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Toondah Scheme: Updated Summary and Timeline
Toondah

Toondah Scheme: Updated Summary and Timeline

INTRODUCTION

Walker Group/ Corporation (Walker) released its long awaited Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) relating to its Toondah Harbour real estate scheme on 12 October, 2022. It was open for public comments until 6 December, 2022. Walker must finalise its EIS within a “reasonable period” and submit it to the Federal Environment Minister for a decision under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. (PS. Walker finally delivered its final version of the EIS to the Minister on 27 November. She has 40 business days to make a decision, unless she extends that timeframe)

The Toondah scheme is facilitated by the Queensland Government’s Toondah Harbour ‘Priority Development Area’ (PDA).  Walker’s plan involves building 3,600 high-rise units, a hotel, restaurants, and marinas 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The State Government’s Toondah PDA and Walker’s scheme are closely linked to Stradbroke Island’s myth based, and outdated, ‘North Stradbroke Island Economic Transition Strategy 2016‘ (ETS) (aka ‘Minjerribah Futures’) to turn Straddie into a crowded, international tourism destination – against the wishes of most Quandamooka indigenous owners, other residents, rate-payers, and thousands of regular visitors who want to retain Straddie’s special, laid-back natural qualities. The Toondah Harbour plan is mentioned 7 times in the ETS document.

The Draft Environmental lmpact Statement (EIS) and final supplementary statement have been prepared by consultants, from various fields of expertise, chosen and paid by Walker. This EIS is not an independent analysis of Walker’s Toondah proposal. It conflicts 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, ultimately 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.

PS If you don’t have time to read our summary and timeline, we recommend this excellent article published by Cleveland based Redlands 2030 in December, 2021 and our website post on a sensible solution to Stradbroke ferry terminal upgrades – the original alleged reason for the Toondah scheme.

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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.

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. The requirement for ‘wise use’ is an illustration of this. Another illustration is the key promise, applying to all signatory nations, not to “delete or restrict” a Ramsar site boundary unless for “urgent national interests” eg urgent defence purposes. The Toondah scheme would breach this obligation. The Ramsar Convention has been signed by 171 nations, which is the vast majority of nations.

The Moreton Bay Ramsar site was listed in 1993 after being nominated by the Queensland and Federal Governments. A 1992 successful Queensland Cabinet submission by then Environment Minister, Pat Comben, reveals the Government was (and remains) aware that:

  • a main objective of the Ramsar Convention is to stem the loss of wetlands;
  • Australia is obliged, under the Convention, to conserve and wisely use our Ramsar listed wetlands and not to delete or restrict their boundaries unless for urgent national interests.

The final boundaries of the Moreton Bay Ramsar site were endorsed in 1993 by the Queensland Cabinet, which also confirmed the nomination of the site.

Cabinet, and therefore the Queensland Government, accepted that although the Federal Government is the contracting party under the Convention, the Convention obligations also bind the Queensland Government which has a responsibility to properly protect listed wetlands. The Toondah Harbour scheme clearly conflicts with our national and international obligations.

More generally, Federal approval of Queensland’s Toondah development plans is required because “matters of national environmental significance” are at stake, namely:

  • Wetlands of international importance
  • Listed threatened species and communities
  • Listed migratory species
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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, a hotel, restaurants, marinas, and a wetland and cultural centre for the controversial Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation (QYAC) – see figure 2.

The importance of Australia’s Ramsar Convention obligations 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 addition to our obligations of conservation and wise use of listed wetlands, 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.

The ABC has revealed that senior lawyers advised the Federal Government that “if the minister approved the Toondah Harbour proposal in its current form, he would be acting inconsistently with Australia’s obligations under the Ramsar convention in relation to Ramsar listed sites”. See the Background Briefing transcript – interview with ANU Professor of Law, Andrew Macintosh. This FB post contains relevant extracts.

The Toondah scheme has not changed much since that legal advice was given to the Federal Government. One or two Walker supporters have tried to argue that the current housing crisis provides an “urgent national interest”. But that claim does not stand up to scrutiny of course. We don’t live in a small country like Singapore, where there is not much land. And high-end, waterfront apartments obviously are not intended for the homeless! Also, Walker some time ago dropped any claim that its scheme is in our urgent national interests. Instead, it wants the Federal Government to ignore this Ramsar Convention obligation.

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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.

A pre-Background Briefing informative article, 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.

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

Instead of revoking the PDA Labor expanded the real estate 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, the Labor State Government 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. Premier Palaszczuk and her Government have refused to explain their decisions granting big favours to Walker and involving planned destruction of Ramsar protected wetlands.

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. Its 2019-20 annual report to its members 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. (Williams unsuccessfully sought pre-selection as the LNP’s candidate for the seat of Bowman at the 2022 Federal Election)

In September, 2013, Karen Williams was in China attempting to ‘sell’ the PDA to Chinese investors.  Williams efforts to ‘sell’ Moreton Bay investment opportunities to China can also be viewed here. It is unknown whether the Toondah Harbour chosen developer, Walker Corporation/Group, has a secret partnership with Chinese corporate investors.

