulatory regime instead of a ban “but the compliance would have to be so high as to leave no doubt that it wouldn’t compromise agriculture”.

Petroleum industry lobby group APPEA has told the Victorian inquiry that an onshore unconventional gas industry would boost the economies and populations of country areas.

As mining jobs and investment slows down in Australia’s northern states, there was some interest from ex-locals in returning to the region if a similar industry took off.

Training course scam net could include our region

September 19, 2015

VOCATIONAL training promoters have been going door-to-door offering courses to vulnerable people in Warrnambool and Ballarat, leaving them deep in debt, and they may have also targeted Hamilton and Coleraine.

The Victorian Department of Education and Training says some training colleges are engaged in an “abuse” of a program that allows people to pay for their education with a Federal Government loan.

The Age newspaper this week published an investigation into training ‘brokers’ and door-to-door salesmen that were allegedly targeting disadvantaged people in country Victoria with promises of a better life through vocational courses.

Huge commissions are being offered to salesmen because the training college gets thousands of dollars in government-supplied fees upfront when a ‘student’ signs up.

A broker for a Melbourne-based training college allegedly told salesmen that they should target Housing Commission flats and other areas where residents would have no hope of ever repaying their debt the government under the FEE-HELP scheme.

Due to the huge profit margins for a successful sign-up, salesmen are offering ‘free’ laptops or iPad tablet computers to lure people into the deal.

This is despite a Federal Government ban on sign-up gifts that came into effect earlier this year.

Some new ‘students’ are being left with debts of up to $18,000 for training courses that they will have great difficulty in completing.

A Victorian Department of Education spokeswoman said “we are aware of activities where brokers have marketed VET FEE-HELP loans for training courses to people in Warrnambool”.

“The Department is aware of similar incidents in Ballarat but not in any other western Victorian communities. We have had complaints also in other regional communities over the past 12 months.

“These complaints have been referred to the national regulator, ASQA, and to the Federal Government.

“The Victorian Government has raised repeated concerns with the Federal Government about abuse of VET FEE-HELP loans and marketing practices by some providers.”

A couple from Euroa, who both have intellectual disabilities and struggle with reading and writing, told The Age that they were enrolled in vocational courses by a door-to-door salesman.

They claim the salesman coached them through the pre-enrolment literacy and numeracy tests.

a 'Scam Alert' uploaded to Wannon MP Dan Tehan's website on September 10
a ‘Scam Alert’ uploaded to Wannon MP Dan Tehan’s website on September 10

There is some evidence to suggest that the training course salesmen have targeted areas in south-west and western Victoria beyond the regional population centres.

One of The Spectator’s Facebook followers from Hamilton said she was targeted by a similar training course scam except that it took place over the phone.

On September 10 Wannon MP Dan Tehan posted a ‘Scam Alert’ on his website, writing that he had been “advised of a scam involving VET Fee Help Courses, operating particularly in the Coleraine area”.

“I have heard from a number of residents in Wannon that individuals are driving door to door taking personal information from people as part of a fake enrolment process under the guise of getting a free laptop. Personal information they are seeking includes your Driver’s Licence, Medicare card and your Tax File Number.

“If you encounter anyone who claims to be from a VET FEE HELP Course or Education provider, please do not provide them with any of your personal information or money. I would also encourage you to report any contact with the offenders to your local police.”

The Spectator asked Mr Tehan if this website post was connected to alleged rorts investigated by The Age.

Mr Tehan did not answer directly but highlighted previous federal regulation of training course salesmen and said greater penalties and restrictions would come into force next year.

“Since we came to government we have been working to ensure the system operates with greater security for students and less opportunity for manipulation,” Mr Tehan said.

“This has included the banning of inducements, banning course withdrawal fees, banning misleading statements around free courses, and providing greater compliance structures that include penalties for brokers and providers.

“In addition to the restrictions already being put in place, we will be banning the levying of the full debt load for courses in one hit and have the power to remit debt and recoup costs from providers with severe penalties from January 1, 2016.”

Hamilton Police Sergeant Paul Stanhope told The Spectator that no complaints had been received in the last two months concerning door-to-door training salesmen.

