Interview with ABC Illawarra




27 October 2023

Melinda James:

Ted O’Brien is the Coalition spokesperson for climate change and energy. He visited Wollongong this week just after he’d come visited the hunter their big concerns their their zone is of course already been declared. And he’s calling on the government to rescind that zone and allow for more community consultation around Port Stephens and the Hunter Valley area. I spoke to Ted O’Brien after his visit to Wollongong to talk to him about what he heard from locals.

Ted O’Brien 

I was in Illawarra this week after receiving the most enormous amount of correspondence. Through my own email account actually, from locals who are expressing concern about the proposed offshore wind zone. And so I thought I’d take the time to visit there’s no substitute for getting on the ground and talking to people face to face. So I did that a very quick visit. And but certainly, people came out and really wanted to have a chat I met with a mix of business folk but also the general community just to understand where their concerns are right now. And look, it was a worthwhile visit. Because it certainly exposed some of the key concerns being felt very deeply by the local community about the consultation process in particular.

Okay. When you say enormous amount of sort of feedback and in concern coming to you through your office, we’re either not we’re talking dozens or hundreds or what can you give us a ballpark of just what sort of the amount of sentiment you’re getting from the Illawarra?

Ted O’Brien 

Oh look certainly have been inundated with both phone calls and emails from local residents who have had serious concerns and just a lot of unanswered questions. And they’re having no joy going through the government. They’re not getting answers and this is just leading to people being even more concerned and certainly in my experience that’s when you just have to meet people face to face you have to understand where they’re at what their key issues and so that’s what I did.

Ted O’Brien

Oh, look, certainly we have been inundated with both phone calls and emails from local residents, who have had serious concerns and just a lot of unanswered questions. And they’re having no joy going through the government, that they’re not getting answers. And this is just leading them to be even more concerned. And certainly, in my experience, that’s when you just have to meet people face to face, you have to understand where they’re at what their key issues are, and provide some direction as to how they can participate moving forward. And that’s what we sought to do.

Melinda James 

Predominantly, the concerns were around consultation?

Ted O’Brien

Yeah, look, there probably I’d put it in, in four groups. Firstly, there were economic concerns, especially around the tourism sector and commercial, fishing.. effect on existing businesses, existing operations, so effect on the local economy. Secondly, social impacts everywhere, everything from the surfing community, recreational fishing, and people also just concerned about also the potential visual impact. Thirdly, environmental concerns.

And this was a really big one. And it’s not dissimilar to concerns I’ve also heard from the Hunter community about their offshore wind zone, people worried about the ocean and bird life, what will be the impact? And fourthly, it’s just a lack of information. And I think this is the one that is just so frustrating for locals.

They are not getting adequate information. And it’s not for want of trying. They’ve been attending forums. They’ve been trying to engage with government, but they’re just not getting information and I think it’s just that deficit of information, which is raising anxiety. And people are saying, oh, so what’s going on? And so I think they’re the key things that really the government must address. Because unless you have a social licence, from local communities for any major infrastructure job, then it’s just not tenable.

And so you’ve got to focus on ensuring you’re doing adequate public consultation, you are answering questions, and you’re giving the local communities enough time and information to absorb and to provide feedback. It’s sort of I think, the bare basics that anybody should be expecting.

Melinda James 

It is interesting. Because just to play devil’s advocate, I’m listening to some of these forums that have been held, that have been held over the internet, you can head in via zoom, or whatever it happens to be. We’ve done lots of interviews on this program, as well. Wondering which questions seem to remain unanswered. For people we it’s a difficult situation as well, because what is being discussed here is whether there should be a zone that could potentially allow the wind power, wind offshore wind farms in the future, but we’ve heard about how big they are, where they’ll be placed, and what they might look like, whether they’re recyclable or not, but then it needs to be a lot more research done on whales and well, migration pathways and potential impacts there. A lot of those questions feel like to me, they were answered, even if it was we don’t yet know. What will people say to you about their question? Which questions are not being?

Ted O’Brien 

Yeah, Melinda. I think it’s worth saying that I didn’t get the feel from people at all, that they’re against either action on climate change or the they’re even against the technology of of wind of offshore wind per se. The questions that people have said, are not being answered, are the impacts the potential impacts on tourism on commercial fishing, the potential impacts on the surfing community and on recreational fishers the potential impact on ocean and bird life.

And so I think that the very simple high level piece of information such as how big might the zone be, or how high might the blades be? I think that that sort of information is pretty basic stuff that is out there. But that does not answer the questions a local community has, in order for them to form an informed view and provide feedback to government. They want to have an understanding of how this impacts them. You know, I mean, what one one fisher told me that 50% of his catch is within the proposed zone. And so you can understand for that operation, and by memory, he has around about 70 employees.

