Premier’s Toondah meeting with Lang Walker
The Coaldrake Review into Queensland Government integrity issues highlighted the critical importance of ‘the tone from the top’ if our State Government is to operate with integrity. That is, with “honesty and fairness”. But the Coaldrake reports contain no detail. This article contains details about the tone from the very top. It relates to a previously unreported meeting between Premier Palaszczuk and Lang Walker, the owner of Walker Corporation (Walker). Walker is a big political donor to both major parties.
The meeting’s primary purpose was to discuss the highly controversial Toondah Harbour ‘Priority Development Area’ proposal. The plan is to build a 3,600 high-rise unit development and marinas over publicly owned, protected Moreton Bay wetlands at Cleveland, 30km from the Brisbane CBD. The meeting occurred shortly before the 2020 State Election. The Premier’s meeting is revealed in an obscure disclosure log entry, published after the State Election. It resulted from a Right to Information request. (Also see the postscript about a second, more recent meeting between the Premier and Lang Walker).
The published documents do not include minutes of the meeting, but they are very revealing. The key document is a lengthy Briefing Note, at pages 14 to 29, to the Premier from the then Director-General, Department of Premier and Cabinet.
The documents also reveal that Lang Walker emailed one of the Premier’s senior advisors to request a meeting with the Premier (page 34). Shortly after, the advisor enthusiastically forwarded Walker’s email, and his self-promotion material, to the Premier’s Chief of Staff (at page 37). He suggested a zoom meeting in view of then Covid travel restrictions. A meeting is organised for 8 September.
The Director-General’s 4 September Briefing Note focuses on the Toondah Harbour plan. It is described as “SUPER URGENT EXTERNAL MEETING BRIEF”. There are important omissions (discussed below) and a few astonishing revelations, such as:
• The Toondah Development Agreement (the terms are secret) was signed on 9 February, 2016 but there are two (secret) deeds of variation dated 27 February, 2017 and 7 June, 2019; (Are they extensions of time for Walker to obtain “approvals”?)
• The “support of the Quandamooka people would be critical to the delivery of the project..”;
• The Agreements require the Minister for Economic Development (currently Steven Miles) “to obtain an Indigenous Land Use Agreement which secures the surrender of all Native Title in the project area”;
• If agreed “this would result in the extinguishment of Native Title in exchange for compensation and other potential benefits”;
• “Walker will pay the compensation costs provided the DA becomes unconditional” and “it approves the amount of compensation”!!
• The Information Commissioner has ordered the public release of the Toondah Agreements but the State Government and Walker “has each filed an appeal in QCAT challenging the decision”. (Note: QCAT later upheld the appeal and ordered community group Redlands 2030 to pay Walker’s legal costs!).
The Premier’s Briefing ignored the major Ramsar Convention obstacle to the Toondah scheme. It also ignored information published by the ABC illustrating that Government scientific and legal experts advised that building on Ramsar protected wetlands would breach the Ramsar Convention and the EPBC Act.
Legal advice disclosed by the ABC
Legal advice leaked to the ABC revealed senior Federal Government lawyers backed up the scientific advice that the project was “clearly unacceptable”. The lawyers advised the Minister that “urgent national interests” were required by Article 2.5 of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands before a Ramsar boundary could be deleted or restricted. (The Convention has been signed by Australia and 172 other nations).
The transcript of the Background Briefing interview between Steve Cannane and Law Professor Andrew Macintosh, refers to this advice from senior lawyers from the Australian Government Solicitor:
‘On our preferred interpretation of the Ramsar convention, 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 sites’.
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act (s.138) requires that the Minister must not act inconsistently with Australia’s obligations under the Ramsar Convention.
Obviously, a 3,600 unit real estate plan restricting boundaries of the Moreton Bay Ramsar site and destroying habitat of critically endangered migratory shorebirds would breach Australia’s obligations under the Ramsar Convention. In particular, it would breach the general ‘wise use’ obligations and the specific obligation in Article 2.5 not to delete or restrict boundaries in the absence of “urgent national interests”.
Our Governments cannot ignore major Convention and EPBC Act obstacle
In recent times, in persisting with the proposal to destroy protected wetlands and restrict Ramsar site boundaries, it appears Walker Corporation and its supporters want to encourage decision makers to ignore the major obstacle in Article 2.5 of the Ramsar Convention, and its reinforcement by s.138 of the EPBC Act.
But why wasn’t the Premier advised in the detailed Briefing from her Director-General, a public servant, the Priority Development Area plan appears to be in clear breach of the Ramsar Convention, including the specific “urgent national interests” requirement? And why wasn’t she advised that her Government should consider revoking the State’s PDA, rather than lobbying the Federal Government to breach the Convention and the EPBC Act?
The briefing was silent on these issues. As a substitute, at page 26, the Premier’s briefing referred to a misleading media campaign by the Australian Conservation Foundation asserting that new environment laws were needed to protect the Ramsar listed wetlands surrounding Toondah Harbour. The implication being that current laws don’t.
The truth is, as revealed by the ABC, applying existing laws will protect these wetlands. New laws are not needed to protect these wetlands and would unlikely apply to Toondah anyway because laws rarely apply retrospectively. We do need stronger environment laws elsewhere but using the Toondah issue to demand them while ignoring existing protections, is misleading and irresponsible.
The ACF should be held accountable for its misleading campaign diverting attention from what is needed to save these wetlands ie demanding that our Federal and State Governments respect and apply our current laws. The role of environmental defenders involved in the Toondah issue should be to insist current protections are applied, not ignore these and divert attention onto the need for new environment laws. That only assists Walker Corporation and its backers in the Palaszczuk Labor Government.
But of course ACF’s actions do not excuse the Premier’s advisers. How could they possibly justify briefing the Premier on a misleading campaign by the ACF, instead of advising her about the major Ramsar Convention obstacle to the Toondah scheme?
The Premier’s top advisers must have been aware of the “urgent national interests” obstacle. It had been a feature of the ABC’s Background Briefing report, had been referred to in a publicly available Ramsar Secretariat submission, and had been referred to in high-level correspondence between the State and Federal Governments.
In terms of Professor Coaldrake’s interim report (at page 21), was the misleading Briefing note an example of a Director-General excluding important information from the briefing so that it did not “reach the (Premier’s) ears”, to ensure the Premier could “plausibly deny knowledge” of the “urgent national interests” requirement while her Government continued to support the environmentally destructive Walker real estate scheme?
However, as acknowledged in the Briefing, the State Government’s Toondah Harbour ‘Priority Development Area’ plan cannot proceed without Federal approval under the EPBC Act. Now that we have a Federal Labor Government, Labor has no where to hide and no one else to blame. Unless the Palaszczuk Government withdraws its support and revokes the PDA, this will come down to a contest between a State Labor Government which lacks integrity, and a Federal Labor Government and its prominent Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek. The Toondah Harbour abomination will be an early test of Federal Labor’s integrity – or lack thereof.
Feature photo: Wild Redlands – Bar-tailed godwits, some in breeding colours, near Toondah Harbour.
PS – Subsequent to publishing this article, news emerged of another, more recent meeting (in April, 2022) between Annastacia Palaszczuk and Lang Walker, in company with the infamous Graham Richardson. See our Facebook post about this meeting. The Premier clearly has questions to answer about her Government’s recent dealings with and past favours for Walker Corporation, as well as the misleading Briefing Note discussed above.