In January 2013 documents released to the press under freedom of information laws revealed that prior to the NSW government cutting the EDO’s budget and revising general funding guidelines, the NSW Minerals Council and the Australian Coal Association had lobbied Premier O’Farrell to cancel the EDO’s $2.5 million annual public subsidy.
The new funding guidelines for community legal services, announced by NSW Attorney General Greg Smith in December 2012, prohibit the use of state funds for ‘lobbying activities, public campaigning and providing legal advice to activists and lobby groups’. The EDO’s key areas of practice, assisting individuals or groups who seek to protect the environment via legal strategies, fall outside the guidelines.
The guidelines were set out in a press release entitled ‘Greater Access to Justice for the Disadvantaged’ and also stated that ‘funding should be primarily used for casework … for socially and economically disadvantaged and vulnerable groups’. When announcing the guidelines, the Attorney General stated that the Public Purpose Fund had ‘been diminishing as a consequence of recent reductions in interest rates’ and that ‘in tight financial times we have to make sure the money goes where it is most needed.’
The correspondence obtained through FOI applications revealed that prior to the changes, the NSW Minerals Council chief executive had written to Premier O’Farrell claiming that the Minerals Council hoped the government would cease EDO funding ‘as a matter of urgency’, and that it was ‘absurd for [government] funds to be used to support a deliberate campaign of economic sabotage’ of the coal industry. The Coal Association made similar appeals to the Premier in March 2012, writing that it was ‘perverse’ that EDO funds were being used to challenge the decisions of elected representatives.
Prior to the funding cuts, the EDO had been at the centre of a series of media attacks, particularly in regards to the provision of legal advice to rural residents’ groups challenging coal-seam gas mine proposals. Criticism in the media has continued, with the Minerals Council chief executive quoted in January 2013 stating that the EDO was funded to help ‘activists continuously break the law’. Premier O’Farrell has declined to comment as to what action, if any, he took in response to the mining groups’ letters.
ANTHEA VOGL is a PhD candidate at University of British Columbia and UTS Faculty of Law.