The developer, the whistleblower and the minister – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
2018-12-09/the-developer-the- whistleblower-and-the- minister-toondah-harbour/ 10487806
The developer, the whistleblower and the minister
A trip to Switzerland, a legal threat, department staff under pressure. A rare blow-by-blow inside account of how power and influence is wielded in a sensitive environmental approval process.
Photo: The wetlands of Toondah Harbour are protected by an international convention. (ABC News: David Lewis)When you look out at Cleveland’s Toondah Harbour at low tide, the first thing you see is the mudflats.
Photo: The mudflats may look nondescript but they are home to a many bird species. (ABC News: David Lewis)Legend has it, this was meant to be the capital of Queensland.
But back in the 1840s during an exploratory trip, Governor Gipps got stuck in the mud and instead went up the river to what’s now Brisbane.
Photo: Shore Street, Cleveland, ca 1907 is pictured on one of the Valentine’s Series of postcards. (Source: Qld State Library)Cleveland never expanded into a metropolis like Brisbane. Its population sits at around 15,000.
But the local Mayor thinks it’s time the region was transformed into something bigger and more commercially focused.
New premier cuts ‘green tape’
Karen Williams was elected the Mayor of Redland City in 2012 with the support of developers.
It was the same year a one-term Queensland premier who wanted to cut what he called “green tape” was put in charge.
Campbell Newman was elected on a platform of change.
He introduced an Economic Development Act to fast-track new projects in the state.
Under the Act, parcels of land could be declared “priority development areas” — or PDAs — and could bypass old planning and environment laws.
Mayor Williams shared Mr Newman’s zeal for getting things built and was determined to transform the region.
The council voted to back the application for a PDA, and in June 2013 the state government declared Toondah Harbour one of Queensland’s first priority development areas.
Expressions of interest were called for, and Walker Corporation was announced as the preferred partner.
Its $1.4 billion plan for the site included 3,600 apartments, a hotel, convention centre and marina.
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.
Photo: Developer Lang Walker bought an island. (Walker Corporation)Bloomberg estimates the resort, near one of the world’s largest coral reefs, cost Lang Walker $100 million to build.
He named it Kokomo.
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.
The council gag order
Craig Ogilvie was a councillor at the time.
Photo: Former council member Craig Ogilvie says little time was given to consider the plans. (Supplied: Craig Ogilvie)“My impression of Lang Walker was that he was practised and slick and probably by far the most knowledgeable and smartest guy in the room when it came to doing deals of this type, and that was something to be nervous about,” Mr Ogilvie said.
I think … to a certain degree the councillors were starstruck.
Craig Ogilvie remembers the process as being rushed and secretive, and says the community was barely consulted.
He claims councillors had little time to consider the plans, and were asked to sign confidentiality arrangements that were quite stringent.
Councillor Wendy Boglary has been on council since March 2008 and was the deputy mayor for two years.
She said she felt the confidentiality agreement was preventing her from properly representing her constituents.
“People are actually coming down to me and as they’re finding out what is happening at Toondah Harbour, they have grave concerns,” Cr Boglary said.
“They’re asking me ‘why aren’t I speaking out?’ and ‘why aren’t I representing them?’.
“So I feel like I’m letting my community down, which isn’t something I take lightly.”
Mayor Williams told the ABC confidentiality agreements protected the ratepayers as well as the companies who had signed contracts with the council.
She said the area needed investment in infrastructure, which a large project like the Walker Corporation’s would bring.
“We’re a city of islands, so we need to have transport hubs that connect our mainland to our communities on Russell Island right through to North Stradbroke Island,” Mayor Williams said.
Political heavyweights bear down
With the council locked in, the Queensland Labor government endorsed the project in 2015.
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.”
Disturbing Toondah Harbour revelations
6 December 2018
Shocking revelations about the national assessment process for the proposed Toondah Harbour development in Queensland is further evidence Australia needs stronger national environment laws and an independent umpire for project approvals, leading conservation organisations have declared.
This morning the ABC revealed then-Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg was advised by his department on multiple occasions the Toondah Harbour apartment and marina proposal should be rejected outright because of the damage it would do to an internationally protected wetland.
Only a handful of developments have ever been rejected under current national environment laws.
Documents show Minister Frydenberg in at least one instance rejected this advice and instead sent the development to the next stage of assessment. Other documents obtained by the ABC reveal the Queensland Government was also willing to remove areas from the internationally protected wetland to facilitate the development.
Donor Annual Returns lodged with the Australian Electoral Commission show the Toondah Harbour proponent, Walker Corporation, gave $225,000 to the Federal Liberal Party and $23,000 to the Queensland ALP in 2015-16 – the year the initial development proposal was submitted for national assessment. Documents obtained by the ABC suggest Walker Corporation also engaged in a campaign of legal challenges and lobbying to keep the project alive.
The Toondah Harbour development would destroy approximately 40 hectares of the internationally protected Moreton Bay Ramsar site – one of Australia’s most important migratory shorebird feeding and breeding wetland habitats. A third version of the development is currently at the second-stage of assessment under national environment law.
Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) Chief Executive Officer, Kelly O’Shanassy, said Australians should question whether state and federal elected representatives have been acting in the best interests of nature or those of a significant donor, in not striking out the Toondah Harbour development.
“There needs to be an independent probe into this matter. Australians have the right to be confident the natural world is being protected from irresponsible development, especially places as important as the Moreton Bay Ramsar site,” Ms O’Shanassy said.
BirdLife Australia Chief Executive Officer, Paul Sullivan, said the project should never have proceeded to this stage.
