QCoal’s James Mackay developing environmental policy for Newman Government in Queensland
By the National Reporting Team’s Mark Solomons and Mark Willacy ABC
The head of corporate affairs for a mining company at the centre of an environmental dispute has been in charge of developing policy on the environment for Queensland’s ruling Liberal National Party (LNP) since 2012.
James Mackay also worked full-time for the LNP during the 2012 election, while he was being paid $10,000 a month by the company, QCoal.
QCoal is embroiled in controversy over plans to divert Coral Creek in north Queensland to mine the coal underneath.
The company’s owner, reclusive billionaire Chris Wallin, is one of the LNP’s biggest donors.
The ABC’s 7.30 program revealed last week that farmer Garry Reed faces financial ruin after losing a legal battle to stop the creek diversion and having costs awarded against him.
The diversion was approved by the State Government without requiring a new or amended environmental impact assessment, despite being classed as an assessment that carried "risk of serious harm".
Mr Mackay has chaired the LNP’s state environment and heritage protection committee, which develops policy for discussion at the party’s annual conference, since being voted on to the committee in 2012.
Shortly after coming to power in 2012 the LNP introduced a bill to remove "green tape" or what it considered to be unnecessary or superfluous environmental regulation.
Queensland Premier Campbell Newman said at the time that the state was "in the coal business" and if people wanted new schools and hospitals they had to accept that the state needed royalties from coal mining.
QCoal boss Mr Wallin gave $120,000 to the party in two donations just before the 2012 state election.
One of those donations was for the loan of Mr Mackay to the LNP between January and March 2012.
A funding disclosure to the Australian Electoral Commission shows QCoal described the $30,750 donation to the LNP on March 23, 2012, as "an administrative staff member donated in kind".
According to a spokesman for the LNP, Mr Mackay’s role involved ensuring that the party met disclosure requirements for donations.
Water Minister Mark McArdle met Mackay ‘to discuss QCoal’
Mr Mackay’s LinkedIn profile shows him starting work as corporate affairs manager for QCoal at the same time as he began his three-month stint at the LNP, a role he describes as "campaign finance director".
He is shown in ministerial diaries as having represented QCoal at a "QForum luncheon" on February 19 this year. QForum is a fund-raising venture for the LNP at which attendees pay thousands of dollars to the party to mix with government ministers or their guest speakers.
The diary for Energy and Water Minister Mark McArdle shows he met Mr Mackay on March 22 last year "to discuss QCoal". The diary provided no other details.
A spokesman for the Department of Energy and Water Supply said: "It was a general discussion about QCoal. The meeting was one of five brief ‘meet and greets’ held in just over an hour during the afternoon on a visit to Rockhampton. Mining developments do not fall under the Minister’s portfolio responsibilities".
Mr Mackay also worked as campaign manager for Transport Minister Scott Emerson MP during the 2009 state election.
QCoal did not respond to detailed questions about its links to the LNP or Mr Mackay’s role working for the party, citing employee privacy, and Mr Mackay did not return a call seeking comment.
The LNP spokesman said there was "no conflict of interest involving Mr Mackay, who has disclosed his employment with his company".
The spokesman said that since Mr Mackay became chairman of the committee it had suggested policy ideas on animal and land conservation, environmental protection and an animal ambulance service.
Mr Wallin, a former chief geologist in the Queensland Mines Department, is thought to be the state’s richest man, with a personal fortune estimated by the Sunday Mail newspaper at $1.8 billion.
He has declined repeated requests for an interview and the company has declined to provide another representative.
The superintendent of the Sonoma mine, David Nebauer, physically intervened to try to stop 7.30 filming the mine site from a public roadway, without explanation.
QCoal won a water licence from the State Government to divert Coral Creek to extend the life of its Sonoma mine by six to eight months.
An expert working for Mr Reed, Dr Scott Rayburg of Victoria’s Swinburne University, has warned of environmental risks lasting for "several human lifetimes".
But the Queensland Land Court rejected much of Dr Rayburg’s evidence because he is not a registered engineer in the state.
Mr Reed and his supporters took on the coal company because it had initially promised not to touch the creek. The diversion was not included in its previous applications for approval for the mine and residents said they were told in a public meeting that the creek would be left alone.
Mr Reed argues the diversion risks damaging rare remnant vegetation and the aquifer beneath Coral Creek, on which he relies for half his water.
Independent lobbyists have been required to register details of their companies and clients in Queensland since regulation was tightened up after a series of scandals under the Bligh government.
But there is no requirement for "in-house" lobbyists or employees who work in government relations to register.
The LNP has legislated changes to the rules on political donations that have removed upper limits and raised the threshold for the disclosure of individual gifts.
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