The Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) has confirmed the contents of meetings between a government department and a property developer trying to build a marina and high-rise apartment complex on sensitive wetlands at Toondah Harbour, near Brisbane, will be kept secret.
The Australian Conservation Foundation brought this case to the AAT because the federal government refused to release the records of meetings between the Department of Environment & Energy (now Agriculture, Water & Environment) and Walker Corporation under the Freedom of Information Act.
When Josh Frydenberg was environment minister, his own department advised him the Toondah Harbour apartment and marina proposal was ‘clearly unacceptable’ because of the damage it would do to the wetlands.
Minister Frydenberg rejected his department’s advice and sent the proposal to the next stage of assessment.
“There have been at least 19 meetings – in fact, probably many more – between Walker and the department that is responsible for advising the Environment Minister,” said ACF’s Biodiversity Policy Adviser Brendan Sydes.
“It makes sense for the commercial proponents to meet with government, but it does not make sense to keep the contents of those meetings secret from the public, especially given the same department is responsible for assessing the environmental impacts of the project.
“ACF will closely consider the Tribunal’s decision before deciding whether to appeal it.
“We made our initial Freedom of Information request almost three years ago. This is another example of the culture of secrecy and delay in Commonwealth FOI 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.
“Walker Corp’s proposal for a marina and high-rise apartments would destroy around 40 hectares of the internationally significant Moreton Bay Ramsar wetland.”
The wetland is listed under the international Ramsar Convention and is supposed to be protected by Australia’s national environment law, the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
Walker Corporation has sent three versions of the proposal to the department for assessment. An environmental impact statement on version three could be released any time.
ACF was represented at the AAT hearing by lawyers from Environmental Justice Australia.
“Communities have a right to know all of the information and the full story behind approvals for projects that could seriously damage the places we love,” said Environmental Justice Australia Principal Lawyer Nick Witherow.
“This decision has put the secrecy of closed-door meetings above the public interest.”
Header pic by Nikki Michail.