Liberal Party donor issues legal threat to minister over sensitive wetlands development

The former federal environment minister rejected advice from his own department that a $1.4 billion development on protected wetlands being proposed by a major Liberal Party donor was "clearly unacceptable", documents obtained under Freedom of Information (FOI) show.

Key points:

  • The proposed development overlaps with wetlands that are home to endangered migratory birds
  • Experts within the federal Department of Environment have consistently said the project is clearly unacceptable
  • Minister referred proposal for formal environmental assessment, which peak environment group says increases chances of it going ahead

Walker Corporation, which describes itself as Australia's largest private diversified development company, wants to build a precinct that includes 3,600 apartments, a hotel, convention centre and marina on a stretch of coastline south-east of Brisbane.

Toondah Harbour is on a wetland listed under the RAMSAR convention, which protects important habitats for migratory birds. Australia was one of the first signatories to the convention.

FOI documents obtained by Australian Conservation Foundation show former environment minister and current Treasurer Josh Frydenberg rejected advice from his own department to strike out the proposed development at the first hurdle.

The department had consistently argued the proposal was "clearly unacceptable" because of the permanent impact it would have on the ecological character of the wetlands.

Further documents obtained by the ABC show his department was subject to sustained pressure to approve the development including a legal threat against the minister and environment department by Walker Corporation.

No legal action ensued but the message was clear.

Moreton Bay became a RAMSAR-listed site in 1993. Toondah Harbour sits inside it, across the bay from the popular tourism destination of Stradbroke Island.

It is home to critically endangered shorebirds, such as the eastern curlew, which rely on these mudflats to fatten up before their journey back to breeding grounds in Russia and China.

The eastern curlew is brown and white with a long hooked beak. Close up of single bird standing in water.

Walker Corporation a generous donor in politics

In the same financial year the development was sent to the Federal Government for approval, Walker Corporation donated $225,000 to the federal Liberal Party and $23,000 to Queensland Labor.

Both the Palaszczuk Government and the Redlands City Council are supporters of the proposed development.

The previous year Walker Corporation did not donate to either political party, but the company has been a relatively regular donor to both sides of politics over the past 10 years.

From early on in the approval process Walker Corporation was warned the project was problematic.

Artist's impression of the Toondah Harbour development which will include 3,600 apartments.

In April 2016 the federal Department of the Environment wrote to the developer saying it intended to advise the minister the development was "clearly unacceptable".

Over a year the developer was able to negotiate with the department to get the decision delayed six times.

In February 2017 Walker Corporation's advisers threatened to take the minister to court, arguing it disagreed with the department's view that the project was "clearly unacceptable" and making the case that any such decision would entail an error in law.

The ABC has obtained a copy of that confidential letter, which said given the "stalemate of legal views on the 'clearly unacceptable' issue, … the best path forward may be to have the Federal Court decide the 'clearly unacceptable' point".

"We have instructions from Lang Walker to file and serve this Originating Application no later than 9 March 2017 if agreement on another process has not been reached prior," the letter said.

External Link: Read the secret letter obtained by the ABC which threatens legal action from Walker Corporation.

Project referred to next stage

In May last year Walker Corporation withdrew its initial proposal and submitted a smaller one that still encroached on around 50 hectares of the RAMSAR site.

A month later, the department gave the minister formal advice the project remained "clearly unacceptable".

Mr Frydenberg rejected that advice. He did not approve the proposal but he sent it to an assessment process known as an Environmental Impact Statement.

Speaking on ABC News Breakfast, he said: "This was not an approval of the development, this was an opportunity for a proper assessment.

"And under the EPBC Act, the minister has the opportunity to enable his department to undertake a full assessment of the project, and in doing so, get more information, which may lead to mitigation or offsets of any significant environmental impact that the project would have."

A plant pushes up through the mud.

ACF chief executive Kelly O'Shanassy said she was shocked by the decision and thought the project now had a good chance of going ahead.

"[Of the more than] 1,700 assessments that have been done under the EPBC act, only 11 have been rejected over that time," Ms O'Shanassy said.

"It's very unlikely that it's going to be rejected given the history of the act."

Bar-tailed Godwits fly low to the water, some standing on a sand bar in the harbour.

Lang Walker, the founder and driving force behind Walker Corporation, was unavailable for interview.

Walker Corporation's Craig Addley, the project designer for Toondah Harbour, told the ABC he was unaware of the legal threat, and conversations around donations were "above my paygrade".

Craig Addley leans on a railing in front of the proposed development site.

"I think we've always wanted to get to the point where we could start this EIS process," Mr Addley said.

"That's a really important part of the project in communicating and illustrating all the issues to it.

"Regardless of some of those issues, all the decisions on this project need to be based on the science and the facts."

Mr Addley said he hopes the port will be rehabilitated and other infrastructure developed off the back of the project.

Hear the full investigation on Radio National's Background Briefing program on Sunday, at 8am.

You can listen to the full investigation now as a podcast from the ABC listen app, or anywhere you get your podcasts.

External Link: FOI Documents show the environment department labelled the Walker development clearly unacceptable