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Toondah

Toondah Real Estate Scheme: Summary and Timeline

INTRODUCTION

In January, 2021 Walker Group/ Corporation (Walker) is expected to release its long awaited Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) relating to its Toondah Harbour real estate scheme. The scheme is facilitated by the Queensland Government’s Toondah Harbour ‘Priority Development Area’ (PDA).  Walker’s plan involves building 3,600 high-rise units on top of over 40 hectares of protected Moreton Bay wetlands within the PDA, near the Toondah Harbour ferry terminal at Cleveland. This is where ferries depart for North Stradbroke Island, and return.

The State Government’s Toondah PDA and Walker’s scheme are closely linked to Stradbroke Island’s myth based, and outdated, ‘Economic Transition Strategy’ (ETS) to turn Straddie into a crowded, international tourism destination – against the wishes of Quandamooka indigenous owners, other residents, rate-payers, and thousands of regular visitors. The Toondah plan is mentioned 7 times in the ETS document.

The public, and experts not employed by Walker,  will be given a limited time to comment on the draft EIS, before it is finalised and submitted by Walker to the Federal Environment Minister and the Queensland Government.

The EIS is being prepared by consultants, from various fields of expertise, chosen and paid by Walker. The EIS will not be an independent analysis of Walker’s Toondah proposal. It is likely Walker’s EIS will conflict with the advice of scientific experts from the Federal Environment Department. Documents obtained and published by the ABC’s Background Briefing on the Toondah plan, reveal these independent scientists continually advised their Minister that Walker’s plan to replace Ramsar protected wetlands with high-rise units and marinas was “clearly unacceptable” under Federal laws (the EPBC Act).

This advice should have resulted in Walker’s plan being rejected immediately. But the independent scientific advice, to date, has been ignored.

The public continues to play an important role in opposing the proposed destruction and reclamation of over 40 hectares of Ramsar listed wetlands, tidal banks, mangroves and seagrass beds, the impact on migratory species, particularly critically endangered birds, such as the Eastern Curlew (figure 5), and the likely demise of a nearby colony of Koalas, known as the “Toondah Koalas”.

Public opinion has not yet persuaded the Federal Government to refuse to approve the plan, nor the State Government to revoke its PDA. But there is good reason to be confident that public disapproval and opposition to the proposed environmental vandalism to further enrich a political donor property developer, will win this contest.

It is timely to provide a summary and timeline of events, with hyperlinks to sources of information, to assist the public and the media to put the Toondah PDA, the Federal process, and Walker’s EIS into perspective.

1. SUMMARY

Controversy continues to grow over the Queensland Government’s facilitation of the scheme via its Toondah Harbour Priority Development Area (PDA) over public, protected assets – including the tidal wetlands depicted in Figure 1. The wetlands are part of the Moreton Bay Ramsar site, declared in 1993 at the request of the then Queensland Labor Government.

Australia promised the world, when we signed the Ramsar Convention for the protection of internationally important wetlands, that we would protect all of our listed wetlands and the shorebirds inhabiting them – unless “urgent national interests” justified removal of protection. The Ramsar Convention has been signed by 171 nations, which is the vast majority of nations.

Controversy also surrounds the Federal Government’s secondary role under national environment protection laws, which require Federal approval of Queensland’s Toondah development plans because “matters of national environmental significance” are at stake, namely:

  • Wetlands of international importance
  • Listed threatened species and communities
  • Listed migratory species

 

Figure 1: a section of the Ramsar protected wetlands proposed to be filled in and replaced with high-rises, with a Stradbroke vehicular ferry in the background.

The PDA includes historic GJ Walter Park and extends hundreds of metres out into Moreton Bay. The PDA is defined by the red lines in Figure 3. Walker Corporation, a major political donor to Labor and Liberal/Nationals, wants to use the State Government’s PDA to build 3,600 units in buildings up to 10 storeys, marinas for yachts, and a wetland and cultural centre for the controversial Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation (QYAC) – see figure 2.

