Maaates at Toondah Harbour

We post this article that appeared in today’s Guardian written by BenSmeeMon 13 Jul 2020 03.30 AEST

Toondah harbour wetlands: federal government faces legal action over secret details of donor meetings

Australian Conservation Foundation has escalated FOI battle over development at protected wetlands site near Brisbane

GJ Walter Park on Toondah Harbour in Queensland’s Moreton Bay.
GJ Walter Park on Toondah Harbour in Queensland’s Moreton Bay. Photograph: Nikki Michail/Australian Conservation Foundation

The Australian Conservation Foundation is taking legal action in a bid to gain access to documents about meetings between Toondah Bay developer Walker Corporation and the federal environment department.

The Australian Conservation Foundation has launched a legal bid to access documents – kept secret by the federal government – related to meetings between a major political party donor and authorities assessing plans for a development on protected wetlands near Brisbane.

Walker Corporation plans to build a marina, hotel, shops and more than 3,000 apartments at Toondah Harbour.

The development would involve dredging and reclaiming about 40ha of Ramsar-listed wetland. Plans have been revised multiple times since 2013, when Toondah was declared a priority development area by the Queensland government.

In 2018, shortly after Walker Corporation launched its third proposal for Toondah, the ACF obtained documents that showed that then-federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg had previously rejected his department’s advice that the development was “clearly unacceptable”.

Those documents showed the government was under sustained pressure to approve the development, and that in 2017 Walker Corporation threatened legal action to challenge the view of environment department officials.

The ACF has since been attempting to obtain documents related to meetings between Walker Corporation and the department. Freedom of information requests for documents have been refused, and the environment group is now appealing that refusal in the administrative appeals tribunal.

“Dealings between Australia’s largest property developer – also a major political donor – and our national environmental regulator should not be secret,” said the ACF’s chief executive officer, Kelly O’Shanassy.

Dugongs in Toondah Harbour.
Dugongs in Toondah Harbour. Photograph: Nikki Michail/Australian Conservation Foundation
“The wetland is supposed to be protected under Australia’s national environment law, but systemic failures in our laws mean a proposal to wreck this environment jewel on Brisbane’s doorstep have been able to reach an advanced stage in the assessment process.

“Toondah Harbour, on Moreton Bay, is an important habitat for dugongs, dolphins, whales and sea turtles and is renowned as one of the top migratory bird sites in Australia.

“Every summer 32 species of migratory shorebirds, comprising 40,000 individual birds, visit Moreton Bay. Around 20% of the world’s eastern curlews and 50% of all grey-tailed tattlers feed, breed and rest at the wetland following their amazing migration from Russia.

“The public has a right to know about decisions being made in its name, particularly when ministers reject the advice of their own departments.”

Walker Corporation gave $50,000 each to the Liberal and Labor parties during the 2018-19 reporting period. Since 1998, the company’s entities have made political donations worth more than $2.5m.

The current version of the Toondah Harbour proposal is being assessed under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, and a full environmental impact statement should be released by the end of the year.

In a letter given to nearby residents when the current plans were revealed in 2018, Walker said it had been developed “in response to feedback from leading environmental and wetland experts, public submissions and the federal government”.

Opponents say no alterations to the plan could compensate for their principal objection: that creating an artificial harbour and high-rise development would require the dredging and destruction of sensitive wetlands.