Exclusive: Walker Corporation says de-listing area of wetlands, which are a critical migratory bird habitat, was of ‘urgent national interest’
Documents released under freedom-of-information laws show Walker Corporation used a 2016 meeting to stress the government had the power to remove an area from the internationally listed Moreton Bay Ramsar wetlands. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
Published on Wed 12 Aug 2020 03.30 AEST
Walker Corporation lobbied former federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg to remove an area from internationally listed wetlands for its Toondah Harbour apartment and retail development, government documents show.
Documents obtained from the environment department by Guardian Australia under freedom of information laws show the company used a meeting with Frydenberg in August 2016 to stress the government had the power to remove part of the Moreton Bay Ramsar wetland as a matter of “urgent national interest”.
Walker Corporation, which has been a major Liberal party donor, has applied to build 3,000 apartments, a marina, a hotel and shops inside Moreton Bay, south-east of Brisbane.
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The site is an important habitat for migratory birds and is listed under the Ramsar convention, an international treaty set up to protect the ecological character of listed wetlands.
About 20% of the world’s eastern curlews use the wetland for feeding and rest each year after their long migration from the northern hemisphere.
Walker Corporation’s development, which was declared a priority development by the Queensland government making it exempt from a state environmental assessment, would involve dredging and reclaiming about 40ha of the wetland.
Frydenberg rejected advice from the environment department that the project was “clearly unacceptable” and sent the project to the next stage of federal environmental assessment in 2017.
The new documents show Frydenberg and senior environment officials met with Lang Walker, Walker Corporation executive Peter Saba, and advisers Stephen Davis and Troy Collings in Melbourne on 12 August 2016, shortly after the July federal election.
A departmental record of the meeting states: “Walker Corporation noted the boundary of the Ramsar wetland was not mapped well, and further noted the potential to delete or restrict a boundary under the Ramsar convention in the ‘urgent national interest’.”
“Obligations under the Ramsar convention were discussed. It was noted the department had written to Walker Corporation in April 2016 to indicate it would advise the proposal, in its current form, would be clearly unacceptable,” the note says.
“The Minister noted he is supportive of sustainable development while balancing environmental issues.”
Guardian Australia has previously revealed the Queensland government wrote to the federal environment department in August 2016 also advocating for a boundary change to the wetland.
Walker Group spokesman Dolan Hayes said while the company “did raise the option of a boundary change with the minister and departmental representatives, it appeared that a boundary change was not required and discussions did not continue”.
“Walker Corporation is not discussing the possibility of a boundary change to the Ramsar wetland with the government,” he said. “This issue was not discussed at our meeting with Minister (for the environment) Sussan Ley in January 2020, which was organised by her department.”
Hayes added that the company had consulted Ramsar stakeholders nationally and internationally and submitted a proposal to the environment department in 2018 that “substantially revised the master plan to better integrate with the Ramsar wetland, including reducing the footprint by one third”.
“We are disappointed to see ongoing commentary about the project being deemed ‘clearly unacceptable’,” he said.
Frydenberg did not respond to questions from the Guardian.
James Trezise, a policy analyst at the Australian Conservation Foundation, said the meeting record highlighted “the extraordinary lengths cashed-up developers will go to get around environmental protections – and why federal oversight is so important”.
“De-listing part of an internationally protected wetland should not be an option, but we know the Queensland and federal governments have actively contemplated it to facilitate this irresponsible project,” he said.
“If Walker Corporation’s proposed marina and high rise apartment complex is constructed on the wetlands at Toondah Harbour, it will destroy an essential haven for critically endangered birds.”
The ACF has launched a legal bid to try to gain access to documents kept secret by the federal government related to its meetings with Walker Corporation.
“Dealings between property developers and regulators should be open and transparent, but this has not been the case when it comes to Toondah Harbour,” Trezise said.
“The fact is Toondah Harbour was exempted from state environmental assessment law and the national environment law is the last remaining protection for the Moreton Bay Ramsar wetland.”
The environment department did not answer questions as to whether the government ever explored the possibility of removing an area of the Moreton Bay wetland for the Toondah Harbour development.
The ABC’s Background Briefing and Four Corners have previously reported this was canvassed by the department.
Guardian Australia has submitted a freedom-of-information application seeking access to documents that proposed or considered changes to the boundary.
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The department is blocking this application in its current form because it considers its scope too large, with preliminary searches identifying 4,704 documents.
A department spokesman said the government was committed to the protection of internationally important wetlands and Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act prevented it from approving a project if it was inconsistent with Australia’s obligations under the Ramsar convention.
“The department will conduct a rigorous assessment of the likely impacts of the proposal on the Moreton Bay Ramsar site and other nationally-protected matters in accordance with the requirements of the EPBC Act,” he said.
“A decision on whether to approve the proposal under national environmental law will be made after careful consideration of the department’s assessment, as well as public comments received on the draft EIS (environmental impact statement).”
He said Walker Corporation was expected to publish its draft EIS for public comment by the end of 2020.
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