The importance of the lack of “urgent national interests” and s. 138 of the EPBC Act

The Palaszczuk Government facilitated Toondah plan cannot proceed without Federal approval under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

Crucially, in deciding whether to approve, or not approve, the EPBC Act (section 138) stipulates that the Federal Environment Minister –
must not act inconsistently with Australia’s obligations under the Ramsar Convention

This is a very important provision, in conjunction with the protection requirements of the Ramsar Convention. In particular, Clause 2.5 of the Convention requires “urgent national interests” to exist before a signatory nation can “delete or restrict” any part (our emphasis) of a Ramsar listed wetland.

Figure 2: Walker’s latest plan involves ‘reclamation’ of over 40 hectares of wetlands, including mangroves and seagrass beds, habitat of many marine and bird species, some critically endangered.

An informative article, with links to sources of information, published by Cleveland based community group, Redlands 2030 and linked to this Guardian article, explains that together, section 138 and Clause 2.5, should present an insurmountable obstacle to the Toondah plan. The article concludes..

It is apparent that the Toondah Harbour proposal to destroy a section of the Moreton Bay Ramsar site could only be approved if the Queensland and Australian Governments are  prepared to deliberately breach the international Ramsar Convention, and our own national laws.”

Further, a Toondah type proposal would be banned in other States, partly because of rising sea levels due to climate change. It only became possible at Cleveland because of our State Government’s highly controversial PDA extending into Moreton Bay.

The PDA and its purpose clearly conflict with the Ramsar Convention. Real estate development plans to further enrich a property developer (and its mates?), obviously could never constitute “urgent national interests”.

Figure 3: Part of Walker’s first Referral, the legend illustrates, in part, why the wetlands within State Government’s PDA are so important.

 

State Government could revoke the PDA: Instead Labor expanded PDA scheme by 450% to 3,600 units

Despite years of public opposition, and opposition from scientific experts employed by the Federal Environment Department (see December, 2018 in the timeline below), and a growing campaign to save the wetlands and nearby Koala habitat, the State Government so far has refused requests to use its powers to revoke or amend the PDA. More recently, Labor has sent mixed messages about whether it remains committed to the project, but obviously that is insufficient. There is nothing new about Labor saying one thing to one audience and the opposite to another audience eg Labor’s statements on climate change and new coal mines to SEQ audiences, and, to appease a different audience in Central Queensland, its approval of 18 new coal mines last term.

The irresponsible Toondah PDA, which originated with the extreme Newman LNP Government, should have ended with the election of the Palaszczuk Government in 2015.

Instead, the PDA and the proposed real estate scheme were given Labor’s “green light” by then Deputy Premier Jackie Trad. It later emerged the scheme had massively expanded under then Planning Minister Trad, from the LNP’s planned 800 high-rise units, to 3,600 under Labor. The Palaszczuk Government has refused to explain these decisions granting big favours to Walker.

The Trad ‘green light’ was strongly backed in mainstream media by QYAC and its CEO, Cameron Costello, including in reports in the Brisbane Times, the Courier Mail, and Redland City Bulletin. However, there have been subsequent, conflicting but carefully worded, statements from QYAC made on social media, and its 2019-20 annual report states “QYAC does not support the Toondah Harbour development and has continually advocated for the cessation of this project in its current form.” That statement conflicts with the evidence of QYAC’s enthusiastic support for Walker and its Toondah plan in mainsteam media.

In addition to the critically endangered Eastern Curlew, the Toondah proposal increases the threats to the survival of other bird and marine species, some also classified as endangered or vulnerable. And it is unlikely the Toondah Koalas, which inhabit eucalypts adjacent to the wetlands, would survive the proposed development and an estimated population of 8,000 to 10,000 people living on their doorstep.

2. TOONDAH TIMELINE

2012 – The extreme Newman Government passed a new law (the Economic Development Act) allowing PDA’s to be declared. Labor attacked the new law as undemocratic and designed to favour ‘developer mates’ and ‘the white shoe brigade’. Jackie Trad led the attack in parliament – http://bit.ly/TradandHansard

2013 – Newman Government declared the Toondah Harbour PDA at the request of the Redland City Council and its LNP leaning Mayor, Karen Williams.

