|The Port Hinchinbrook development of white shoe brigader Keith Williams has a long and controversial history.|
Phil Dickie paid close attention to the fascinating tale during the critical phases when the Goss Labor government of Queensland set about destroying their environmental credentials. This collection is mainly taken from Watching columns published in The Sunday Mail in 1994-96.
|Eco and Ego Tourism, August 1994|
|Much has been written recently extolling the virtues of eco?tourism, about low impact resorts and tours concentrating on taking nothing but photographs and leaving nothing but footprints.|
Ego tourism is what more usuallly happens when a developer happens upon any place of natural and outstanding beauty. With beaches in particular there seems to be some sort of reflex that goes something like this: "No beach is complete without a resort/conduminium/marina/golf course development". And so it comes to pass and all beaches begin to look like the same beach.
Under the ecotourism credo, each place is its own unique and special experience. Egotourism on the other hand offers you the opportunity to travel the world and have the same resort/conduminium/marina/golf course experience wherever you go. Waikiki might as well be Miami or Phuket or Majorca or Kuta or the Gold Coast or Hamilton Island or Cardwell.
Cardwell? Cardwell, North Queensland, is a pleasant small town about half?way between Townsville and Cairns noted mainly for its first class fish and chips, its pleasant picnicking foreshore and its views across to the very imposing and very unspoilt Hinchinbrook Island.
Keith Williams, the entrepreneur who taught dolphins to waterski at Seaworld and then turned Hamilton Island from a grazing lease into the Whitsundays branch office of Gold Coast/Waikiki/Majorca/Kuta etc etc is now planning to build a very large resort at Oyster Point.
Oyster Point is either just south of Cardwell if you look at the map or "an eyesore almost in the middle of town" if you read Mr Williams' highly individual press releases.
Some of the development site is currently an eyesore, admittedly ? a legacy of a previous developer who pushed the bulldozers through the mangroves without the required permit. At least, Mr Williams is or was at last count still waiting for permits to start work before starting work ? although his waiting has been noticeably impatient and noisy.
The previous development effort failed, and a little economic reflection might indicate some possible reasons why Oyster Point might not be such an ideal site for such a large and imposing piece of ego?tourism.
The beaches are made of mud, which is good for fish and mangroves but not generally preferred by your average tourist. The mud, conservationists point out, supports an amazing diversity and quantity of mangroves. Less remarked in the tourist literature is the amazing diversity and quantity of sandflies and mosquitoes supported by the amazing diversity of mangroves.
The nearest international airport and for that matter sizeable domestic airport is at Townsville or Cairns and not yet at Cardwell. This may not be such a problem for Mr Williams ? Hamilton Island didn't have an airport either when it was a grazing lease.
And then, if the tourists can get to the 1500 beds and 1000 rooms of this quaint fishing village, there will be the problem of what they are to do all day. Eating fish and chips on the charming picnicking foreshore of Cardwell might be a very pleasant experience but it is not one to fill up a holiday.
The answer is obvious ? Cardwell's main attraction is its proximity to Hinchinbrook Island. But Hinchinbrook Island, having been assessed as both environmentally valuable and vulnerable, has long had restrictions on the numbers of people that commercial operators can ferry across. Assume for a moment that Mr Williams gets the lion's share of permits ? something which would presumably make the existing operators and the current visitors to Hinchinbrook very cranky. On a rough calculation, assuming a very Catholic ration of only one tourist to a bed, that still leaves about 1310 tourists back in Cardwell playing golf and swatting sandflies while eating fish and chips by the foreshore. I wouldn't like to be trying to market that experience in Tokyo, or even Townsville.
The Queensland Government ? through the Office of the Facilitator?General (sorry, mistake, that should be Co?ordinator?General) ? has been strangely keen to help this already once?failed project along. If ever a project needed a proper environmental impact statement it is this intrusion into two World Heritage areas but, when developments are fast?tracked through the Premier's Department, such requirements can be watered down to "superficial" Environmental Review Studies.
Fortunately the Federal Government is less sanguine about the national and world heritage and a considerably less superficial document is currently awaiting the Federal Environment Minister's attention.