“The proposal to build 3,600 waterside apartments and a marina on a Ramsar site flies in the face of Australia’s international obligations. The Minister should have followed the advice of his own department and rejected this project outright,” Mr Sullivan said.
“Critically endangered migratory shorebirds like the Eastern Curlew rely on this important wetland for their survival. If approved, Toondah will set a dangerous precedent for 2,331 Ramsar sites around the world. The international community is watching what happens next.”
Humane Society International Australia Chief Executive Officer, Erica Martin, said the revelations highlight the urgent need for new environment laws in Australia.
“It is unacceptable that matters of national environmental significance are being ignored in the decision making process for major developments like Toondah Harbour. Australia needs stronger nature laws and a national Environment Protection Authority to take the politics out of these decisions and to ensure native wildlife and their habitats are given the protection they truly deserve,” Ms Martin said.
“The Department was right on the money in saying this proposal should be rejected outright, and it’s disturbing that Minister Frydenberg ignored this advice and opened the door to removing international protections for the sake of development. The Moreton Bay Ramsar site is priceless, and Australia must respect the conventions we’ve committed to.”
BIEPA’s Wonders of the Wallum Spring Wildflower We will be meeting at the National Park entrance on the Corner of Cotterill Ave and Protea Drive.
SUNDAY 3rd September 2017 – 8:00am to 11:00am
We look forward to seeing you there for another morning of appreciation for our wonderful Wallum wildflowers.
From BIEPA Management Committee and organisers of the Walk.
DOWNLOAD the BIEPA WFW POSTER 2017
Some 70 participants joined BIEPA’s annual “Wonders of the Wallum” Wildflower Walk on Sunday 28 August, through bushland off Hornsby Road, Bellara. This event is part of the Wildflower Festival organised by the Sunshine Coast Council.
The weather was perfect, many of the flower species were at their best, and the groups of walkers appreciated the knowledge and experience of our Guides – Allan Carr from Native Plants Queensland and John Ward from the Bribie Wallum Action Group and Community Nursery.
Also present on the Walk was Michael Strong, Director of Turnstone Archaeology, who responded to questions about the Aboriginal history of the area. BIEPA would like to thank them all for their valued contribution to the success of this event.
We hope all participants had an enjoyable and interesting morning. We look forward to welcoming you again next year!
The story of the Bribie Borefields goes back almost two decades…….
For ten years before the State Government put out an urgent request for water (2007) at what was to become the break in a ten year drought in South East Queensland, some water engineers in the Caboolture Shire Council (CSC) had been proposing that the Bribie Island aquifers were a source of water that could supply the mainland. However, in their wisdom, the State Government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had recognized that this proposal was not viable, (environmentally and economically), understanding the unique and fragile ecosystems that maintain Bribie Island’s vegetation and wildlife. For ten years the EPA said “no” to the idea.
Then came the call for anyone who might be able to supply water to top up for dangerously low dams. This was the opportunity for the CSC to jump in the deep end unprepared, touting that they could build the Bribie Borefields for $10 million and supply 10ML/day from Bribie’s aquifers.
The Green Tape was untied and the project was fast tracked without the normal pre-requisites of an Environmental Impact Assessment; baseline studies of surrounding ecosystems; appropriate monitoring sites identified; the economics of the project and without a myriad of other assessments that would normally precede such a project.
BIEPA’s then President, Ian Bell, with his professional expertise in water management and the natural environment, recognized the folly of this proposal, especially the potential for negative impacts on Ramsar protected wetlands. In December 2007, Ian made a presentation to the CSC’s Mayor, Acting CEO, two councillors, engineers and private consultants hired for the project. Ian pointed out the deficiencies in the consultants’ and engineers’ hasty assessments of the location for the borefields, especially the consultants’ inaccurate report that the adjacent lagoons were saline. Ian showed proof that these lagoons were freshwater and the surrounding vegetation and wildlife depended on them. He warned that if the bores were to draw down too far and allow seawater intrusion, all these ecosystems on Bribie Island would be lost as well as compromise the supply of fresh water to the Project.
The CSC persisted with the Bribie Borefields Project and within six months the cost estimates blew out to more than $50 million. Ian took the issue to the Commonwealth, who limited the extraction to 4.3 ML/day & added mandatory monitoring sites to be in place. A Community Reference Group (CRG) was also established as part of the Commonwealth’s conditions for approval, because of the potential impact on adjacent Ramsar protected wetlands. www.ramsar.org/ The CRG monitors and provides regular community input on the Bribie Borefields.
BIEPA and the CRG remained resolute in their demand for transparency and accountability. Eventually the State Govt took over the Bribie Borefields Project as part of their responsibility for the supply of all bulk water. The Project came under the management of Seqwater who were able to ease the community’s concerns with the management of the Project.
The Bribie Borefields have experienced many design defects and have never reached capacity production and have never exported water to the mainland.
Even at the reduced production level, many of the producing bores hit their trigger levels during the dry period at the end of 2013 and had to be shut down. It has been estimated that the Bribie Borefields cost ratepayers in the order of $70 million – some of the most expensive water produced in Australia (more expensive than the Tugun desalination plant).
A recent review of the Bribie Borefields determined that they should be shut down indefinitely.
Sadly, Ian Bell and BIEPA were vilified by some council staff and members of the community for their stance on the long-term viability of the Bribie Borefields Project. Their stance, tenacity, expertise and wisdom has proven to be correct. And, those decision makers in council responsible for this white elephant have moved on and can not be held accountable.
As part of the Project, a pipeline, costing approximately $1 million, was constructed from the Woorim Sewage Treatment Plant to Pacific Harbour in order to supply grey water. This pipeline has never been used.