Concern over portable classrooms proposal

September 19, 2015

LAKE Bolac P-12 College could lose two of its portable classrooms as the State Government evaluates dozens of rural schools to help meet demand from growing populations in outer Melbourne.

Principal George Porter told The Spectator that parents had “strong concerns” that removing the classrooms, which have now been incorporated into a larger permanent complex, would “change the school’s culture”.

“The Education Department is looking at whole state and we have been identified as having two portable classrooms. They have sent someone to evaluate them,” Mr Porter said.

“We were told we are on a list of schools that have classrooms in excess of the school’s needs but we have not been notified if they will be removed.”

The Education Department has advised principals across Victoria that they may have to contribute to a plan to use 175 existing classrooms and 125 new classrooms to help provide space for more than 14,000 new students.

Education Minister James Merlino has pledged to minimise disruption and make any changes “fair for all”.

The two classrooms at Lake Bolac that could be uprooted and put on a truck are currently used for primary school classes.

The school has about 90 students, 70 of which are in the primary school, and removing the classrooms could see students sent across to classrooms and toilets designed for older children.

Lake Bolac has also combined its portable classrooms with other permanent buildings to create an enclosed space that includes an assembly hall and a kitchen that was recently refurbished by parents.

Shadow education minister Nick Wakeling said parents and students at Lake Bolac P-12 College were “rightly concerned” about the proposal.

“This move by the Andrews Government will halve the number of primary school buildings on the site,” he said.

“It is essential that any proposed removal of relocatable classrooms consider not just student numbers, but also the impact of removing multiple classrooms in a short period of time will have on the ability of the school to continue to deliver high quality education.

“(Premier) Daniel Andrews needs to ensure that teachers and students are not inconvenienced and that student education is not jeopardised.”

Western Victoria Labor MP Gayle Tierney said the Education Department “will work with the school to minimise disruption, assist with the transition and where possible it moves relocatable classrooms outside of term time”.

Ms Tierney said the “Relocatable Building Program utilises student enrolment data to balance and prioritise the classroom needs of more than 1500 government schools”.

“Relocatable classrooms are transferred from schools which
have more classrooms than required to schools without the classroom capacity to meet growth in student enrolments.

“Unprecedented growth in enrolments across the state and the former Coalition government’s neglect of Victorian schools has put significant pressure on the Department’s relocatable asset base.

“The previous Coalition government failed Victorian students by halving the investment in school infrastructure throughout Victoria.

When the capital budget is cut by more than half, it has a devastating impact on schools and we are now dealing with the fallout from these savage cuts.”

EPA makes formal request for information

September 17, 2015

THE Victorian Environmental Protection Authority has formally requested information from mineral sands mining company Iluka Resources to aid its assessment of a works approval for continued waste disposal at Douglas.

The EPA has also requested that Iluka install additional water bores around ‘Pit 23’ at Douglas, about 85 kilometres north of Hamilton, where the company intends on burying 2.2 million tonnes of waste over 20 years.

Iluka has said previously that its Hamilton Mineral Separation Plant, a major local employer, needs a suitable disposal location to remain viable.

However, members of the Kanagulk Landcare Group have a long standing opposition to the move due to concerns that low-level radioactive waste contained in the by-products could affect local groundwater.

EPA Vic released a statement on Tuesday that said it had “formally requested” information from Iluka after reviewing its application and independent reports.

An Iluka statement said that “Request for Further Information by the EPA is a well-established part of the approvals process. Iluka is working with the EPA to provide the information requested as soon as possible.”

EPA said it also considered “expert views of specialist staff” at a number of State Government departments and a summary report from a community conference held in Balmoral last month.

A copy of the letter sent by EPA to Iluka’s project manager stated the authority requested complete “groundwater borelog and monitoring data”, groundwater risk assessments, surface water monitoring data, soil and dust sampling,

The EPA has also requested copies of internal Iluka reports on some of its mining operations going back to 2001.

The letter states “a discussion of the site and regional groundwater chemistry and potential for enhanced mobility of solutes in groundwater is required.”

The EPA said its assessment of Douglas may be delayed if it does not receive the information it has requested by September 18.

