When the NSW Land and Environment Court handed down a decision in February refusing approval for a new thermal coal mine in the NSW Upper Hunter Valley, it became the first case in Australia to accept expert evidence about the global carbon budget. The greenfield open-cut Rocky Hill coal mine was rejected because of the “dire consequences” of climate change, as well as its significant and unacceptable planning, visual, and social impacts.
The controversial judgment introduced a new foundational question – or “the wrong time” test – to influence the decision to either reject or accept applications for similar fossil fuel projects. It has been described by the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) of NSW, representing a residents’ group named Groundswell Gloucester, as “a seminal moment in the development of climate litigation in Australia”.
The solicitor in charge of the matter, 31-year-old Matthew Floro, has always had sustainability front of mind. Having worked for state government and private law firms in Queensland, NSW and Victoria, Floro made the switch to the CLC sector last year. He was looking for work that more closely aligned with his own purpose and values. EDO NSW was a perfect fit, and the landmark Gloucester Resources Limited v Minister for Planning was his first case.
Floro finds his new job more intellectually challenging than the hours whiled away in commercial practice and plans to combine his public interest work with academic pursuits. He currently works as a teaching fellow at UNSW law school and is completing a Master of Public Administration through Griffith University.
Community is at the heart of Floro’s motivations, and he searches for causes that help people, especially those who are disadvantaged or marginalised. In 2010, he was president of the Australian Law Students’ Association and has gone on to assume key roles with Out for Australia and the Asian Australian Lawyers Association. This is a window into the life of a very busy man on a mission to make the world a better place.
“The main reason I joined the EDO was because I wanted to work in the public interest. [The Gloucester] case was clearly in the public interest for many reasons. It really justified my decision to join the EDO, and I think it will be one of the highlights of my time here.
In terms of climate change, this case was a landmark case. In terms of the impact the mine would have had socially on the community, that would have been quite significant and adverse. In terms of the visual impact on the Gloucester Valley, it would have destroyed the landscape for many years. And in terms of planning law, it was clearly something that conflicted with land-use patterns in the area.
I have really enjoyed my time at the EDO because I think what I do now aligns with my purpose and values. It is a great time to be practising law in NSW and for the EDO, because there is a combination of urban and regional work in Sydney, and that makes it so exciting.
I spent about three and a half years in commercial law firms, and am indebted to those firms for the skills they taught me. But I was after something more than acting for clients who had their own private interests. I was after something more public interest-focused. I think that’s why a lot of lawyers study law – they want to make a difference in their communities and to the people they value.
Generally, I wake up at around 7am and try to be at work between 8.30-9.00am. The great thing about the EDO is that they really encourage flexible work, so you can start earlier, you can start later – it’s up to you. When I get in, there are usually a few enquiries from the community to deal with. The EDO offers a free 15-minute telephone advice service on environmental and planning law issues and, about two or three times a month, lawyers from the EDO are rostered on to answer those. I then arrange for some research to be done on those matters. Then I have litigation files to look after, and that takes up the majority of my day.
A couple of examples are the Rocky Hill matter, which we worked on for more than six months. That involved liaising with the client, talking to our experts, doing research on case law and that sort of thing. Another litigation matter I’m involved in is the civil enforcement proceedings relating to a cotton farming enterprise in the Barwon-Darling River. That will involve similar work.
I was after something more public interest-focused. I think that’s why a lot of lawyers study law – they want to make a difference in their communities and to the people they value.
MATTHEW FLORO, EDO NSW
I always make time for lunch. I think lawyers too often don’t make time for lunch or just have a quick lunch at their desk. Then I continue with the litigation work in the afternoon. If I need to return to the telephone advice enquiries, I do that.
We have regular meetings at the EDO between staff and solicitors – it’s good to keep in touch with what everyone else is doing. I generally finish work between 5.30pm and 6pm. It’s a busy day – there is a lot happening – but working here involves reasonable hours, flexible working arrangements, and a fantastic team environment. We all get along well. It’s really just a friendly family, I’d say, and I’m really privileged to be a part of it.
Community is really important to me and I think part of what gives me purpose is contributing to causes that benefit more than just one person. Particularly where those groups or communities suffer some form of disadvantage, it gives me purpose and hopefully I’m able to contribute something.
One thing I am focused on with the Asian Australian Lawyers Association (AALA) is ensuring that Asian-Australian law students have access to professional networks so they can be empowered to rise through the ranks when they graduate. I have been concerned for some time about cultural diversity in the legal profession and I know a lot of Asian-Australian people study law. A lot of Asian-Australian lawyers are now featuring among the ranks of graduates, senior associates and special counsel, but I think we are yet to see a lot of Asian-Australian lawyers become long-standing law firm partners, magistrates and judges.
The potential of Asian-Australian lawyers – some of whom have immigrated here recently, some of whom have grown up or were born here –to tell a story about the connection between West and East has yet to be realised. What we’re seeing now is a new voice for Asian-Australians that will hopefully bridge that gap of understanding between cultures and the sometimes different cultural practices.
Photography by Jason McCormack