Toondah Scandal Deepens

Toondah Scandal Deepens

Walker Corp intends to directly impact more than three times the area of Ramsar protected wetlands declared by Walker in obtaining ‘controlled action’ decision

The Toondah scandal deepens. The Federal Government’s highly controversial ‘controlled action’ decision on Cleveland’s Toondah Harbour ‘Priority Development Area’ (PDA) proposal was based on impacting ‘matters of national environmental significance’ within a 56 hectare “referral area” nominated by Walker Group/Corporation (Walker) in 2018. It now appears that was a grossly understated referral area to make the destructive plan appear more palatable in the face of mounting opposition.

Walker’s earlier, unsuccessful 2015 Referral to the Federal Government, had a referral area of 167.5 hectares and included “widening, deepening and lengthening” more than 2 km of Fison Channel and the resulting direct damage to the Moreton Bay Ramsar site. But a 2019 Walker ‘information sheet’ emailed to Redland City Councillors about Walker’s current Toondah Harbour real estate and marina proposal (the leaked email appears below) reveals Walker still intends “to straighten widen and deepen” the 2 kilometre navigation channel used by North Stradbroke Island ferries and water taxis.

As Walker admitted in its unsuccessful attempt to obtain a ‘controlled action’ decision, this more extensive plan would directly impact more than three times the area of the Moreton Bay Ramsar site declared by Walker to obtain its favourable ‘controlled action’ decision from the Federal Government in 2018.

Walker confirmed it wants to “upgrade …the long narrow channel” in a recent Letter to the Editor of a local newspaper – see this post by Cleveland based Redlands 2030 –

Walker’s original 167.5 hectares Referral revealed its plan to dredge what in effect would be a new navigation channel 2 kilometres out into Moreton Bay, through the middle of the Ramsar site – to accommodate the movement of private yachts to and from Walker’s planned private marina.

Figure 1. Walker’s 2015 Referral Area of 167.5 hectares, within the yellow lines.
Figure 2. Walker’s 2018 Referral Area of 56 hectares is within the black dotted line.
Even Walker’s truncated plan remained ‘clearly unacceptable’ to scientific experts

The ABC’s Background Briefing in December 2018 revealed the 56 hectare ‘controlled action’ decision was against continuing advice of Federal Government scientific experts that the planned impact on Ramsar protected wetlands and migratory bird habitat was “clearly unacceptable” and should be rejected outright. Walker’s 56 hectare Referral is now the subject of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) being prepared and controlled by Walker and its paid consultants. The ‘controlled action’ and environmental assessment method decisions favouring the property developer followed Walker donating $225,000 to the Federal Liberal Party, and another $50,000 more recently.

As also reported by the ABC, a ‘controlled action’ decision, on Walker’s failed 167.5 hectares Referral, was supported in a 2016 letter to the Federal Government, obtained by the ABC, by former Queensland Deputy Premier and Planning Minister, Jackie Trad and by current Deputy Premier and Planning Minister, Steven Miles.

Walker is a long term political ‘donor’ to both Labor and the LNP, with declared donations over the past two decades totalling more than $2.5 Million – see table below.

Walker cannot dredge a wider, deeper and straighter navigation channel for private yachts without Federal approval

The State Government’s Toondah PDA makes Walker’s real estate and marina plan possible, but it cannot proceed without Federal approval. Similarly, the State Government has no power to authorise Walker to dredge a “wider, deeper and straighter” navigation channel through the Moreton Bay Ramsar site without Federal approval. This was clearly recognised by Walker in its first Referral, as illustrated in Figure 1.

In obtaining a ‘controlled action’ decision based on a substantially reduced Referral area, Walker and its political backers now have a fundamental problem. Any intended capital dredging would be limited to the proposed PDA development area and yacht marina, and the Ferry entrance channel and ‘swing basin’ which extends just outside the PDA boundary, within the black dots, as illustrated in Figure 2.

The Walker ‘Fixing the Port’ 2019 information sheet (see extract below) provided to Redland City Councillors and Officers via an email (see below) from the controversial, Council owned ‘Redland Investment Corporation’, indicated Walker’s scheme still includes dredging to ‘straighten, widen and deepen the Fison Channel’, which extends two kilometres out into Moreton Bay.


Walker claims the channel work is  necessary to make the navigation channel safe, but Maritime Safety Queensland last year informed the Independent candidate for Oodgeroo at the October State Election, Claire Richardson, that widening the channel etc would only be required if Walker’s proposed Toondah yacht marina plan was approved – yachts would then be competing for space in the navigation channel with North Stradbroke Island ferries and water taxis. See again the Letters to the Editor –

Put simply, ‘Fixing the Port’ for the North Stradbroke Island ferries and water taxis does not require the extensive and destructive 2 kilometre channel work proposed by Walker, nor does it require the destruction of other Ramsar protected wetlands within the PDA and the building of 3,600 high-rise units and a ‘cultural centre’ for the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation (QYAC).

It seems Walker reduced referral area by two thirds, to 56 hectares, to obtain controlled action decision

As Figure 1 illustrates, Walker’s navigation channel proposal was included in its (unsuccessful) 2015 Referral, with a ‘referral area’ of 167.5 hectares (Section 3.1 of that Referral). Walker withdrew the Referral in 2017.

Following the ABC’s Background Briefing on the Toondah proposal in December, 2018, we now know Walker came under pressure to reduce the impact of its proposal due to strong opposition to its plan, including from scientific experts within the Federal Environment Department and legal experts within the Attorney General’s office. The legal experts’ opposition was based on the Ramsar Convention’s requirement for ‘urgent national interests’ before protection could be withdrawn from the wetlands proposed to be destroyed by Walker.