The EPA’s website states that Iluka’s “by-product waste disposal activities do not pose a risk to human health or the environment and are appropriately controlled and managed”.

Freeze on federal grants a challenge to councils

September 12, 2015

SOUTHERN Grampians Shire Council will write to Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss in order to highlight the impact of a three-year freeze to federal Financial Assistance Grants to local government.

The letter will raise “the importance of the financial sustainability of local government for our communities, the importance of Financial Assistance Grants to our Council’s budget and sustainability”.

The Shire will urge Mr Truss to restore the indexation of the federal grants “as soon as possible”.

Councillor Dennis Dawson said the freezing of federal grants was a “significant challenge to councils, particularly regional councils such as us because we don’t have the ability of metropolitan councils to derive income from other areas and have the benefits of economies of scale.”

Cr Katrina Rainsford said that the federal government had a “responsibility” and “duty” to help maintain services in the community “and not just look after the marginal seats and try to follow the latest fashion”.

The motion to lobby Mr Truss was passed by unanimous vote on

Shire services director Bronwyn Herbert said that the council, like every other in Australia, had been asked by its representative bodies, Australian Local Government Association and the Municipal Association of Victoria, to consider the motion.

Ms Herbert said 250 councils had already passed similar motions and it was about “making a statement and letting the Federal Government know what this means”.

“I think council is very well aware of this issue, the freezing of Financial Assistance Grants for the three year period, and the impact it has.

“It has been a challenge to incorporate that impact in this financial year and it’s an issue for future budget processes.”

Councillor Paul Battista successfully asked for an amendment to the motion to send a copy of the letter to Wannon Federal MP Dan

Cr Dawson said the grants were a “particularly important component” of the Shire’s revenue and urged funding to be restored to “proper levels”.

“The impact of freezing of the grants over the three year period will see a reduction of $1.2 million over the period,” he said.

“In our Strategic resources plan it has much more of an impact thank just the $1.2 million; those reductions compound over time and further reduce our capacity.

“Rate capping, which is being proposed by the State Government, will also come in the financial year 2016/17, which is the last year that the assistance grants have been reduced.”

Cr Dawson said the Shire knew that its costs were going to go up and that finding that amount of savings in cash or savings was difficult.

“A result of these decisions made by other levels of Government, our ability to fund and deliver services has been reduced,” he said.

Cr Dawson also said the “community needs to begin to consider what level of service it will demand in certain areas, and what services might be achieved given the financial challenges in the future”.

Cr Rainsford said that “local government is very transparent, closest to the people” and therefore it was “more difficult to get away with the lurks and perks and misuse of community’s or taxpayers’ dollars than other levels of government”.

“It’s basically where the management and maintenance goes on and I keep saying that housekeeping doesn’t seem to be sexy,” she said.

“There are big buckets of money: billion dollar funds that everyone
has to bid for.

“Go through an election cycle, launch a new program and we all have to bid for it, which means that they are not actually paying for the maintenance of services, basic management and actual infrastructure that councils have.”

Cr Rainsford said there did not have to be “a new program with a new name and bells and whistles” to fix the federal grant issue.

Both sides of debate welcome EPA report

September 15, 2015

BOTH sides of the debate over Iluka’s mineral sands waste disposal at Douglas have welcomed a report from a community conference run by Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority.

An independent facilitator ran the ‘Section 20B’ conference in Balmoral late last month to hear community concerns about the proposal to continue dumping millions of tonnes of mine waste at Iluka’s former mine site.

The waste, which includes low level radioactive waste in the form of naturally occurring elements, will be transported from Hamilton’s Mineral Separation Plant to the site located about 85 kilometres north.

The EPA conference report made 23 recommendations across three categories: what Iluka should do before its planning application is reviewed by Horsham Rural City Council (HRCC); what it should do if a permit is granted; and what it should do regardless of whether it gets approval.

The report stated that Iluka should implement greater groundwater and stormwater modelling, along with greater monitoring of bores and radioactive gas emissions.

Iluka should also “specify what materials can be disposed … and enforce

The recommendations also included four actions Iluka should take to “improve community understanding and alleviate health and environmental concerns”.

