ACF appeals decision to keep [wetland-wrecking Toondah Harbour proposal] documents secret

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) is appealing a federal department’s decision to refuse access to documents relating to Walker Corporation’s plans for a marina and high-rise apartment complex on sensitive wetlands at Toondah Harbour, near Brisbane.

The documents relate mostly to meetings between Walker Corp and the Department of Environment and Energy (now Agriculture, Water and Environment) around the time the Toondah Harbour plan was first referred under national environment law.

ACF will ask the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) to grant access to these documents thus far kept secret from the public.

“Walker Corp’s proposal for a marina and high-rise apartments would destroy around 40 hectares of the internationally significant Moreton Bay Ramsar wetland,” said ACF’s Chief Executive Officer Kelly O’Shanassy.

“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.

“Dealings between Australia’s largest property developer – also a major political donor – and our national environmental regulator should not be secret.

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

When Josh Frydenberg was environment minister, his department advised him on multiple occasions to reject the Toondah Harbour apartment and marina proposal because of the damage it would do to the wetland.

Documents that have been released to ACF and to the media show Minister Frydenberg rejected this advice and instead sent the proposal to the next stage of assessment.

Annual returns lodged with the Australian Electoral Commission show Walker Corporation donated $50,000 to the Liberal Party and $50,000 to the Labor Party during the last reporting period for political donations (2018-19).

A third version of Walker Corporation’s proposal is currently being assessed under the national environment law. An environmental impact statement is expected to be released no later than December 2020.

Only a handful of projects have ever been rejected under Australia’s environment law, the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

“This is another example showing why Australia needs a stronger environment law and a new independent regulator to oversee decisions made under the law,” Ms O’Shanassy said.

ACF will be represented by lawyers from Environmental Justice Australia.

Header pic by Nikki Michail.

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