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.

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

September 2014 – Walker announced as the ‘preferred developer’ by the then LNP Government. 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 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’. See the Trad/Williams 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 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 were ignored. And Premier Palaszczuk 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 was heard by QCAT and in April, 2020 a retired Judge ruled in favour of the development agreement remaining secret. In July, 2020 he ordered community group Redlands 2030 pay Walker’s legal costs!

The Palaszczuk Government refused to say how much it was spending in legal fees to help keep the agreement with Walker secret.

In August 2016, as revealed by the Guardian subsequently, 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, ridiculously suggesting Walker’s plan was –

  • in Australia’s “urgent national interests”; And
  • 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 another letter sent to Frydenberg by Trad and Miles supporting a “controlled action” decision by Frydenberg (scroll down the article to the paragraph headed “Queensland Government letter backs development bid”).

PS In August, 2021 Save Straddie published, for the first time, the Trad/Miles letter which ludicrously claiming the Toondah scheme was in Australia’s “urgent national interests”. This post is a must read for anyone who wants to know the truth about the Palaszczuk Government’s responsibility for the Toondah mess.

2017/18 

  • Walker withdrew its first Referral (with an area of 167 hectares) 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 was contrived. It left out Ramsar areas it planned to dredge and destroy.
  • 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, it was not a genuine reduction.
  • This 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 contrived reduction in the referral area.

In August, 2017 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.

The Guardian also reported on related correspondence between Miles and Frydenberg. These are quotes from the same Guardian report:-

“…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,”

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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.

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. (A retired Judge employed by QCAT heard an appeal by Walker and the State Government. In April, 2020 he ruled in favour of the agreement remaining secret).
  • ABC Radio’s ‘Background Briefing’ went to air.  It revealed, through official documents obtained by the ABC, the Federal Environment Department’s scientific and legal experts continually advised then Environment Minister, Josh Frydenberg, the Toondah PDA plan was “clearly unacceptable” under Federal laws. But Frydenberg, encouraged by the Palaszczuk Government’s letters, (and 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 justification for the planned deletion or restriction of Ramsar site boundaries. 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”.

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 the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation (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.

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.

October 2022: On 12 October Walker finally released its Draft EIS for public comment. This was three and a half years after the Federal Government issued final Guidelines to Walker for its preparation! The public and independent experts were given until 6 December, 2022 (40 business days) by the Federal Environment Minister to submit comments and submissions on the Draft EIS.

6 December 2022: Walker must now finalise its EIS within a “reasonable period” and submit it to the Minister who will make a decision on Walker’s application for Federal approval of its Toondah Harbour PDA proposal.

July 2023: The Stradbroke (Terrangeri) Environmental and Cultural Protection Association Inc. wrote to the Federal Environment Minister asking her to use her legislative powers to set a time limit for Walker to finalise the EIS and give it to her.  The Association consists of equal numbers of indigenous and non-indigenous members of the Straddie community.

This letter was followed up by further similar requests in the months following, supported by other members of the Toondah Alliance.

27 November 2023 Walker finally delivered its completed EIS to Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek. Walker says its Draft EIS and the supplementary statements together comprise its “Final EIS”. Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek must make her decision whether to approve or reject Walker’s scheme within 40 business days. However, she has the power to extend this timeframe. (PS The decision timeframe has been extended until 23 April, 2024).

CONCLUSION

If the Queensland Government has gone cold on its support for and facilitation of the Toondah plan, as suggested by some, and it has decided to respect the Ramsar Convention and its protection of the threatened wetlands, then it could have stopped wasting everyone’s time and effort. It could have ended the Toondah debacle.

All the State Government had to do was to revoke the Toondah Harbour Priority Development Area (PDA) – the State planning instrument which makes Walker’s plan possible. That would have rendered the Federal approval process irrelevant because without the PDA, the Toondah plan would collapse.

It is unlikely Walker would have sued had the PDA been revoked. The (secret) contract probably is illegal because 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.

Had the PDA been revoked, a ‘no compensation’ result could have been made water tight by the Palaszczuk Government. It could have legislated this through parliament. There are precedents for ‘no compensation’ clauses in other legislation. The circumstances justify this. Walker deserves no sympathy. It may still come to this if the Federal Government were to approve the shocking Toondah scheme because the final decision would have to be made by the Palaszczuk Government.

But hopefully, in the near future, Tanya Plibersek will do the right thing and do her duty under the EPBC Act not to make a decision which is inconsistent with Australia’s obligations under the Ramsar Convention. If she honours Australia’s international obligations, she will refuse to approve the Toondah scheme. When that occurs, 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. There is a straightforward, sensible solution for a genuine leader.

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