Iluka said in a statement that it “welcomes the report”.

“The company is currently considering the report and notes that several of its recommendations are clearly addressed either by the proposal documents submitted by Iluka to the EPA and HRCC, or by the routine regulation of current operational activities.

“The company is proposing continuation of a practice that has been occurring, regulated and accepted at Douglas for a decade and looks forward to progression of the approvals process.”

The EPA’s decision on Iluka’s works approval application is expected in October but the HRCC decision on the planning permit may take longer, possibly into next year.

Kanagulk Landcare Group member Ian Ross said he thought the EPA conference was “a good first step but it should have happened about five or six years ago.”

“We should have had a conference before the 2009 work plan variation,” he said, referring to a prior application Iluka made that significantly expanded its waste disposal at Douglas.

“The conference facilitator did a very good job of summing things up.”

Mr Ross welcomed the report’s recommendation that agencies involved establish a common ground for radiation standards and communicate their relevance in “plain English”.

“Then we can go to ARPANSA (Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency) and ask if Iluka are in compliance,” Mr Ross

“The Health Department (of Victoria) has been all over the shop, it has not been consistent.”

Another of the recommendations is that it “consider whether lining Pit 23 is a feasible option”.

Pit 23 is the main disposal area nominated as part of the planning permit application.

Mr Ross said he “definitely” supported that recommendation as Pit 23 should have had a “lining, at minimum”.

“Given the material that is to be dumped, Iluka should always have had a lining,” he said.

“There should have been a water board inquiry.”

During the EPA conference, Kangulk Landcare Group members called for Iluka to use another former mine site, ‘Echo’, for waste dumping instead of its Douglas facility.

The Echo site, near Nurrabiel, is about a 34-kilometre drive north-east of Douglas.

“Echo site has no interaction with the water table,” Mr Ross said.

“It is away from significant assets. It is 20 to 30 kilometres away from the Wimmera River.

“There is enough room for all the waste. I don’t want to push the issue onto another community but it would be a better site.”

First home buyers face a kick in the guts: O’Brien

September 12, 2015

ABOLITION or reduction of Victoria’s 50 per cent stamp duty concessions for first home buyers would be a “kick in the guts for young people”, according to shadow treasurer Michael O’Brien.

Mr O’Brien told The Spectator that he believed the Labor State Government intends to scrap the concession, which can deliver savings of up to $15,500 on the tax bill for buying a house.

“We introduced the 50 per cent stamp duty concession as we knew that young people needed a bit of help to get into the housing market,” he said.

“For first home construction we also introduced a $10,000 grant. Both policies make a big difference towards getting a deposit together.

“If (stamp duty concessions) were rolled back or scrapped it would be a kick in the guts for young people.”

The concessions cost Victoria about $170 million a year, which could increase as the price of housing in Melbourne continues to rise.

Details of a potential policy shift by State Treasury were leaked to Fairfax Media this month and Treasurer Tim Pallas responded by saying the Government had “no plans” for change.

Mr O’Brien called for the State Government to go further than its previous statements on the issue and give a guarantee that it would not change the concessions.

When asked by The Spectator to give a guarantee that concessions would not change, Western Victoria Labor MP Gayle Tierney said there were “no plans” to do so.

“Victorians can be assured that support for first homebuyers is not at risk,” she said in a statement.

“The Government has no plans to change arrangements for first home buyers.”

“The Andrews Labor Government is fully aware of the concerns and obstacles facing first home buyers and will continue to take action to ensure they are supported.”

Mr O’Brien said any downward changes to housing incentives would have an impact in regional Victoria.

“The median house price in Hamilton was about $260,000 last time I checked,” he said.

“(Premier) Daniel Andrews wants to double the stamp
duty bill for first home buyers and keep their homes out
of reach.”

Put ‘bombing’ question to Defence Minister: Tehan

An RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornet F/A-18A Hornet in the skies over Iraq. Photo: Department of Defence
An RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornet F/A-18A Hornet in the skies over Iraq. Photo: Department of Defence

September 10, 2015

WANNON MP Dan Tehan has refused to comment directly on a United States Military Central Command report that suggested the Royal Australian Air Force may have bombed a civilian area in Iraq last year.

