Community engagement is a crucial element of issue management for successful companies proposing development projects.
Now a surprise legal outcome in Victoria has raised important questions about how far objectors can go without accountability. And when a corporation can legitimately say “enough is enough.”
In one corner was bulk liquids handling and storage company Terminals Pty Ltd. In the other was 66-year-old Suzanne Kelly-Turner who had lodged yet another appeal against the EPA decision to grant Terminals approval to build a new liquid coal tar pitch tank at its facility in Corio, west of Melbourne.
In a damning and extraordinarily blunt decision, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) ruled Ms Kelly-Turner’s claim had “no tenable basis in fact or law” and that her application was “misconceived and lacking in substance.”
Perhaps more importantly the Tribunal awarded legal costs of almost $40,000 against the disability pensioner, who is co-president of the Geelong Chemical Action Group but, by her own admission, “stupidly” decided to pursue the case in her own name to save costs on the application fee.
Terminals won’t be holding its breath waiting for payment of its costs, and quickly announced it would donate any money received to local community groups. Yet the company had decided to draw a line in the sand.
Terminals Victorian Manager Carlo Fasolino said they accepted that it should bear its own legal costs at VCAT, as it was the appropriate place for the community to raise legitimate concerns on new projects. “But when parties use the process to cause Terminals additional costs on a number of occasions by corrupting proper process,” he said, “then we reserve the right to recover those costs.”
Not surprisingly, Ms Kelly-Turner claimed she was acting in the public interest and therefore should not be penalised. But the Tribunal rejected even that argument, finding she had no legal standing to bring the case and that “any applicant, whether self-represented or not, should be aware that lodging applications for review can have serious consequences”
This closely-watched case raises some important questions for issue management and community engagement in many industries.
- Will the potential risk of personal liability inhibit legitimate objections by concerned citizens?
- Will the finding chill community willingness to engage with big companies?
While only time will tell, our guess is that neither adverse outcome is very likely. Scores of community engagement forums around the country work extremely well, especially where they involve genuine locals rather than imported objectors, and where both parties are working to find common ground for the good of the whole community. But when engagement becomes animosity, and when objection became obstruction, it is almost always destined to end in tears.