With a major inquiry into the Hazelwood open cut fire pending, the ministerial portfolio just obtained by Member for Morwell Russell Northe is as contentious as they come.
Picking up the promotion to Energy and Resources Minister in a surprise cabinet reshuffle announced on Thursday afternoon, Mr Northe will now oversee the department which regulates Latrobe Valley’s brown coal industry.
Mr Northe sees his ministerial ascension as a genuine opportunity to improve the co-existence of local residents and the power industry, after the Morwell smoke crisis topped off a string of high profile Valley mine stability incidents since 2007.
“While I don’t want my community trashed by any particular industry or sector – there are better ways we can find the two to coexist, and this most current fire incident absolutely shows us we need to look much closer at the way that industry is regulated,” Mr Northe said.
Taking the reins from current mining minister Nicholas Kotsiras’ – who is set to retire in November – Mr Northe is virtually assured to remain in the position until at least the November election.
The government’s independent inquiry is scheduled to convene before the end of March, before handing down its findings in August.
Any potential recommendations to amend mining regulations, policing or the Mining Act itself, will need to be considered and acted upon under Mr Northe’s watch.
“I’m sure the inquiry’s Justice (Bernard Teague) and panel will make a number of recommendations for improvement, and if I’m the minister responsible at the time – I’m very happy to be in the position to implement those changes,” he said.
“I’ve said very clearly in the past we need to have measures in place to ensure this type of thing doesn’t happen again.”
However, former Morwell Labor candidate and Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union mining division vice president Graeme Middlemiss is not convinced Mr Northe is the right man for the job, arguing he will be forced to live a double life in government.
“I would’ve thought he’s in a very awkward position having to balance his role as the local member advocating for the community through this crisis and his role as minister overseeing the department which regulates this very mining industry,” Mr Middlemiss said.
“Fancy handing the local member in the middle of a huge fire this particular portfolio – they’ve certainly handed him a poisoned chalice.”
However, Mr Northe maintains the appointment has put him in the ideal position to ensure the best outcomes for his constituents.
“I have a great understanding of what my community is saying, and the community quite rightly has very strong expectations of this inquiry, in that the regulators make sure appropriate measures (are put) in place to stop this type of thing happening again,” Mr Northe said.
“As soon as I’m the minister I will be in the position to help implement those changes.”
Community advocacy group Voices of the Valley, established during the smoke crisis over the last month, has collected health impact statements from about 1500 Valley residents for submission to the upcoming inquiry.
While president and Morwell resident Simon Ellis agreed Mr Northe was ideally placed to respond to the current situation, he said the politician’s actions would speak louder than words.
“It will be a challenge for him to balance those two roles, so we will just wait and see what he actually delivers before we start praising him too much,” Mr Ellis said.
Mr Northe said he was “thrilled” to have also been appointed the Minister for Small Business, a promotion from his current role of parliamentary secretary in the same portfolio.
Beyond the Morwell recovery and the inquiry outcomes, Mr Northe acknowledged the significant impact the smoke crisis has had on the social licence of brown coal and its potential future uses.
“But to be quite frank many people will change their opinions on brown coal as a result of this incident – while the previous (stability) incidents have been inconvenient – when you are dealing with an incident that puts the health of the community in jeopardy it brings about a whole new meaning,” Mr Northe said.
“So yes, the ongoing use of the resource has received a bit of a battering in some respects, but if we could give some assurance to the community we can continue to use the resource in a responsible matter, then that confidence will be restored somewhat, and that’s why this inquiry is so important.”