There is no silver bullet – A tapestry of suggestions to improve community outcomes

In July 2023 Minister Chris Bowen asked the Australian Energy Infrastructure Commissioner (AEIC) to undertake a Community Engagement Review (the AEIC Review) to enhance community support and ensure that renewable developments deliver for communities, landholders and traditional owners.   

The AEIC’s review took just over 6 months, with the report provided to Minister Bowen prior to Christmas.  During the review period, the AEIC sought input by meeting with hundreds of stakeholders and received over 500 submissions and over 250 survey responses. 

Minister Bowen must have digested this report over his Christmas lunch, because he released the report and the government’s response to its nine recommendations last Friday.  Whilst the Minister accepted the recommendations in principle, much of the implementation will require a tapestry of tweaks and changes and a greater need for state governments to collaborate or implement them.  

The nine recommendations align with six identified themes, discussed in turn below.  

Theme 1: Developer performance and selection 

This theme is designed to motivate developers to achieve best practice. It is largely aimed at addressing the cumulative impact of engagement on communities and landholders, taking the burden of due diligence off landholders, and weeding out those developers that are not able to engage constructively with landholders and communities.  

  • Recommendation 1 – An independent body to develop and operate a ‘developer rating scheme’.  Developers would be rated on their performance and capability.   
  • Recommendation 2 – Continue state deployment of programs to better plan and control development of generation and transmission projects and introduce a selection or permit system for developers to then prospect a particular project at a certain location.  The selection process or permit system could then link to program and reform arrangements or funding such as the Capacity Investment Scheme or Rewiring the Nation. 

Theme 2: Selecting the best sites 

The AEIC observed instances where alarm or anxiety was unnecessarily caused to communities and landholders even where a project was clearly not appropriate for that location or route. This theme therefore aims to reduce or eliminate unnecessary community engagement by selecting the best project sites and avoiding poor and inappropriate sites.  

  • Recommendation 3 – improve strategic land use mapping with a preference for national consistency. The onus is particularly on state governments to lead the collation of land use data and develop user friendly spatial mapping tools to allow earlier indication of concerns and more appropriate locations to be considered earlier in the project development process. The report notes this is well progressed in Queensland and is being pursued in Victoria.   

Theme 3: Reform environmental and planning approvals  

State and Federal planning and approvals processes for energy infrastructure development are not streamlined, can take years to complete, and contribute to a cumulative burden of engagement on communities and landholders. This theme aims to reduce and minimise the need for elongated community engagement by re-engineering planning and environmental assessment and approval processes. 

  • Recommendation 4 – Continue reforms to improve processes and help reduce the time needed to obtain planning and environmental approvals. This would integrate work currently being undertaken by the Federal Government to streamline approvals under the EPBC Act.  

Theme 4: Best practice complaint management 

Data from a survey conducted by the AEIC showed that most community members or landholder with concerns or complaints felt that their issue was not adequately resolved when raised. This theme is therefore designed to reduce unresolved and lengthy complaints by ensuring best practice complaint handling, backed up with a new, relevant ombudsman scheme in each state.  

  • Recommendation 5 – State and, where applicable, Territory governments establish and implement a new ombudsman function focussed on handling complaints about the prospecting, development, construction, operation and decommissioning of renewable energy generation, large scale storage and new transmission infrastructure. 

Theme 5: Messaging and Governance 

The AEIC heard from a range of stakeholders that community understanding on why the energy transition is happening would help improve engagement generally. This theme therefore aims to improve community understanding of the need for the transition including what is to be deployed in their region as well as where, when and why.  

The AEIC also seeks to improve governance and oversight of projects of national significance through this theme. These are mostly large transmission projects. This appears intended to better align the different disciplines of government toward a common end, such as aligning government actions relating to water, waste, transport, agriculture etc. to deliver critical projects.  

While the energy transition remains a political issue, the recommendations under this theme may be hard to achieve. It is hard to imagine all levels of government and industry coming together in a unified ‘war footing’ on this issue, akin to the whole of government approach to dealing with the unprecedented challenge of a global pandemic. However, this is the level of urgency and aligned action that may be needed to materially shift the needle in the manner envisioned by this theme.  

  • Recommendation 6 – the Minister initiate a process for the development and execution of a communications program that provides local communities with a clear narrative about the pragmatic reasons for the energy transition. 
  • Recommendation 7 – The Commonwealth to work with state and territory governments to assist review and/or implement appropriate oversight governance arrangements that should be in place for transition projects of national significance 

Theme 6: Coordinated economic development and community benefits 

When asked in the AEIC’s survey, over 70 per cent of respondents strongly disagreed with the statement that they believed the local community would benefit from large scale renewable energy and transmission projects.  

The goal here is to improve community acceptance of the transition changes and impacts by engaging with them to identify opportunities and enable sustainable benefit sharing through local economic development. This could include more job opportunities in regional communities, increased Australian manufacturing including for components needed for the energy transition e.g. wind turbine blades or steel fabrication. Boosting the local community engagement in identifying and prioritising opportunities will help ensure they are relevant and have enduring value for communities.  

  • Recommendation 8 – Whole-of-government approach to identify, cultivate and generate tangible economic and investment attraction opportunities for regional businesses, including First Nations peoples and their enterprises. 
  • Recommendation 9 – States, territories and local governments should encourage local community groups to proactively identify opportunities for the broader community’s benefit as well as take ownership of sound opportunities to secure support and funding. 

Incremental adjustments, rather than transformational shift 

It is clear these recommendations cover a wide range of topics, suggesting incremental rather than transformational adjustments. Indeed, most approaches are developed by shining a light on best practice from industry or government and suggesting that this should be the norm across all jurisdictions or projects.  

The most impactful recommendations are likely to be those that make a material difference for communities and landholders. These are likely to be those that reduce the time spent in approval and consultation processes and concurrently improve the quality of engagement with communities and landholders. Initiatives in this space include streamlining planning and approvals processes, identifying in advance any no go zones and areas suitable for projects, as well as facilitating a reduction in the ‘gold rush’ of developers engaging with landholders and communities. Perhaps the most transformational initiative, if it can be achieved, would be a successful campaign to embed in communities a clear and aligned understanding of the ‘why’ of the energy transition and what they can expect to happen in their communities through its duration.  

The implementation of any recommendations should carefully weigh the risk of adding red tape, time and cost to critical projects. For example, recommendations relating to complaints management should ideally reduce the time taken to resolve issues and not cause unnecessary delays where issues may be intractable, frivolous or not able to be resolved through mediated processes.  

What is clear is that it is a shared responsibility to achieve community support for the energy transition and the infrastructure to achieve it. This is why energy networks are supporting collaborative approaches to improving social license through forums such as The Energy Charter. We look forward to working with governments at all levels to continue to improve engagement and outcomes for communities and landholders.