Mr Tehan did say that avoiding civilian casualties would be “a key consideration” if Australia decided to expand its campaign of airstrikes against terrorist group ISIS from Iraq into Syria.

Last week the website, in conjunction with the ABC, published a US CENTCOM report into suspected civilian causalities in Iraq and Syria caused by nations participating in the US-led bombing of ISIS.

The report revealed that the US and its allies had internally investigated dozens of events involving at least 325 possible civilian deaths from airstrikes.

The report covered the period from August 2014 to May 2015, during which 16,193 sorties were flown and bombs, cannons or missiles were used on 3837 of those missions.

According to the report, on December 21 last year “two unknown individuals may have been wounded as a result of a deliberate strike conducted by the Australians on a suspected weapons factory in Fallujah”.

“Approximately 10 minutes after the last weapon impact, a probable female and probable child were observed on FMV (Full Motion Video, likely filmed by drone or fighter jet) to walk through the target area.

“A probable male arrived and carried the child to a motorcycle and transported him to the Fallujah hospital.

“The female walked to the median strip on the road and lay down, and was not observed any further.”

The “allegation” was listed as “cleared” in the report and the findings were passed on to an Australian liaison officer.

“Assessed to be insufficient information to determine CIVCAS (civilian casualties),” the report stated.

“The lack of urgency and the fact that the child walked normally suggest his injuries were not life threatening.

“There was no Iraqi allegation of CIVCAS and CAOC (Combined Air and Space Operations Center, US Air Force base, Qatar) recommends that there is insufficient information to warrant further inquiry”

The report also noted that the Australian Defence Force had also investigated the incident and “reached a similar conclusion”.

During a press conference on Friday, Mr Tehan said he was “not aware of that report”.

“It would be better if that question was directed to the Defence Minister,” he said.

Mr Tehan was asked if the Australian Government would consider the risk of civilian casualties if the RAAF started airstrikes in Syria.

“That is always a key consideration that any government considers when it makes decision as to whether it should join military action in
any country,” he said.

“That aspect, the rules of engagement, is always something that is taken into consideration.”

Mr Tehan has been at the forefront of a recent push for Australia to expand its anti-ISIS air campaign to Syria on the grounds that the international border was providing a safe haven for terrorists.

Australia is already bombing ISIS in Iraq at the request of that nation’s government, and bombing Syria would present additional legal issues.

Mr Tehan was asked if there should be more transparency in regard to civilian casualties caused by the US-led Coalition’s bombing of Iraq and Syria.

“I think there is transparency,” Mr Tehan said.

“Those that we are fighting are the ones who do not like transparency; they do not like democratic principles. They are the ones that are acting in ways that, frankly, beggar belief.

“The current situation in Syria, where you have nine million people internally displaced, is the greatest humanitarian crises we have seen in the word, and in my personal view, it is a very strong reason as to why we need to act in Syria and why we need the international community to be doing more.”

The US report into suspected civilian causalities was originally designated ‘SECRET’ and was on restricted release to governments of ‘Five Eyes’ nations, which includes Australia.

The report was subsequently declassified and released to a US journalist under Freedom of Information laws.

The Australian Defence Force said in a statement to the ABC that a routine ‘battle damage assessment’ was conducted following the airstrike.

“The assessment was consistent with the reports detailed in the Iraq/Syria CIVCAS Allegation tracker released by US Central Command under FOI legislation,” the statement read.

“As there were no reports or claims of any casualties from Australian airstrikes, no further action was undertaken.”

Two per cent wool levy recommendation

September 3, 2015

AUSTRALIAN Wool Innovation, which funds research and marketing
on behalf of woolgrowers, has recommended that members vote in ‘WoolPoll’ for a two per cent levy for the next
three years.

However, some Western District woolgrowers want the AWI to reduce its funding for marketing activities or change its approach to promoting Australian wool around the

A two per cent levy brought in about $43 million to AWI from woolgrowers in 2013/2014, which was combined with $8.7m from brand licensing and $13m in government contributions.