Not surprisingly, the proposal has aroused considerable opposition. But Mr Williams has countered this in yet another press release pointing out that in Cardwell, "a township of only 1300, more than 1260 signed a petition ... clearly stating their support for the project." Now there is a way to save money ? if one takes into account the 37 Cardwellians who made submissions opposing the project there are only three others in town. These are presumably the town's only children, so I guess their school is a bit of an extravagance.
|Club Mud 9 Oct 1994|
|by Phil Dickie (Original copy for Sunday Mail column published 9 Oct 94)|
Oyster Point, near Cardwell in north Queensland, was once a railway siding and associated pie cart for servicemen on their way to the Second World War, according to the memory of former Prime Minister and wartime Flight Lieutenant Gough Whitlam.
Now, after decades of post?war obscurity, Oyster Point has itself become the focus of conflict ? between the State and Federal Governments, between a developer and conservationists, and between rival camps of bureaucrats, "experts", and Cardwell citizens.
Open hostilities broke out early on Saturday morning, when entrepreneur Keith Williams set bulldozers in probably largely theatrical motion on the first stage of his Port Hinchinbrook mega?resort and marina complex.
In equally theatrical response, a small white?haired woman walked alone up to the imposing but quite bare signs at the future resort entrance with her own sign . . . "Poor Hinchinbrook." Margaret Thorsburne, 67 ? quietly spoken naturalist, author and Cardwell Shire citizen of the year ? has long been the main opponent of the project in the area.
For Williams,the proposal which would see Queensland's largest resort established at Cardwell is the chance for him to resurrect the image established by Seaworld but damaged when Hamilton Island faltered and slipped into receivership. "I am on one of the best things in my life right now" he told the Courier?Mail in March. I've never been so enthusiastic about doing things as I am right now ...".
It is this sort of crash through or crash approach that has lead opponents to deride the project as "Ego tourism". The locality itself ? Oyster Point has an abundance of mangroves, mud and small biting insects ? has also led to the project being called "Club Mud" and to questions being raised about its ultimate economic viability.
Fate played into the conservationists hands ? at least in the sense of giving them a ready line for the television camera's ? when work on "Club Mud" started the day after the New South Wales Land and Environment Court torpedoed an equally controversial Club Med proposal for a resort at Byron Bay.
Work began to a flurry of media releases. Queensland's Environment Minister, Molly Robson, used two pages to announce the "tough environmental conditions" imposed on the development and, less prominently, the fact that approval had been granted. Keith Williams greeted this "long awaited approval" an hour later in large type over three pages, being "emphatic" in his declaration of compliance with conditions that he considered "excessive" and "amongst the most onerous that have been applied to any previous resort developer in Australia's history".
But the man in the hot seat was clearly Federal Environment Minister Senator John Faulkner, with a one page media release calling for further studies and 18 pages of associated documentation critical of the resort proposal and Queensland government procedures.
A scientific appraisal of the project ? included in Faulkner's bundle ? said that "the tenor, style and scale of the (Port Hinchinbrook) proposal is at serious odds with the values of conservation at this particular location" and that it had the potential to "effectively destroy the unique beauty of Hinchinbrook Island and Channel".
But in the end, Faulkner's only action was to call for further studies and hold out the possibility of a crucial approval ? for dredging the marina access channel ? being later withdrawn.
Mr Faulkner's line was that there was insufficient information to hand to judge whether world heritage values will be effected. In part to allay these concerns but also probably to hold the conservationist chorus at bay, Oyster Point and its surroundings are about to become the site of Queensland's first state of the environment or "baseline" study.
Behind the scenes, Club Mud or Port Hinchinbrook has been causing significant tension between the State and Federal governments and within areas of the State government. Correspondence from Faulkner and his department has been intensely critical of the adequacy of Queensland government procedures and reports. In some quarters it has been seen as hardly comradely for Federal Labor Faulkner to publically release such criticisms of state Labor governments.
In his most recent letter to his Queensland counterpart, Ms Robson, Faulkner blasted the "insufficient environmental assessment" that had led to the situation "where studies are proposed concurrently with construction activities" instead of "a proper sequential process where the baseline studies, setting of standards and the monitoring program would precede approvals".