Walker’s Toondah proposal is highly controversial for many reasons, including because it involves using publicly owned assets, including koala habitat, foreshore land, Ramsar protected tidal wetlands – the habitat of many marine and bird species, including critically endangered Eastern Curlews and Great Knots – eg see Figure 3 which clearly illustrates the area’s environmental importance.

Given the history of Walker’s failed 2015 Referral and the Government experts’ ‘clearly unacceptable’ advice, it appears unlikely that a ‘controlled action’ decision would have been made on the 2018 Referral in the absence of (what appeared to be) a substantially reduced (by two thirds) proposed impact on the Moreton Bay Ramsar site.

Figure 3, extracted from an Ecological Report to the Redland Council, illustrates the area's environmental importance, with extensive seagrass beds, mangroves, migratory bird habitat and Koala habitat on the land portion of the PDA.

Although strong opposition to the proposal from Federal experts continued, the 2018 ‘controlled action’ decision in Walker’s favour was based on a vastly reduced ‘referral area’ of 56 hectares, of which “42 ha of the referral area is located within the boundary of the Ramsar wetland” (Section 1.2 of the 2018 Referral). This compared to the 2015 Referral’s “138.9 hectares” contained within the Moreton Bay Ramsar site.

Official Guidelines require approval of all proposed capital dredging within a Ramsar site

The Federal Government’s significant impact guidelines clearly required all proposed capital dredging action within the Moreton Bay Ramsar site to be referred for approval.

The Guidelines relevantly state that

“An action is likely to have a significant impact on the ecological character of a declared Ramsar wetland if there is a real chance or possibility that it will result in:

• areas of the wetland being destroyed or substantially modified

Dredging and removing large areas of the seabed through the middle of the Ramsar site 2 kilometres out into the Bay obviously would result in “areas of the wetland being destroyed or substantially modified”. Walker wants to use the dredged material as fill for its real estate development within the PDA.

In addition to the proposed extensive destruction of part of the seabed, indirect impacts on larger sections of the Moreton Bay Ramsar site from the proposed very extensive dredging would also have to be considered and referred. Several years ago, a similar real estate proposal by Walker to dredge wetlands near Hobart was refused by State and Federal Governments. This occurred partly because of the likely impact on Ramsar listed wetlands 12 kilometres from the proposed dredging site, presumably from current carried dredge spoil.

Walker acknowledged that “giving false or misleading information is a serious offence”

By notice dated 5 June, 2018, the Federal Government invited the public to comment on Walker’s third, reduced 56 hectare referral area proposal.

In the section of the 2018 Referral form designed to find out if anything may have been left out, for whatever reason, there is only denial of any other planned action:-

1.15 Is this action part of a staged development (or a component of a larger project)?

1.16 Is the proposed action related to other actions or proposals in the region?

The Referral form was signed by a Walker representative and a representative of Walker’s consultant, Saunders Havill.

Both acknowledged in the signature section that “giving false or misleading information is a serious offence”. The offence is punishable by up to two years imprisonment (s. 489 EPBC Act).

Further, had Minister Frydenberg considered the 56 hectare referral area to be inaccurate or incomplete, the Minister had the power, under section 74A of the EPBC Act, to reject the Referral and require Walker to re-submit and seek approval for the whole proposal. He did not do that, which leads to the only logical conclusion he considered the extensive channel work intended in 2015 had been abandoned in the 2018 Referral.

Mangrove forests form part of the Ramsar protected wetlands at and around Toondah Harbour
What should be the consequences of a grossly understated referral area of 56 hectares?

Walker’s 2019 ‘information sheet’ provided to Redland City Councillors and Officers reveals that Walker still intends to “widen straighten and deepen” the Fison navigation channel currently used by the North Stradbroke Island Ferries, extending 2 kilometres out into Moreton Bay. Walker’s plan to widen the channel from 45 metres to 75 metres and straighten the channel effectively involves dredging a new channel through the middle of a Ramsar site. Walker’s Letter to the Editor, referred to earlier, appeared to confirm this.

The fundamental problem is Walker has not received any decision from the Federal Government on its proposed extensive channel work, because its ‘referral area’ was restricted to the 56 hectares – the area within the black dots in Figure 2. The proposed 2km long channel widening etc cannot occur without Federal approval, as recognised by Walker in its first Referral.

The ABC’s investigative reports into the Federal Government’s secondary role in the Toondah proposal, on Background Briefing and 4 Corners, suggest that Walker’s highly controversial proposal has been kept alive at the Federal level by large political donations to the Federal Liberal Party. There has been no investigation by the ABC into the State Government’s primary role in facilitating the Toondah plan via the State’s PDA.

If the Federal Government will not take appropriate action to end the Toondah debacle, the Queensland Government can. The State Government must be aware that Walker’s plans to ‘straighten widen and deepen’ the 2.55 km navigation channel were left out of the 56 hectares ‘referral area’ in Walker’s 2018 Referral resulting in the Federal Government’s ‘controlled action’ decision.

The Walker real estate and marina proposal depends upon using the State’s PDA over public assets for private profit – Koala habitat foreshore land and 50 hectares of protected, tidal wetlands, the habitat of many threatened or endangered marine and bird species. The State Government can revoke the PDA at any time, under the legislation used to create it. Nothing has been approved and no work has commenced. The time to end it is now.