2014 – After public consultation (inadequate), Newman Government released the Toondah development scheme. Drawings showed a substantially smaller ‘development’ footprint (e.g. Figure 4) in the Ramsar wetlands compared to the current plan. The public was told there would be “800” high-rise units – including by Redlands Mayor Karen Williams – http://bit.ly/Mayor800Units – See 4th last paragraph -scroll down to the red star.

Figure 4: A 2014 development footprint (in blue) for 800 units.

September 2014 – Walker announced as the ‘preferred developer’ by then LNP Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney. The owner of Walker Group/Corporation, Billionaire Lang Walker, was after more than 800 units. He told The Australian newspaper he expected to build about “1,000 dwellings”.

2015 – At the January State Election, Queenslanders voted out the Newman LNP Government. Labor was expected to repeal the LNP’s PDA laws and revoke the extreme Toondah PDA over Ramsar protected wetlands.

June 2015 – Jackie Trad and Labor backflipped on party policies and promises to protect the Toondah wetlands. The Toondah PDA and real estate scheme was given Labor’s ‘green light’. Trad appeared with Mayor Williams at a joint media conference. Neither Trad nor Williams mentioned an expansion of the LNP’s already irresponsible scheme.

November 2015 – Walker released its plans for Toondah to the public, and lodged its first attempt to obtain Federal approval. The proposed development footprint over wetlands had increased substantially, and as revealed by the Redland City Council, the real estate scheme had expanded from the LNP’s 800 units to 3,600 under Labor.

Since then, no one has explained the massive, 450% expansion of the proposed number of units under then Planning Minister Trad. Letters written to Premier Palaszczuk and former Deputy Premier Trad requesting explanations have been ignored. And Premier Palaszczuk has declined to be interviewed by the ABC about her Government’s favours for Walker.

2016 – In January, 2016, the Palaszczuk Government signed a Toondah Development Agreement with Walker and the Redland City Council. See page 1 of Walker’s Referral for Federal approval. Despite the decision of its own Information Commissioner to make the agreement public, the Palaszczuk Government (and Walker) appealed the decision. The appeal has not been heard by QCAT. Meanwhile the agreement remains secret, and the Palaszczuk Government has refused to say how much it is spending in legal fees to keep it secret.

In August 2016, as revealed by the Guardian (when it obtained the letter in February, 2019), a State Government letter written on behalf of Jackie Trad and then Queensland Environment Minister, Steven Miles was sent to the Federal Environment Minister, Josh Frydenberg. The letter lobbied Frydenberg to assist Walker. It (ludicrously) suggested Walker’s plan was in Australia’s “urgent national interests”. The Trad/Miles letter also suggested there should be a boundary change to the Moreton Bay Ramsar site to delete the wetlands within the State’s PDA.

The ABC also reported on a letter sent to Frydenberg by Trad and Miles (dated 12 August, 2016) supporting a “controlled action” decision by Frydenberg (scroll down the article to the paragraph headed “Queensland Government letter backs development bid”).

2017/18 – Walker withdrew its first Referral for Federal approval after it became clear it would not get past first base. Walker lodged another Referral, with a referral area of 73 hectares. The reduction appeared to be artificial. Although declared a ‘controlled action’ by Frydenberg, the second referral was replaced with a third referral in 2018, with a referral area of 56 hectares. Similarly, the reduction from the 167 hectare first referral appeared to be artificial. But again, the third and latest Referral was declared a ‘controlled action’.There was no change to the proposed 3,600 high-rise units. See the heading ‘October, 2020’ below for more information on the claimed reduction in the referral area.

In August, 2017 after deciding the second Walker Referral was a ‘controlled action’, rejecting his own experts’ advice that it remained “clearly unacceptable”, Minister Frydenberg wrote to Minister Miles taking up the Queensland Government’s suggestion of the Walker plan being in Australia’s “urgent national interests”. That letter was obtained and published by the Guardian in December, 2020.

