Posted 21 April 2021
The Walker Group’s Toondah Harbour development includes new homes and a marina. (Supplied: Walker Group)
Details of a multi-billion-dollar marina and apartment development planned for protected wetlands in Moreton Bay will remain hidden from the public after a tribunal ruled crucial documents should remain secret.
- A Redlands community group loses bid for Toondah Harbour “Development Agreement”
- Lawyer says ruling means the whole development application is exempt and protected from public disclosure laws
- The development is touted to deliver $116m worth of infrastructure, but how most will be spent is now deemed confidential
The Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) has ruled in favour of the Queensland Government and Walker Corporation to prevent the release of their development agreement for the Toondah Harbour at Cleveland.
Community group Redlands2030 has been campaigning for the document’s release and in 2018 the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) agreed it should be made public under Right to Information (RTI) legislation.
Walker Corporation has a plan to build up to 3,600 apartments over protected wetlands in Moreton Bay, alongside redeveloped parkland, a ferry terminal and a 200-berth marina.
The RTI application was made following a claim by the Redland City Council that the local community would benefit from $116 million in infrastructure.
Spending for $56 million in community infrastructure was outlined in an already-published infrastructure agreement, and the rest was to be delivered through a “development agreement”.
Redlands2030 sought access to that agreement in order to account for the remaining $60 million.
But, following an appeal by the state government and Walker Corporation to QCAT, the release of the development agreement that included the detail of the claimed community benefits would “constitute a breach of confidence”.
Toondah Harbour has been touted by its developers as “one of the most innovative harbourside precincts in the world.”(Supplied: Walker Group)
Lawyer Andrew Kwan from the Environmental Defenders Office represented the community group Redlands2030.
He explained that the confidentiality clause written into the government’s development agreement with Walker Corporation made the whole agreement exempt from public disclosure laws.
“What this means is the door is essentially shut to any transparency of this and similar development agreements containing confidentiality clauses,” Mr Kwan said.
“In turn then, it’s almost impossible for the public to understand the purported public benefits of such projects, as against environmental and other costs.
“And an understanding of what those community infrastructure benefits would likely be appears to be an agreement quintessentially in the public interest.”
Walker Corporation founder and executive chairman Lang Walker.(Supplied: Walker Corporation)
Any ‘sweeteners’ should be made public
Greens MP for Maiwar, Michael Berkman, said given Walker Corporation had donated tens of thousands of dollars to the Queensland branch of the Labor Party, he was surprised by QCAT’s decision.
“It’s not good enough in 2021 for us to have secret deals between governments and their donors,” Mr Berkman said.
“For the very community that has the most at stake here to be denied access to this document, it’s a sorry state of affairs.”
Toondah Harbour, before the development. (Supplied: Google Earth)
The proposed development on reclaimed land. (Department Of Environment And Energy)
Mr Berkman said that while it was unknown what specific information the development agreement contained, it was important to know if there had been any “sweeteners” to make the deal more attractive to Walker Corporation.
“Knowing how far has the government gone to grease the wheels, simplify the process and make it even more profitable for them – we would have hoped to know any of those sort of terms of the agreement,” Mr Berkman said.
The development has been ticked off by the state government and has been referred to the Commonwealth for environmental approvals.
The Walker Group’s Toondah Harbour master plan. (Supplied)
Government stands by RTI legislation
In a statement, a spokesman for Walker Corporation said: “We respect the tribunal’s decision.”
The ABC put extensive questions to the State Development and Planning Minister Steven Miles, including a request for the amount spent on legal fees.
A spokesperson for the Department of State Development, Infrastructure, Local Government and Planning did not provide that figure.
An artist’s impression of the proposed Toondah Harbour conservation area. (Supplied: Walker Group)
In a statement, they said the RTI Act recognised a need to allow companies to confidently enter into commercial agreements with the state.
The spokesperson did not answer why government departments were not following earlier recommendations of the Auditor-General to only make specific clauses and types of information in contracts confidential.
In a statement, Information Commissioner Rachael Rangihaeata said QCAT had followed a legal precedent set in 2019, and that the OIC has followed that decision ever since.
In 2018 when the OIC originally granted the release of the development application, the written decision suggested it was vital for there to be accountability and transparency in decisions that are made by government which involve the development and sale of public land and protected waters.
“In circumstances where Walker [Group] has made large donations to each political party … this significantly furthers the requirement for transparency and accountability in decisions made by government,” the decision read.