AWI has previously spent 40 per cent of its funding on research and development (R&D), which has occurred both on and off farms, and 60 per cent on marketing.

AWI chief executive Stuart McCullough confirmed last week that this spending ratio will continue.

Woolgrowers who have paid a levy will be given the chance over the next six weeks to vote on how much of their sales go towards AWI, with options ranging from zero to three per cent.

Hensley Park Jigsaw Farms principal and manager Mark Wootton said he would vote to cut AWI’s funding and he believed many other local growers would do the same.

“I’m a zero (levy) man now,” he said.

“South-west Victorian growers aren’t getting much from AWI; it’s a very NSW-centric organisation.

“I’m convinced about the
R&D, but I’m not sure if
the marketing has been


Mr McCullough said the two per cent level was put forward because that was the maximum level the Government would match, and there were also concerns about the global economy.

AWI has commissioned Deloitte to produce an independent report into “all aspects” of its organisation and had found the levy offered “excellent return on investment”.

“What they found is that the company in the last three years improved productivity, we also created some demand for wool and increased wool prices, and we delivered cost savings as well,” Mr McCullough said.

“What they also said is for every $1 spent, $2.90 was
returned to woolgrowers.”

AWI had been “very successful” in promoting wool as a ‘technical’ fibre for the ‘sports and outdoor’ market, as well as re-establishing the luxury market in China.

“The recommendation is two per cent (for the levy). The rationale for that is, firstly, the cost/benefit analysis that has been done by Deloitte indicated that we are doing OK, we are doing well,” Mr McCullough said.

“(At the time of assessment) Greece looked like defaulting on loans, America was still emerging, and China looked a little bumpy. And it has proved to be really bumpy with growth there, although promised at seven per cent, it’s going to be half that.

“We are of the view that consumer confidence is not going to be great over the next three years and now is the time to ratchet up.”

Call for changes

Despite the results presented by Mr McCullough, a number of Western District woolgrowers have called for changes to be made to AWI’s approach to marketing, as well as its transparency with the results of WoolPoll and feedback from its brand campaigns.

Mr McCullough was asked during the WoolPoll launch event in Melbourne last week about the lack of WoolPoll ‘roadshow events’ in the Western District.

“Are you afraid of what
some of the farmers might
say to you?” a woolgrower

Mr McCullough dismissed that suggestion, but it appears some local woolgrowers have concerns and want better communication with AWI.

“There’s a lack of transparency, I’ve asked them about their marketing campaigns and they’ve said it can’t be judged easily; I wouldn’t be able to run my business like that,” Mr Wootton said.

“I’m sure a lot of SW Vic growers would have voted for zero last time. AWI must have that voting data but they won’t release it.

“There’s a lot of frustration as the wool industry has changed, but I’m not sure AWI has.”


Nareeb Nareeb Station property manager and stud principal Richard Beggs said “overall I’m pretty happy with AWI” but he had concerns.

“I support the two per cent levy. I wish that AWI would offer growers a way to vote on how the levy was spent,” he said.

“I would like to see a higher percentage spent on research and on farm innovation rather than marketing

“A lot of growers feel that the spending has shifted too far towards marketing.

I’m a little disappointed in the WoolPoll committee that they didn’t give us that option.”

As AWI has recognised, many woolgrowers are looking at their returns and being tempted to switch to producing crops or other livestock.

‘Glenholme’ woolgrower Matthew Linke said he was questioning the two per cent levy recommendation.

“We’re not seeing the return with auction prices. There’s a fair value for 21 microns but with 16-17 microns it’s getting hard to meet costs,” he said.

“We want to go with a contract rather than go to auction.

“I can’t see the benefits of AWI flowing through to growers if they are producing super fine.”

Mr Linke also said that he found AWI’s approach to marketing “concerning” and he had spoken to wool buyers who shared the same opinion.

Money was also a big concern for Mr Wootton.

“Two per cent is a lot of money … I’m not going to say how much but it’s a fair motza,” he said.

“This is a real life decision and we have got other options.

“Cattle is an option for us, or prime lamb. Right now, protein is king.”