Revelations about the national assessment process for the proposed Toondah Harbour development in Queensland is further evidence Australia needs stronger national environment laws and an independent umpire for project approvals, leading conservation organisations have declared.
This morning the ABC revealed then-Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg was advised by his department on multiple occasions the Toondah Harbour apartment and marina proposal should be rejected outright because of the damage it would do to an internationally protected wetland.
Only a handful of developments have ever been rejected under current national environment laws.
Documents show Minister Frydenberg in at least one instance rejected this advice and instead sent the development to the next stage of assessment. Other documents obtained by the ABC reveal the Queensland Government was also willing to remove areas from the internationally protected wetland to facilitate the development.
Donor Annual Returns lodged with the Australian Electoral Commission show the Toondah Harbour proponent, Walker Corporation, gave $225,000 to the Federal Liberal Party and $23,000 to the Queensland ALP in 2015-16 – the year the initial development proposal was submitted for national assessment. Documents obtained by the ABC suggest Walker Corporation also engaged in a campaign of legal challenges and lobbying to keep the project alive.
The Toondah Harbour development would destroy approximately 40 hectares of the internationally protected Moreton Bay Ramsar site - one of Australia’s most important migratory shorebird feeding and breeding wetland habitats. A third version of the development is currently at the second-stage of assessment under national environment law.
Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) Chief Executive Officer, Kelly O’Shanassy, said Australians should question whether state and federal elected representatives have been acting in the best interests of nature or those of a significant donor, in not striking out the Toondah Harbour development.
“There needs to be an independent probe into this matter. Australians have the right to be confident the natural world is being protected from irresponsible development, especially places as important as the Moreton Bay Ramsar site,” Ms O’Shanassy said.
BirdLife Australia Chief Executive Officer, Paul Sullivan, said the project should never have proceeded to this stage.
“The proposal to build 3,600 waterside apartments and a marina on a Ramsar site flies in the face of Australia’s international obligations. The Minister should have followed the advice of his own department and rejected this project outright,” Mr Sullivan said.
“Critically endangered migratory shorebirds like the Eastern Curlew rely on this important wetland for their survival. If approved, Toondah will set a dangerous precedent for 2,331 Ramsar sites around the world. The international community is watching what happens next.”
Humane Society International Australia Chief Executive Officer, Erica Martin, said the revelations highlight the urgent need for new environment laws in Australia.
“It is unacceptable that matters of national environmental significance are being ignored in the decision making process for major developments like Toondah Harbour. Australia needs stronger nature laws and a national Environment Protection Authority to take the politics out of these decisions and to ensure native wildlife and their habitats are given the protection they truly deserve,” Ms Martin said.
"The Department was right on the money in saying this proposal should be rejected outright, and it's disturbing that Minister Frydenberg ignored this advice and opened the door to removing international protections for the sake of development. The Moreton Bay Ramsar site is priceless, and Australia must respect the conventions we've committed to."