A letter sent by Miles to Frydenberg, which appears to be a reply to Frydenberg’s letter, was obtained by the Guardian and details published by it (on 1 February, 2019), along with details of the 2016 letter sent to Frydenberg. These are quotes from the same Guardian report:-

“In a separate letter from August 2017, Miles wrote to Frydenberg to say the government was working with the Walker Corporation to update technical information about the Moreton Bay site and had also prioritised updating an information sheet about the wetland…(the letter ended with)…”Finally, the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection will await further information from the Australian Government regarding any boundary amendment proposal associated with the Toondah harbour, and acknowledges that any such amendment needs to be in the urgent national interest,”

Figure 5: A critically endangered Eastern Curlew. If the Toondah plan proceeds, habitat of the Eastern Curlew, often seen feeding on the Toondah tidal flats, will be destroyed.

November, 2018 – The Queensland Information Commissioner, our State’s independent arbiter on right to information disputes, ruled that the Toondah Harbour Development Agreement should be released to the public. As revealed by Walker to the Federal Government in its Referral (on page 1) the Toondah agreement is between Walker, the Palaszczuk State Government and the Redland City Council, and was signed in January, 2016. This was two months after it emerged the scheme had massively expanded from the LNP’s 800 high-rise units to 3,600 under the Palaszczuk Government.

December, 2018 – The Palaszczuk Government (and Walker) appealed the decision of its own independent, Information Commissioner who ordered the public release of the Toondah Development Agreement. The appeal has not been heard by QCAT. The agreement remains secret.

December 2018 – ABC Radio’s ‘Background Briefing’ went to air.  It revealed, through official documents obtained by the ABC, the Federal Environment Department’s scientific experts continually advised then Environment Minister, Josh Frydenberg, the Toondah PDA plan was “clearly unacceptable” under Federal laws.

Frydenberg, encouraged by the Palaszczuk Government’s letters, (and perhaps large donations from Walker?) rejected the experts’ advice. Instead, he declared the plan a ‘controlled action’, a substantial step towards Federal approval.

See our post with links to Background Briefing transcripts and related ABC reports at the time.

Following ‘Background Briefing’, as reported by the ABC Premier Palaszczuk refused an ABC request for an interview about her Government’s decisions and actions favouring Walker.

February 2019 – On 1 February, the Guardian exposed the State Government letter (written on behalf of Jackie Trad/Steven Miles) to the Federal Government cynically suggesting altering the Ramsar site’s boundaries to exclude the Toondah PDA and encouraging the Federal Government to decide the high-rise units for wetlands scheme was in Australia’s “urgent national interests” – the only exception to the Ramsar Convention’s requirement for continued protection. See http://bit.ly/TradGuardianEvidence and http://bit.ly/UrgentNationalInterests.

27 February – Greens MP Michael Berkman questioned then Queensland Environment Minister, Leeanne Enoch, about the Guardian’s report on the State Government’s letter to Frydenberg. Berkman obtained a written response from Enoch which stated:

“…However, a subsequent comprehensive mapping review, which included consultation with other Queensland Government departments and local governments, concluded that there was no justification to amend the Ramsar boundary”.

The response did not address the “urgent national interests” issue referred to in Berkman’s question. But if it is true the  Government has decided there is no justification for amending the Ramsar boundary to exclude the Ramsar listed Toondah wetlands, why hasn’t the Palaszczuk Government revoked its PDA over the wetlands? Is it a case of having “two bob each way” and fooling its loyal supporters – like it does over its approval of 18 new coal mines?

September, 2020 21 Quandamooka families from Stradbroke Island issued a media release calling for a moratorium on implementation of the island’s Economic Transition Strategy (ETS) and related plans and holding an independent inquiry into its purpose and future implementation. They also called for an investigation into QYAC, its authorisation structure, its decision making processes, a forensic audit and its involvement with the ETS;

October, 2020 Save Straddie publishes its investigative report which exposed the much reduced referral area of 56 hectares in Walker’s latest referral for Federal approval as an apparent sneaky trick to make it appear (falsely) the proposal would not have the same impact as its first, withdrawn proposal with a referral area of 167 hectares.

31 October, the State Election resulted in an extraordinarily poor result for the Labor State Government and its ETS and Toondah Harbour policies, with Labor’s primary vote a record low of 13% across the Island, with a staggering 6% at Point Lookout. The vote was consistent with the level of dissatisfaction recorded in the media release referred to under the ‘September, 2020’ heading.

