The NT Government is pushing full steam ahead with an ambitious agenda of environmental reform. In the last couple of months of 2018 we have seen the release of a Climate Change Discussion Paper, Water Reform Directions Paper, Draft Environmental Protection Act and Regulations and other subordinate environmental guidelines.
While it is heartening to see action on the NT Government commitment to substantive environmental reform, consultation on these reforms is both challenging and complicated. Analysing thousands of pages of environmental law and regulations is also often beyond the scope of general community members.
The efforts from the NT Government to go through community consultation processes is positive a thing, but it is vulnerable to coopted by more powerful interests to support changes that are not in the public interest or improve environmental outcomes.
Private consultants contracted by governments hold a lot of informal power as they interpret the perspectives of the community and repackage these concerns to government.
With many of these regulations and draft guidelines, private third-party consultancies have been contracted to undertake ‘targeted stakeholder consultation’. These companies, on instruction from the Government, contact certain identified organisations, business and individuals under the ambit of scoping key concerns and ideas for the reform in question.
While on face value this seems reasonable, there is a very real political problem here that sees the shift of influence and power from civil and public institutions to the private realm.
There is a lot of power in listening to stakeholders, interpreting their position and compiling these positions into a summary document.
Through refining, condensing and summarising, the message is tailored in a specific way that may not represent the full scope of community concerns.
The following illustrate examples of how the integrity of public consultation could be diluted through the work of private consultants, especially where there are potential conflicts of interest.
Elton Consulting have been contracted to compile stakeholder feedback on the planning system to the NT Government. As well as consulting, they also offer planning advice for developers. It is important to be mindful of the risk that the company may, through their interpretation, recommend against changes that could have financial implications for their other clients.
The reform has recommended against changes to exceptional development permits; Elton is also involved in the preparation of these permits as part of their professional services.
A Brisbane based consultancy, Arcadis has been tasked with scoping ideas for improved regulation of the mining industry in the NT. There are members of the NT government who had previously been employed by that company. A previous director of Arcadis now works within the NT Government in the onshore gas implementation taskforce.
An engineering firm, Jacobs is heading up consultation on contaminated land remediation guidelines. Jacobs is an international firm that provides technical expertise to the petroleum and chemical manufacturing industries, the same industries that are largely responsible for contaminating land in the first place.
JTA Australia have been tasked with undertaking ‘targeted stakeholder engagement’ on the recently released Environment Protection Bill and complementary regulations. This large consulting group has a history of providing engagement and communications advice to coal and gas industries in Queensland.
Their past projects include the Gladstone LNG Plant, producing fuels from low quality coal and gas fired power plants. Past clients include Shell, SANTOS and other multinational oil, gas and mining companies. Can the expertise of a company that has been heavily involved in industrial fossil fuel projects be fully trusted to be impartial when it comes to vital environmental protection laws?
Ultimately, we are witnessing a situation where private consultancies, often with potential conflicts of interest, are advising government how to design vital reforms. It is important that the general public is aware of this, and that potential conflicts of interests are acknowledged.
The NT Government has provided funding for ALEC and ECNT to engage in government policy processes. This important work needs to be guaranteed into the future to ensure that at the very least community interests and environmental concerns have the opportunity to be heard.