For his operation, you can imagine what’s going through his head and his employees, I mean, this is a multi-generational business 50% of his catch comes from within the proposed zone. And he cannot get any answers about the potential impact. You know, these are these are really hard working small business operators and people who work for small businesses, and I totally get it, why they are concerned and why they are demanding better answers, at least clarity. But when you get no clarity, you can’t blame a local community, folding their arms and saying, hang on, we’re not satisfied.

Melinda James 

I’m wondering about your position as the opposition spokesman for climate change and energy, your position on offshore wind, I know that the former Energy Minister Angus Taylor laid the groundwork for some of these industries, he said things like he thought that it’d be really good for jobs, it’d be a good source of affordable and reliable power. He sought input for how they should look, if these big of offshore wind farms have built that it would boost regional manufacturing, is that the position of the coalition still that it’s actually a good idea?

Ted O’Brien 

The Coalition’s taking an ‘All-of-the-Above’ approach to climate and energy policy. In other words, it is going to be so challenging to decarbonize the Australian economy, we need every possible option on the table, the last thing we should be doing is taking options off the table. And that includes that includes wind. And here, if you look at the the proposed zone in the Illawarra, the concerns that I’m hearing from the locals, isn’t against the technology.

People aren’t out there trying to pick a fight with a technology, but rather with a lack of information, uncertainty about the impact on their community, their way of life, their livelihood. And as a Coalition, well, that’s where our concern lies. If there is a lack of information, a lack of a social license, that will that’s only going to make the the journey of decarbonizing the economy even harder.

The task is hard enough that the last thing we should be doing is seeing local communities feeling as though they’re steamrolled over, that’s just not tenable. Which is why it it lies on government to ensure they are communicating adequately. The problem here is not a particular form of technology. The problem here is the the style and lack of detail.

Melinda James 

Where  should they be put. And I don’t mean to sound flippant about people’s concerns, but in many instances, and it’s a really the legitimate concern is that they don’t like the look of them. And they don’t want to see them because they find living in a beautiful place being really quiet intrinsic to their well being their decision to live here.

They’re all very legitimate concerns to have. But if, as you say all options are on the table, offshore wind is something that the coalition would look at if you were in government. Really, labor would like to pursue it in some way. Where could you put something like this that would keep people happy, or does somewhere have to have them?

Ted O’Brien 

Look, I think, to answer your question, really, you’d have to take a step back and say, All right, if we’re going to have an ‘All-of-the-Above’ approach, we need to have every possible technology as an option. And optionality is the key here. And then you start saying, Okay, well, different technologies have different strengths and weaknesses.

That’s why you need different types because they complement each other. And then you get to the point of saying, Well, okay, well way might some of these technologies go? And a an underlying principle of the ‘where’ is a social license is required? And so I think if a community feels as well,

Melinda James 

… submissions have been in opposition, and it’s not even being thought of or proposed for off the coast of Sydney, for example.

Ted O’Brien 

Yeah, well, Melinda, I think that the challenge is, no community is going to cop a government dictating to it and not providing information. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a regional area or a metro area, you know my read of my fellow Australians is Australians don’t cop it, they’re not going to have a government dictate to it exactly where a major piece of infrastructure is going to go without providing sufficient information to that local community. I mean, it’s just that’s not. It’s not fair, in any one’s books. But again, it’s not about you know, people being anti-action on climate change.

It’s not about people being anti renewables. It’s about people wanting their way of life protected, and wanting and wanting to say that, that’s what this is all about. And I just think, the the Albanese government. I mean, everybody knows that they’re running behind on their targets, they set a target of 82% renewables by 2030. They did no modeling through the department through the Productivity Commission through Treasury on the impact of regional communities, the rollouts running about half the pace, investment has stalled lowest investment renewables in years. And then you’ve got local communities, who are now seemingly being denied access to information to satisfy them. And I just think the government’s getting desperate. I think that’s showing through in the way they are treating local communities.

And my fear for the Illawarra is that the government does to them what they did to the Hunter community. And that is not run a proper consultation period, not run a community engagement process that is adequate. That’s exactly what happened in the Hunter. And while the Illawarra process is still underway, and I am encouraging people to engage with that process, my fear is, indeed by fear, my fear is if it goes down the same path, but people should be engaging. And that’s been the message I’ve been sending them engage with the process communicate to your state and federal members to I mean, at the end of the day, whether you are for it or against it we’re a robust democracy, but we must have the community at the center of these processes, not the investor.

This is about putting the community at the centre. That’s what should be. To date. That’s not what the government’s been doing. And we haven’t been shy as a coalition, in calling on the government put the community at the centre of these processes, not investors. 

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