The view in both governments however is that Ms Robson is carrying the public can for the Office of the Co?ordinator General (COG), located within the Premier's Department. Another view, expressed both within and without the state government is that Oyster Point has been a test of the "virility" of the Office of the COG and its ability to push projects through.
In this and other cases, the promise held out to developers of fast and efficient tracking through the government maze has turned into the prospect of slow tracking due to intense environmental group interest in everything the Office of the COG involves itself in.
"It is the Co?ordinator General's involvement that makes any talk of proper process being followed by the Queensland Government a complete joke," says Queensland Wildlife Society director Adrian Jeffries, who has documented much of the approval process through exhaustive recourse to Freedom of Information requests.
Most significantly, the picking up of the Williams project by the COG enabled bypassing the requirement for Environmental Impact Assessment that occurs under normal planning guidelines. "What is happening is that the projects that most need comprehensive environmental impact assessment ? the really big or sensitive ones ? aren't getting proper assessment because they are going through the Co?ordinator General," Mr Jeffries said.
Instead of environmental impact assessment, the Port Hinchinbrook proposal became the subject of an "Environmental Review Report". This was announced as the work of the Department of Environment and Heritage, but Freedom of Information requests show that the developer, Keith Williams, through the Office of the COG, played a large hand in the final form of the report.
"My sugggestions for amendments to this report are not negotiable . . . (they) must be incorporated before (the report) is released to the public," wrote Mr Williams. Within a week, the the Office of the COG advised Mr Williams of 10 pages of amendments and the final document was further amended in response to such further notations as "This must go" and "Under no circumstances will I agree to this". It would seem, at the very least, that attributing authorship of the Environmental Review Report to the Department of Environment and Heritage is highly misleading.
Comments on the report were scathing. Placed in front of the Director Emeritus Frank Talbot of the US Museum of Natural History it drew the comment "superficial ? a piece of work that would fail a student". Senator Faulkner's department, responding to the COG, contented themselves with "insufficient" and "inadequate".
The office of the Co?ordinator?General also commissioned a report on the proposal's potential impact on world heritage, an identical topic to the report requested by Senator Faulkner. The reports, however, come to quite contrary conclusions with the COG?commissioned report being much criticised and being the subject of some mirth for assuming proper control of impacts on its way to concluding that impacts would be only minor.
Given the hardly concealed Federal disdain for the adequacy of Queensland government procedures in this case, it is hardly surprising that as Mr Williams begins work the governmental focus is now on "monitoring" ? with the Senator Faulkner foreshadowing a very active Federal role.
Already, there is a renewed point of conflict with Ms Robson of the opinion that baseline studies take a couple of weeks and Senator Faulkner thinking of studies of six months or so duration.
For Mr Williams, the risk is that further scientific studies and conservationist pressures will lead to an 11th hour withdrawal of his crucial dredging permit.
"Keith Williams could still find himself with the largest inland marina in Australia and Queensland taxpayers could still have to wear a claim for compensation because of the State Government's premature approval of this project," said North Queensland Conservation Council Co?ordinator, Ms Susan Brown.
|Beware the assumptions, Col 29 Sept 1994|
|One of the main activities within government is report writing. In these days of privatising, corporatising government one must also mention report commissioning, an activity delighting and renumerating a small army of consultants who are part of government but aren't.|
Committees ? those institutions in the business of keeping minutes and losing hours ? usually focus on the conclusions of the reports in front of them. Often, they would be better off looking for what has been left out of reports and wondering why, and examining just what has been assumed on the way to a conclusion.
Take, for instance, two recent reports which manage to come to radically different conclusions on the same topic ? the environmental worthiness or otherwise of the mega?resort that entrepreneur Keith Williams is planning to locate amidst the mudflats, mangroves and assorted small biting insects of Cardwell, North Queensland. The nearest large airports are 170 odd kilometres in either direction and only a strictly limited number of the international tourists making this trip would be allowed to visit the main attraction of Hinchinbrook Island each day.
If mudwrestling was a favoured occupation of international tourists then the economics of this resort would be quite compelling. Generally, however, it would seem that the average international tourist is strangely averse to small towns with limited diversions and a daily, tidal requirement for a mud?map to the water.