December 2020 – The Guardian exposed a 2017 letter from former Federal Environment Minister Frydenberg to former Queensland Environment Minister Steven Miles wherein Frydenberg raised the “urgent national interests” path to approval of the Walker scheme.

Curiously, in this latest article the Guardian did not mention its February 2019 article exposing the earlier, 2016 Trad/Miles letter to Frydenberg in which Trad and Miles first suggested Walker’s plan was in Australia’s “urgent national interests”. The Guardian’s omission of this fact led to the general public being misled as to which Government and which Minister/s were initially responsible for the ludicrous suggestion.

Nor does this latest Guardian article refer to the August, 2017 letter from Miles to Frydenberg, which appears to be in response to Frydenberg’s letter. The Guardian quoted from this Miles’ letter in its February, 2019 article (see above).

Some Labor Party activists, and Federal Labor’s Environment shadow Minister, used the Guardian’s omissions to further mislead the public and their own supporters into solely blaming Frydenberg for suggesting the “urgent national interests” path to Federal approval. They really should be ashamed of their hypocrisy, their misleading of others, and their lack of respect for ethical behaviour and telling the truth.

Josh Frydenberg deserves to be held accountable for his appalling decisions and actions favouring Walker. But so do Steven Miles, Jackie Trad and the Palaszczuk Government for putting him up to it. Trying to pretend in communications with others, as some individuals and groups have, the Queensland Government did not initially suggest to Frydenberg the Walker plan was in Australia’s “urgent national interests” is disgraceful and dishonest. Misleading the public should be avoided and condemned – no matter who does it.

Those who have misled others on this issue and put the blame solely on to Frydenberg, innocently or intentionally, should own up to it and apologise – and correct their misleading and, in some cases, dishonest statements. Otherwise, you may be assisting the Palaszczuk Government to avoid its responsibility for the Toondah debacle and its duty to end it.

January 2021 – Walker’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), prepared by Walker’s chosen, paid consultants, is due to be released for public comment. Walker has had over 2 years to work on this EIS. Assessment by EIS ( to be prepared by Walker) rather than assessment by public inquiry (another option available to the Federal Minister), was decided in July, 2018. How long will the public, and experts, be given to read and comment on what is likely to be a large EIS document? This remains to be seen.

CONCLUSION

If the Queensland Government has gone cold on its support for the Toondah plan, as suggested by some, and it has  decided to respect the Ramsar Convention and its protection of the threatened wetlands, as some have suggested, then it should stop wasting everyone’s time and effort and end the Toondah debacle. It can easily do that. All it has to do is revoke the Toondah Harbour Priority Development Area (PDA) – the State planning instrument which makes Walker’s plan possible. That would render the Federal approval process irrelevant because without the PDA, the Toondah plan collapses.

Walker could not successfully sue because the (secret) contract would be illegal anyway. You can’t agree to breach the Ramsar Convention, which the Toondah PDA and development plan clearly do. The Ramsar breach is explained in our summary. But to make ‘no compensation’ water tight the Palaszczuk Government could legislate this through parliament. There are legislative precedents for ‘no compensation’ clauses. The circumstances justify this. Walker deserves no sympathy.

The Palaszczuk Government, and Labor Party activists using the Guardian’s omission of the Trad/Miles letters to Frydenberg in an article published in early December, should stop playing the political game of trying to shift blame for the Toondah debacle solely on to Frydenberg. The facts, laid out in our timeline with links to sources, clearly show Frydenberg was encouraged by Trad and Miles to make a “controlled action” decision on Walker’s destructive plan. That is no excuse for Frydenberg; it is simply the truth.

The facts also clearly show it was the Palaszczuk Government (the Trad and Miles 2016 letter) which initially suggested to Frydenberg that Walker’s plan was in Australia’s “urgent national interests” and the Moreton Bay Ramsar boundary should be redrawn to delete the Toondah wetlands. So please, Annastacia Palaszczuk, put an end to the dishonest and misleading games being played. Just revoke the Toondah PDA. Then, the State Government should do what it has done or is doing elsewhere in Moreton Bay – spend some money upgrading the ferry terminal and improve parking for ferry users.

Save Straddie researchers, with assistance from legal and scientific experts.

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