Liberal Party donor issues legal threat to minister over development on sensitive bird habitat
The former federal environment minister rejected advice from his own department that a $1.4 billion development on protected wetlands being proposed by a major Liberal Party donor was “clearly unacceptable”, documents obtained under Freedom of Information (FOI) show.
- The proposed development overlaps with wetlands that are home to endangered migratory birds
- Experts within the federal Department of Environment have consistently said the project is clearly unacceptable
- Minister referred proposal for formal environmental assessment, which peak environment group says increases chances of it going ahead
Walker Corporation, which describes itself as Australia’s largest private diversified development company, wants to build a precinct that includes 3,600 apartments, a hotel, convention centre and marina on a stretch of coastline south-east of Brisbane.
Toondah Harbour is on a wetland listed under the RAMSAR convention, which protects important habitats for migratory birds. Australia was one of the first signatories to the convention.
FOI documents obtained by Australian Conservation Foundation show former environment minister and current Treasurer Josh Frydenberg rejected advice from his own department to strike out the proposed development at the first hurdle.
Today, Mr Frydenberg said his decision was not an approval of the development, but an opportunity for proper assessment under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
The department had consistently argued the proposal was “clearly unacceptable” because of the permanent impact it would have on the ecological character of the wetlands.
Further documents obtained by the ABC show his department was subject to sustained pressure to approve the development including a legal threat against the minister and environment department by Walker Corporation.
Moreton Bay became a RAMSAR-listed site in 1993. Toondah Harbour sits inside it, across the bay from the popular tourism destination of Stradbroke Island.
It is home to critically endangered shorebirds, such as the eastern curlew, which rely on these mudflats to fatten up before their journey back to breeding grounds in Russia and China.
Walker Corporation a generous donor in politics
In the same financial year the development was sent to the Federal Government for approval, Walker Corporation donated $225,000 to the federal Liberal Party and $23,000 to Queensland Labor.
The previous year, Walker Corporation did not donate to either political party, but the company has been a relatively regular donor to both sides of politics over the past 10 years.
Mr Frydenberg said political donations had nothing to do with the decision-making process.
“It’s got nothing to do with the donor,” he told ABC News Breakfast.
From early on in the approval process Walker Corporation was warned the project was problematic.
In April 2016 the federal Department of the Environment wrote to the developer saying it intended to advise the minister the development was “clearly unacceptable”.
Over a year the developer was able to negotiate with the department to get the decision delayed six times.
In February 2017 Walker Corporation’s advisers threatened to take the minister to court, arguing it disagreed with the department’s view that the project was “clearly unacceptable” and making the case that any such decision would entail an error in law.
The ABC has obtained a copy of that confidential letter, which said given the “stalemate of legal views on the ‘clearly unacceptable’ issue, … the best path forward may be to have the Federal Court decide the ‘clearly unacceptable’ point”.
“We have instructions from Lang Walker to file and serve this Originating Application no later than 9 March 2017 if agreement on another process has not been reached prior,” the letter said.
No legal action ensued but the message was clear.
Project referred to next stage
In May last year Walker Corporation withdrew its initial proposal and submitted a smaller one that still encroached on around 50 hectares of the RAMSAR site.
A month later, the department gave the minister formal advice the project remained “clearly unacceptable”.
Mr Frydenberg rejected that advice.
He did not approve the proposal but instead sent it to an assessment process known as an Environmental Impact Statement.
Mr Frydenberg said his decision was not an approval of the development, but an opportunity for proper assessment.
“Under the EPBC Act, the minister has the opportunity to enable his department to undertake a full assessment of the project, and in doing so, get more information, which may lead to mitigation or offsets of any significant environmental impact that the project would have,” Mr Frydenberg said.
When asked why he had rejected advice from his department that the project was “clearly unacceptable”, he said his department had also pointed out there was an opportunity to gather more information under this assessment process.
Mr Frydenberg also pointed out the Queensland Labor Government had been strong proponents of the project, and again stressed the donation record of the Walker Corporation was not relevant to his decision.
“The Walker Corporation are a very well known Australian company with interests right across the country,” he said.
“But the biggest proponents of this or advocates of this was the state Labor Government, the Palaszczuk Government as well as the local council because of the jobs it would create, the marina it would establish, the ferry system and the tourism jobs that it would create for the local area.”
Queensland government letter backs development bid
The ABC has obtained a copy of a letter sent by then Queensland environment minister Steven Miles and Deputy Premier Jackie Trad on August 12, 2016, advocating for the project.
“We acknowledge that the Toondah Harbour Priority Development area (PDA) declared by the then-Queensland government in June 2013 overlaps with part of the Moreton Bay’s listed Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention) site,” the letter states.
“Nonetheless, the Queensland Government supports the project now being declared a ‘controlled action’ under the Commonwealth legislation, so as to ensure that its potential impact on matters of national environmental significance can be assessed in detail based on sound evidence.”
This designation, making the project a “controlled action”, was the decision Mr Frydenberg eventually made.
ACF chief executive Kelly O’Shanassy said she was shocked by the decision by then-minister Frydenberg to refer the project for assessment.
“[Of the more than] 1,700 assessments that have been done under the EPBC act, only 11 have been rejected over that time,” Ms O’Shanassy said.
“It’s very unlikely that it’s going to be rejected given the history of the act.”
Lang Walker, the founder and driving force behind Walker Corporation, was unavailable for interview.
Walker Corporation’s Craig Addley, the project designer for Toondah Harbour, told the ABC he was unaware of the legal threat, and conversations around donations were “above my paygrade”.
“I think we’ve always wanted to get to the point where we could start this EIS process,” Mr Addley said.
“That’s a really important part of the project in communicating and illustrating all the issues to it.
“Regardless of some of those issues, all the decisions on this project need to be based on the science and the facts.”
Mr Addley said he hopes the port will be rehabilitated and other infrastructure developed off the back of the project.
Hear the full investigation on Radio National’s Background Briefing program on Sunday, at 8am, or in your podcast feed later today.
You can contact Steve Cannane securely using the Signal app on 0417493087, if you know more about this story.