But the economics of either eco or ego tourism have not been the burning issue here. Controversy instead revolves around the impact of the resort on the two adjacent world heritage areas and the sundry trees, mangroves, seagrasses, dolphins, birds and dugongs currently resident there.
The Federal Government, responsible for protecting the world heritage, commissioned its report from Peter Valentine, a senior lecturer in tropical environmental studies. Although his report is still secret and still being studied in the corridors of presumed power the executive summary leaked out last week.
Valentine found that the "huge by any standards" resort would have 15 distinct world heritage impacts; that "the tenor, style and scale of the (Willliams) proposal is at serious odds with the values of conservation at this particular location" and that the resort "would effectively destroy the unique beauty and outstanding world heritage values of Hinchinbrook Island and Passage".
The other report was commissioned from the Loder and Bayly Consulting Group by Queensland's Co?ordinator General whose involvement in any project arouses the intense interest of all conservation groups. Typically, while one arm of the Premier's Department was denying to journalists that such a report existed another was sending it ? "With Compliments" ? to selected conservationists.
Loder and Bayly found one area of "no direct impact", three of "minimal direct impact", one of "moderate risk of direct impact" and four of "low risk of direct impact" and went on to conclude that "potential impacts would be minimal if the proactive management and monitoring programme . . . is fully implemented and if the site is sensitively managed".
One would be tempted to think that Valentine was studying chalk and Loder and Bayly were studying cheese rather than all studying the impact of the same proposal on the same world heritage values.
The leaks have not extended to Valentine's methodology although one would have to assume professionalism from one of only two Australians to win an award from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Loder and Bayly's professionalism is likewise beyond question. There are, however, six assumptions in their assessment which would seem to be either optimistic predictions for Queensland or very new and unfamiliar challenges for Mr Williams. Some would also seem to approach assuming what is subsequently concluded.
Take, for instance, the assumption that "a high standard of environmental control and monitoring will be effected and that appropriate financial and human resources will be allocated with sufficient legal support to ensure that impacts are kept within the limits of acceptable change".
Such a commitment to environmental quality control on the part of a Queensland government ? any Queensland government ? would seem to have about the same likelihood as the Hinchinbrook Passage icing over. Moreover, there would appear to be a distinctly circular quality to the proposition that that if there are proper controls on impacts then impacts will be properly controlled.
There is, rumour has it, a Loder and Bayly Report (Part Two) which may even be a response to the draft Valentine Report. A copy consigned to a brown paper bag and sent to this writer care of this newspaper will be most appreciated.
Any such donation will remain distinctly unacknowledged and any intending leaker is assured that this leakee has a very poor memory as to the origins and current whereabouts of any documents arriving in brown paper bags.
|The lessons of Club Mud, Col 38, November 1995 |
|At Byron Bay, Club Med got clobbered by a court because it would have been built around the habitat of a rare frog.|
In north Queensland, Club Mud might well go down the plughole because a State government survey found a rare, possibly unique, species of seagrass.
Club Mud is of course the less than respectful name for the long running attempt to build some sort of mega?resort among the mangroves and mudflats of Oyster Point, just south of Cardwell.
The latest attempt fell apart after the State Government whipped through a gazettal enabling current developer Keith Williams to move his machinery down to the mangroves and the protestors who had taken to living among them. The police weren't sure who they were working for but probably liked the 3 a.m. overtime.
And Federal Environment Minister Senator Faulkner went off to see the Governor?General, who promptly proclaimed an additional area of World Heritage.
Keith Williams is now proposing to go and practice his particular brand of ego?tourism anywhere but in Australia, the citizens of Cardwell are justifiably wondering where this leaves them, and the State Labor Government is involved in an ugly brawl with the Federal Labor Government.
None of the key players emerges from the mess (or should that be the mud) with much credit. But in many ways, it was all so predictable ? indeed, this column did a bit of predicting some time ago.
And although Club Mud has dominated the news this week, it isn't the first time Queensland's beauty has been despoiled and its reputation damaged by arrested and inappropriate development encouraged by inadequate planning guidelines and State and local Government willingness to play games with approval processes.
