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  • Rikki Lambert

Farmers' mining concerns in Narungga could decide SA election

Narungga candidates Michael, Walter and Ellis on Tuesday

On a windy Tuesday night, the three front-runners for election in the rural seat of Narungga made their pitch to grain growers to choose them to represent them on North Terrace, Adelaide.

The Narungga electorate comprises largely the whole leg and hip of the Yorke Peninsula and predominantly features cropping country which has enjoyed several good years on the land.

Electoral Commission map of the Narungga electorate

The hot topic among farmers has been the approval of a Rex Minerals mine just south of Ardrossan in what has been repeatedly described as prime agricultural land. Rex has met a stringent set of conditions and at Tuesday's forum, no candidate was suggesting the mine should be opposed. Indeed, the view was that it could be capitalised upon for investment in infrastructure, jobs and population growth.

That such a mine could be approved in traditional cropping land has however been seen as a canary in the coal mine for possible future mining incursions into the Peninsula , with the Crown's resources below the farming soil rich in mineral deposits.

Tom Michael, 38-year-old Liberal candidate is celebrating his Barunga West family farm's 150th year in the family and said he would bring a farmer's perspective to being the electorate's first farming member for 45 years. He told Flow:

"The Hillside mine at Ardrossan is in the hands of the regulators, the decision's been made for that so the next local MP's job is to maximise the amount of money that's maintained in the electorate."

The state's peak mining body, the SA Chamber of Mines and Energy, told Flow recently they were concerned that if the select committee recommendations on mining and farming land use conflicts were implemented, they amounted to a proxy moratorium on further mining. SACOME CEO Rebecca Knol said:

"We need stable land access frameworks, they are absolutely critical for our sector. This is a sector where it takes a significant amount of time to bring a project to fruition and the Rex Minerals project is an example of that. On average, it takes 14 years from the point of finding a deposit to actually mining a deposit. We work with very long time frames and it's really important we have stable frameworks to work with.
"We've been clear in our rejection of a landholder right of veto and any new moratoria ... and moratoria should not be used as a political bargaining chip during an election period ...
"We saw this in 2018 ... a deal with (independent MP) Troy Bell in the south-east ended up with a 10 year unconventional fracking moratoria - it's just not a great way to plan for a most stable operation of one of the state's most significant economic sectors."

Tom Michael wasn't so sure the select committee's recommendations amounted to a 'proxy' moratorium:

"No I don't believe so, I'm not an expert on it but they (the recommendations) look pretty sound to me. The last thing I want to do is hold up any kind of development in my state. I like the synergies that come with agriculture and mining but the last thing I want to see is prime farming land destroyed."

Independent Narungga candidate Diana Walter told the election forum on Tuesday:

"From what I can hear, there is a silent cohort in the community that would like to see some development, done in a way we can co-exist and still have primary production and mineral extraction as well for the betterment of the community.
"The challenge is how does the community co-exist and work with a development such as that, knowing that there is concern for the natural environment, foodbowl and other products that come out of the region. There's a fine balance with attracting people to the community, creating jobs, retaining young people in the community, we have a brain drain, the groups that have been advocating no mining or mining in a reduced capacity - think about shifting your focus to becoming environmental defenders, be it mines or a supermarket, become environmental custodians to get a benefit out of this - I like to think everyone can win."

The incumbent MP elected as a Liberal but standing in this election as an independent, Fraser Ellis, reassured Tuesday's forum he believed the court matter keeping him out of the Liberal party - regarding use of electoral entitlements - would soon be resolved.

Ellis was a key mover with fellow country independent MP based in Port Pirie, Geoff Brock - backed by the Labor opposition - to secure the very select committee into farming and mining conflicts the mining chamber criticised as recommending a 'proxy moratorium'. He is campaigning for the recommendations to be implemented.

Asked whether any of the three would take a ministry if offered in minority government negotiations with the Liberal or Labor parties - as Mr Brock did in 2016 - Tom Michael admitted he would be a newcomer but nonetheless would be honoured if he later became a minister. Both Ellis and Walter said they had no interest in ministries but wanted to be 100 per cent focused on representing Narungga. Walter added, nor did she want to be speaker of the house of assembly, as Liberal-turned-independent Peter Lewis did in Hammond in 2002 to enable Labor's Mike Rann to become Premier.

The member for Narungga was circumspect at the forum about his party allegiances post-election - if elected. Previously, Mr Ellis told Flow listeners he would look to rejoin the Liberal Party if his court matter cleared. On Tuesday, he indicated he would make a call on his allegiances at that time, leaving the door more ajar toward independence.

In a state election where Labor needs not only to take several seats but six independents are seeking re-election, if re-elected, Mr Ellis' working experience with Labor late in his term and more strongly nuanced position on mining interfaces with farming could come to the fore in the frantic days after a 19 March poll.


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