The developer, the whistleblower and the minister – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
We are forwarding this information to you just in case you have not seen it on the news.
BIEPA has spent many years lobbying all three levels of government (federal, state and local) when making decisions that will have long term negative impacts on the health of our natural environment, to heed the commitments made in international conservation agreements. BIEPA has asked that decision makers acknowledge that Australia has signed these agreements to protect and conserve the country’s natural assets and environment identified as being of international importance.
It is always disappointing to realise that, in reality, decisions are made without due reference to these international agreements (including national policies and legislations designed to protect Australia’s natural assets). It appears that honouring the inherent obligations in them is considered by decision makers as unimportant to the “common wealth” of Australians.
Birdlife Australia and the Australian Conservation Foundation are joining forces with many environmental and community groups in an effort to protect the Wetlands and endangered migratory bird species from the Toodnah Harbour development.
Many thanks for your attention to this important issue.
Moreton Bay, where Toondah Harbour sits, was declared a Ramsar site in 1993, under an international convention that protects wetlands critical for biodiversity.
Around 40 hectares of the priority development area lies inside that Ramsar-listed wetland.
Enter the developer
In the last 20 years, Lang Walker’s company has donated around $2.5 million to political parties.
The Forbes rich list claims he’s worth over $2 billion, and he is behind a series of high-profile developments including Collins Square in Melbourne, the Finger Wharf in Sydney and Festival Square in Adelaide.
He has even built a luxury resort on his own private island in Fiji.
As a man who knows how to buy an island and has spent decades striking big deals in Australia’s largest cities, Mr Walker had the upper hand when he flew to Queensland to sign a memorandum of understanding with Redland City councillors at the historic Grand View Hotel overlooking Toondah Harbour.
But because the proposed development was on Ramsar-listed wetland, it had to be referred to the federal government for approval.
A development of this scale or impact had never been approved on a Ramsar-listed site in Australia.
Inside the federal environment department, which is required to provide impartial, expert advice on environmental issues, the alarm bells were going off.
In April 2016 Matt Cahill, one of the most senior bureaucrats in the department, wrote to Walker Corporation executive Peter Saba making clear what his experts thought of the project.
“The Department intends to advise the Minister to make a decision that the proposal in its current form is clearly unacceptable,” the letter said.
In other words, the department’s key advisers believed the proposal should be struck out immediately.
In response, Walker Corporation intensified its lobbying efforts:
In August, Lang Walker wrote to newly-elected prime minister Malcolm Turnbull congratulating him and asking for a meeting about the Toondah project. Mr Turnbull did not appear to take up that offer, but encouraged him to continue working with then-environment minister Josh Frydenberg and his department.
According to Queensland’s The Courier Mail, a special adviser to Mr Turnbull and a staffer were spotted that same month having lunch with Mr Walker at celebrity chef Matt Moran’s upscale eatery Aria.
According to departmental documents, Mr Walker met with Mr Frydenberg that same month.
Queensland’s then-environment minister Steven Miles and Deputy Premier Jackie Trad also wrote to Mr Frydenberg expressing their government’s support.
The ABC understands there were discussions in the department about whether the Ramsar boundaries could be changed so the project could go through and still meet Australia’s treaty obligations.
The Australian Government Solicitor responded with confidential legal advice that the boundaries could be changed if Australia invoked the “urgent national interest test” in the convention but warned that process could take years and involve international scrutiny.
FOI documents show over a 12-month period Walker Corporation convinced the department to delay the decision six times.
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.
Walker Corporation’s Craig Addley, the project designer for Toondah Harbour, told the ABC the development’s processes were not influenced by political donations.
“I don’t make the payments or are not aware of the details around them but I think the important point is that this project will not be influenced by those things,” Mr Addley said.
Inside the political maelstrom
A departmental insider, who asked we not disclose their identity, said the pressure inside the department was intense.
“Those of us who hoped the minister would accept the advice, that carefully constructed expert advice, were disappointed,” they said.
“But then the department moved to accommodate the minister’s desires — so still providing advice to the minister about the range of impediments, still pointing out it was clearly inconsistent with Australia’s obligations under the Ramsar convention, but also searching for a pathway to accommodate that development.”
The insider also said the company and the man behind the project were important.
“It’s not some tin-pot development run by some small no-name company,” they said.
“This is Lang Walker. Everyone knows who Lang Walker is.
“Everyone knows he’s politically connected, there were stories he could pick up the phone and talk anytime to the prime minister. I don’t know whether that happened or not. That was certainly the view held.”