Nellie Bay, on Magnetic Island near Townsville, was once a famous beauty spot beloved of honeymooning couples. But for the past five years or so, it has been a vast eyesore ? a combination of abandoned quarry and construction site. There are similar holes in the ground or white elephants up and down the entire coastline.
The way to go forward from Club Mud is to learn the lessons about sensitive development, proper planning and proper process. Otherwise, the Club Mud fiasco will happen again ? with another developer, in another sensitive location and with another community having its hopes raised and then dashed.
The State government is right in saying it inherited the Oyster Point development site with its associated if unwise State government and local council approvals from the previous government. The issues they have tried to spin their way out of is why the Office of the Co?ordinator General ? in the Premier's Department ? pushed the development so hard and played such strange games with a succession of documents to justify it.
The clearest example would be the Environmental Review Report, a substitute for the more normal and stringent Environmental Impact Assessment. This was called "superficial ? a piece of work that would fail a student" by an eminent US scientist and was supposedly the work of the Department of Environment and Heritage.
Freedom of Infomation requests later showed that the original draft was in fact extensively amended in accordance with the wishes of the Co?ordinator General and that well?known environmental scientist Keith Williams. In these circumstances, it is little wonder that the Federal authorities have not been giving a great deal of credence to environmental reports coming out of Queensland.
That is the first lesson ? shortcuts through the processes are liable to lead to trouble.
The second lesson relates to planning processes that encourage inappropriate development. Much so?called development activity in Queensland consists of getting control of a piece of land, getting an approval or permit from the government or the council and then selling the land and approval package for a handy profit.
This is turning public decisions into private profit and encouraging the grossest extent of development on every possible parcel of land. And when the authorities say enough, as they occasionally must do in the face of grossness, the disappointed developer can lob in a claim for compensation from the public purse.
When the government came to power ? nearly five years ago ? proper planning and environment legislation was said to be a high priority. Now, just where is that legislation.
|How not to make decisions, Col 81|
|Over the past couple of weeks, two Goss government disasters have reached some form of conclusion.|
That damned road ? the South East Tollway ? is now off the agenda. And, despite some spirited protestations to the contrary by developer Keith Williams, his Club Mud project for Cardwell is now firmly stuck among the mangroves.
No doubt the government would dearly love to forget both episodes and hope that the electorate does as well. But there are lessons to be learned, of the dangers of treating proper process in a highly cavalier way.
To be fair to the Goss government, they have shown a far better understanding of what proper process is than their National Party predecessors. In what at times has been an almost scientific approach to the art of government, they have commissioned studies without telling them what to find and have acted in accordance with the findings. They have shown themselves capable of consulting widely and not subsequently throwing inconvenient submissions into the bin. And they have established proper rules in some areas where there were only Rafferty's rules, and they have followed the rules they have established.
What has got them into trouble are the rigged studies, the sham consultations and the odd episodes of throwing the normal rulebook out the window. Sometimes they have got away with it, but sometimes the only rewards of skullduggery have been political hot water and episodes of eating crow.
For the sorry history of That Road, one is indebted to Bruce Moon of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute who lays it all bare in the latest issue of that serious little journal The Queensland Planner.
In brief terms, the old Main Roads Department has long wanted to build a big, impressive road to the east of the Pacific Highway and they were not slow in urging this desire on the newly elected Goss government.
The government, sensibly, pushed the engineers dreams off for study while it got on with the serious and very important business of planning South East Queensland 2001. And the study initially found that the proposed road had a cost?benefit ratio that was decidedly negative.
The best option was a widening of the existing highway, but, in what was to become a familiar pattern, the Department persuaded the minister that this option should not be considered. Thus hamstrung, the study group obediently found that the "most efficient" route would be the one the engineers wanted to build all along.
However, with the prospective tolls just about estimated to cover the cost of collecting them and little else prospects for the road didn't look too good. Then the road got thrown to Albert Shire as a bone to encourage it to subdivide everything in the path of a prospective Federal funding for a railroad.
Regional planners were still less than enthusiastic, and early SEQ 2001 reports had a number of options for consideration. But the more promising options kept getting dropped off successive studies, so that eventually they came back to what the Department of Transport had already decided was the "right answer".
The voters decided ? as had most of the unhamstrung studies ? that the engineers' preference was the "wrong answer".
