Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has been accused of shedding "crocodile tears" over the approval of the giant Shenhua coal project planned for the Liverpool Plains, after department officials revealed he failed to seek detailed information or make any formal comments opposing the open-cut mine.
At a Senate inquiry into a bill to give landholders the right to reject coal mining on their properties, officials from the departments of environment and agriculture said they were unaware of comments from Mr Joyce or his department to the mine's federal approval process.
Officials from the agriculture department also said they did not provide any detailed reports on the mine to Mr Joyce.
"To my understanding [there was] no comprehensive, single briefing" on the Shenhua project, Mr Ian Towers, a director in the agriculture department, told the inquiry on Tuesday in Canberra. "I myself have provided small bits of information to the minister."
Federal approval earlier this month of the $1.7 billion project near Gunnedah in northern NSW prompted Mr Joyce to break cabinet solidarity and speak out in opposition to the mine. The project will carve out as much as 35 square kilometres near some of Australia's richest farmland.
The Abbott government defended the approval, saying tough conditions would be enforced. These include closing operations if evidence showed the mine had disrupted valuable aquifers. The NSW government, which stands to secure a $200 million payment if it issues a mining licence to the Chinese state-owned company, is yet to issue its final approval.
Greens Senator Larissa Waters, who proposed the Senate bill into mining restrictions, said Mr Joyce had the opportunity to make formal comments or submissions on the mine but failed to do so.
"While Barnaby Joyce went red in the face for the media after the Shenhua approval, he failed to use his position as Agriculture Minister to actually help protect the Liverpool Plains," Senator Waters said.
"[Mr] Joyce's crocodile tears after the fact are worthless," she said. "What farmers actually needed was for him to do his job as Agriculture Minister and the local member by registering concern in the assessment process."
A spokesman for Mr Joyce said the minister had lobbied hard to ensure the proposed mine was referred to the Independent Expert Scientific Committee for scrutiny, and his efforts included arranging for Environment Minister Greg Hunt to join him on a visit to the region in February.
"Minister Joyce has said previously, both in public and in private, he does not support the mine and still does not support the mine," the spokesman said.
The Senate inquiry is due to report on the bill by August 31.
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