Two possible solutions to mining bill problem

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Caleb Bond: Mining bill doesn’t strike a fair balance — but there are two ways around it

Principles and strongly held personal beliefs are rarely associated with party politics these days. But that is what we saw in State Parliament last week.

Four Liberal MPs crossed the floor to delay their own party’s mining legislation: Fraser Ellis, Dan Cregan, Steve Murray and Nick McBride.

Good on them. It’s nice to see politicians standing up for their communities rather than toeing the party line because that’s what they’re expected to do.

In a now-deleted tweet, former Liberal MP for Finniss, now Kangaroo Island Mayor Michael Pengilly, branded the group — bar Ellis — as “destructive” and “bloody fools”. One wonders why it disappeared.

The crux of the issue is that the legislation does not strike a fair balance between land owners and mining prospectors. Under the legislation as it stands — and that which is being proposed by the Liberal Government — farmland is exempt from access by mining firms without an exemption awarded in court.

Mr Ellis and co. argue farmers should be given the right to veto access to their land by miners. Their land, their decision.

Yorke Peninsula farmers Ben Wundersitz, from Maitland, Zoe Oster, from Winulta, and Stephen Lodge, from Ardrossan, happy the mining bill was delayed. Picture: Naomi Jellicoe

On face value, it’s hard to disagree. Property rights are fundamental to our freedoms and to our individualism. As Roman philosopher Cicero said: “What more sacred, what more strongly guarded by every holy feeling, than a man’s own home?”

A man’s home is his castle. His farm is his kingdom.

It has also been an accepted principle of property law for centuries that “whoever’s is the soil, it is theirs all the way to heaven and all the way to hell”. Problem is, the Crown has owned all the minerals under freehold land across the country since about 1855.

Before that, all minerals except gold and silver belonged to whoever owned the land. Gold and silver has belonged to the government under the common law since the 16th century.

We have some of the strictest mining laws in the world. In other common-law countries like the UK, the Crown has rights to gold, silver, oil and gas. Anything else you might find under your land is yours to dig up and sell.

It is easy to understand why farmers would not want to allow miners on their prime agricultural land and there is a strong chance this legislation will not pass when it comes back in February. So, I propose two possible solutions:THE Government gives mineral rights back to the people, a la the UK (not likely to happen), or; THE Government gives farmers the right to refuse mining firms access to their lands, but doing so would allow the Government to pursue compulsory acquisition.

Governments routinely buy up tracts of land to build roads and other infrastructure. And those landowners are paid for the disruption. So if a piece of land could be worth a motza to our economy, let’s hand the owner a wad of cash, take the land, and go about mining.

It is a difficult balance to strike. Farming is a major industry in this state but mining has the potential to be one of our largest growth industries.

Neither are groups you want to annoy — particularly when you’re the Liberal Party.

The party should not forget how important its rural and regional voters are. There is much chatter about the Liberal “base”. But farmers certainly make up a large chunk of traditional Liberal voters.

Too often, rural and regional voters are given a raw deal while Liberal governments chase votes in city-based marginal seats.

Rural voters are almost relied on to vote Liberal as though they were a predetermined quota. Advantage is too often taken. Just go for a drive on some of the shocking rural roads where speed limits have continually decreased instead of fixing the deteriorating bitumen.

It is in the interests of farmers, miners and the state to strike a fair balance. We don’t want to lock the gate, as some greenies demand, but nor do we want to leave it wide open for anyone to trample on your land.

Farmers should not be underestimated and they should not be left behind. The Liberals will put them off-side at their peril.

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