The Club Mud fiasco became inevitable high farce from the day that an essentially new proposal for an economically dubious mega?resort in an environmentally?sensitive area was allowed to proceed on the basis of some mainly ancient and hardly stringent council approvals.
While the site cried out for Environmental Impact Assessment procedure, the State cooked up an "Environmental Review Report", written supposedly by the Department of Environment and Heritage. Freedom of Information requests have shown that the document had the fingerprints of the Premiers' Department and that well known environmental scientist Keith Williams all over it.
A subsequent State report managed to find that if environmental impacts were properly controlled there would be no environmental impacts.
Federal authorities, entirely predictably, lost patience when the bulldozers moved in. And, after some initial taxpayer?funded outrage, Premier Goss appears to have been keeping very, very quiet about Club Mud. Very, very sensible in the circumstances.
The first lesson for the State is that it is generally wise to let reviews and studies find what they will, without attempts to guide them to some "right answer". And there are great dangers in trying to short cut through the proper processes ? attempts to fast track projects can end up achieving nothing more than slow tracking or even no tracking them
|Williams threatened State for Port Hinchinbrook Approvals, 26/11/94|
|The State Government issued its final permits to Port Hinchinbrook developer Keith Williams within 24 hours of threatened legal action against ministers and senior public servants.|
Documents obtained under a Freedom of Information request by Australian Democrat Senator John Woodley show that Mr Williams wrote to the Office of the Co?ordinator?General in the Premier's Department on 29 September threatening the legal action unless he obtained the permits needed to begin work.
The permits were granted the next day and work on the controversial project started on Saturday, October 1.
In his letter, Mr Williams also threatened the State government with an "expose everything" media campaign.
Mr Williams said he would be seeking compensation on the basis of loss of profit and had instructed his solicitor "to prepare the basis of my case against the Queensland government and specified individuals".
The Co?ordinator?General, Mr John Down, forwarded Mr Williams letter to Prime Minister Paul Keating's senior private secretary, saying it was "an example of the extreme pressure we are under." Mr Down said in his covering note that Williams had indicated he was "about to instruct his solicitors to proceed against various Ministers and Senior Executive Officers of the State."
Senator Woodley said it was apparent from the correspondence that "it wasn't only mangroves that were bulldozed in this case".
"I am appalled that the State Government could be held to ransom in this manner."
The correspondence says that Mr Williams was advised that the State was awaiting "an administrative decision of a Commonwealth Minister."
Federal Environment Minister Senator John Faulkner wrote to his state counterpart Ms Molly Robson on the 29th of September raising the continuing possibility of his acting to protect world heritage values, something acknowledged by Ms Robson when she announced on 1 October that a dredging permit had been granted subject to conditions.
Work on the project has been stalled since the early hours of Wednesday, November 16, after Senator Faulker extended declared World Heritage areas in response to mangrove clearing.
|CSIRO report threatens Hinchinbrook resort, 18 April 95|
|A confidential CSIRO report has become the latest threat to developer Keith Williams' controversial Port Hinchinbrook resort near Cardwell.|
The leaked report has found the site to be heavily contaminated with acid sulphate soils which "have been considerably disturned by excavation and earthmoving activities" and which are "currently oxidising and acidifying".
"Acid leachate from oxidised acid sulphate soils may affect groundwater, as well as surface water bodies, allowing elements such as aluminium and iron to dissolve and to be present in concentrations high enough to be severely detrimental to plants, aquatic life and even engineering structures."
The report will be considered by consultants who are currently examining the impact of the proposed report on the world heritage values of the Hinchinbrook Channel for the Federal Environment Minister, Senator John Faulkner.
Senator Faulkner, who has already halted work on the resort once, has still to approve three crucial permits vital to the resort and marina development.
The potential significance of the latest scientific report is underlined by a warning to Cardwell Shire Council that Senator Faulkner's "decision making on this issue will include consideration of information on acid sulphate soils".
Cardwell Shire Council, which ignored Federal requests not to make a "premature" decision before the CSIRO report was completed, recently approved the construction of dredge spoil ponds on the site.
The CSIRO report is also likely to become significant ammunition for environmental groups planning to appeal the Cardwell Shire Council decision.