Minister rejects department’s advice
In May 2017, after 18 months of delays, Walker Corporation withdrew its original plan and submitted a smaller proposal, which still encroached on around 50 hectares of the Ramsar site.
A month later the department provided formal advice to Mr Frydenberg.
Despite all the back-room wrangling, the department said the second proposal remained “clearly unacceptable” because it would “result in permanent and irreversible damage to the ecological character of the Moreton Bay Ramsar wetland”.
However, Mr Frydenberg rejected that advice in June 2017.
Mr Frydenberg told the ABC he acted within the relevant legislation by sending the project for assessment by an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS):
“Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity 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.”
He also said Walker Corporation’s donation history had nothing to do with his decision.
Referral a good outcome for Walker Corporation
The decision was a significant victory for Walker Corporation.
The project hadn’t been approved by the Minister, but it had cleared a significant first hurdle.
Figures from the Department of the Environment up to 30 June 2018 show that of the 96 projects that have been assessed by Environmental Impact Statement under the EPBC Act, only one has been refused approval.
Since that decision, Walker’s pursuit of the project has even gone international.
Its corporate adviser Stephen Davis, and Walker executive Mr Saba met with the Ramsar secretary general in Switzerland. The ABC understands they discussed the project.
Back at Toondah Harbour, there are competing views on what should happen next.
Mayor Williams said she hoped the EIS process would scientifically address environmental impacts.
That’s what the process is all about,” Mayor Williams said.
“Council’s done their bit.
“We’ve looked for a solution, we’ve got a tool, we’ve asked [the] community and now we wait for the Federal Government to go through that process if it stacks up.
“If it doesn’t then we’re back to square one.”
Birdlife Australia spokesman Robert Clemens said he hoped the development site would be reconsidered.
“This would be one of the last places you would choose to do something,” Mr Clemens said.
“It’s one of the jewels in this council region.
“If we take a step back and look at all the areas where we could put an apartment complex this would come out at the bottom of the list, surely.”
Sign our petition to demand the Queensland Government say no to the privatisation and destruction of our National Parks. (Sign Here)
Hinchinbrook Island, Whitsunday Island and Cooloola have been declared national parks because of their exceptional scientific, ecological, heritage and recreational values. Any changes to the land tenure of those national parks will lessen the protection of those exceptional values.
Public opinion, actively demonstrated over decades, indicates that citizens believe that areas declared as National Parks form a vital part of the state’s heritage for all to enjoy.
We call upon Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, and Minister for Environment and the Great Barrier Reef, Leeanne Enoch, to ensure that:
The whole of Hinchinbrook Island, Whitsunday Island and Cooloola National Parks are retained as national park with no private development within them;
The three national parks are properly managed so as to protect their exceptional values; and
No private development is permitted within any of Queensland’s national parks.
Despite its massive size, it feeds mostly on plankton. The distribution of whale sharks indicates the presence of plankton and the overall health of our oceans, which we heavily depend on. Read on to discover more.
The whale shark is the largest shark and indeed the largest of any fish alive today. While the maximum size of this species is not known, they can reach the length of a school bus!
These gentle marine giants roam across the tropical oceans of the world, generally alone. However, large numbers of whale sharks often gather in areas with abundant plankton food—making them prime tourist attractions. Because whale sharks feed on plankton, they will travel large distances to find enough food to sustain their huge size, and to reproduce.
Their white spotted colouration makes these gentle giants easy to distinguish, and are popular with snorkelers and divers at sites where they gather off the coast.
However, the whale shark is facing big challenges today.
These majestic creatures, which are an IUCN endangered species, are at risk from being caught as bycatch and struck by ships, and are still hunted in some parts of the world for their fins and meat.
Poorly managed whale shark tourism also presents a threat to the species as it may interrupt their feeding and sharks can be injured by boat propellers, highlighting the importance of responsible tourism practices.
To secure the future of this species and safeguard the health of our oceans, WWF is working to protect whale sharks.
WWF experts continue to study shark habits and gather information in the Coral Triangle on individual sharks by using satellite tags, sonar devices, and digital cameras to create further protection for whale sharks. In addition, we support whale shark studies to learn more about the population, their habitat use and migratory pathways in the waters surrounding Mafia Island, Coastal East Africa.
The whale shark is the biggest fish and shark in the world. These gentle marine giants roam the oceans around the globe, generally alone. However, large numbers of whale sharks often gather in areas with abundant plankton food.
Discover more about WWF’s work
Our mission is to stop the degradation of our planet’s natural environment, and build a future in which people live in harmony with nature. Find out how we aim to achieve this through our nine global goals.