The developer, the whistleblower and the minister: How a protected wetland came under threat
A trip to Switzerland, a legal threat, department staff under pressure. A rare blow-by-blow inside account of how power and influence is wielded in a sensitive environmental approval process.
When you look out at Cleveland's Toondah Harbour at low tide, the first thing you see is the mudflats.
Legend has it, this was meant to be the capital of Queensland.
But back in the 1840s during an exploratory trip, Governor Gipps got stuck in the mud and instead went up the river to what's now Brisbane.
Cleveland never expanded into a metropolis like Brisbane. Its population sits at around 15,000.
But the local Mayor thinks it's time the region was transformed into something bigger and more commercially focused.
New premier cuts 'green tape'
Karen Williams was elected the Mayor of Redland City in 2012 with the support of developers.
It was the same year a one-term Queensland premier who wanted to cut what he called "green tape" was put in charge.
Campbell Newman was elected on a platform of change.
He introduced an Economic Development Act to fast-track new projects in the state.
Under the Act, parcels of land could be declared "priority development areas" — or PDAs — and could bypass old planning and environment laws.
Mayor Williams shared Mr Newman's zeal for getting things built and was determined to transform the region.
The council voted to back the application for a PDA, and in June 2013 the state government declared Toondah Harbour one of Queensland's first priority development areas.
Expressions of interest were called for, and Walker Corporation was announced as the preferred partner.
Its $1.4 billion plan for the site included 3,600 apartments, a hotel, convention centre and marina.
But there was a snag.
Moreton Bay, where Toondah Harbour sits, was declared a Ramsar site in 1993, under an international convention that protects wetlands critical for biodiversity.
Around 40 hectares of the priority development area lies inside that Ramsar-listed wetland.
Enter the developer
In the last 20 years, Lang Walker's company has donated around $2.5 million to political parties.
The Forbes rich list claims he's worth over $2 billion, and he is behind a series of high-profile developments including Collins Square in Melbourne, the Finger Wharf in Sydney and Festival Square in Adelaide.
He has even built a luxury resort on his own private island in Fiji.
Bloomberg estimates the resort, near one of the world's largest coral reefs, cost Lang Walker $100 million to build.
He named it Kokomo.
As a man who knows how to buy an island and has spent decades striking big deals in Australia's largest cities, Mr Walker had the upper hand when he flew to Queensland to sign a memorandum of understanding with Redland City councillors at the historic Grand View Hotel overlooking Toondah Harbour.
The council gag order
Craig Ogilvie was a councillor at the time.
"My impression of Lang Walker was that he was practised and slick and probably by far the most knowledgeable and smartest guy in the room when it came to doing deals of this type, and that was something to be nervous about," Mr Ogilvie said.
"I think … to a certain degree the councillors were starstruck."
Craig Ogilvie remembers the process as being rushed and secretive, and says the community was barely consulted.
He claims councillors had little time to consider the plans, and were asked to sign confidentiality arrangements that were quite stringent.
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Councillor Wendy Boglary has been on council since March 2008 and was the deputy mayor for two years.
She said she felt the confidentiality agreement was preventing her from properly representing her constituents.
"People are actually coming down to me and as they're finding out what is happening at Toondah Harbour, they have grave concerns," Cr Boglary said.
"They're asking me 'why aren't I speaking out?' and 'why aren't I representing them?'.
"So I feel like I'm letting my community down, which isn't something I take lightly."
Mayor Williams told the ABC confidentiality agreements protected the ratepayers as well as the companies who had signed contracts with the council.
She said the area needed investment in infrastructure, which a large project like the Walker Corporation's would bring.
"We're a city of islands, so we need to have transport hubs that connect our mainland to our communities on Russell Island right through to North Stradbroke Island," Mayor Williams said.
Political heavyweights bear down
With the council locked in, the Queensland Labor government endorsed the project in 2015.
But because the proposed development was on Ramsar-listed wetland, it had to be referred to the federal government for approval.
A development of this scale or impact had never been approved on a Ramsar-listed site in Australia.
Inside the federal environment department, which is required to provide impartial, expert advice on environmental issues, the alarm bells were going off.
In April 2016 Matt Cahill, one of the most senior bureaucrats in the department, wrote to Walker Corporation executive Peter Saba making clear what his experts thought of the project.
"The Department intends to advise the Minister to make a decision that the proposal in its current form is clearly unacceptable," the letter said.
In other words, the department's key advisers believed the proposal should be struck out immediately.
In response, Walker Corporation intensified its lobbying efforts:
- In August, Lang Walker wrote to newly-elected prime minister Malcolm Turnbull congratulating him and asking for a meeting about the Toondah project. Mr Turnbull did not appear to take up that offer, but encouraged him to continue working with then-environment minister Josh Frydenberg and his department.
- According to Queensland's The Courier Mail, a special advisor to Mr Turnbull and a staffer were spotted that same month having lunch with Mr Walker at celebrity chef Matt Moran's upscale eatery Aria.
- According to departmental documents, Mr Walker met with Mr Frydenberg that same month.
- Queensland's then-environment minister Steven Miles and Deputy Premier Jackie Trad also wrote to Mr Frydenberg expressing their government's support.
- The ABC understands there were discussions in the department about whether the Ramsar boundaries could be changed so the project could go through and still meet Australia's treaty obligations.
The Australian Government Solicitor responded with confidential legal advice that the boundaries could be changed if Australia invoked the "urgent national interest test" in the convention but warned that process could take years and involve international scrutiny.
FOI documents show over a 12-month period Walker Corporation convinced the department to delay the decision six times.
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.
Walker Corporation's Craig Addley, the project designer for Toondah Harbour, told the ABC the development's processes were not influenced by political donations.
"I don't make the payments or are not aware of the details around them but I think the important point is that this project will not be influenced by those things," Mr Addley said.
Inside the political maelstrom
A departmental insider, who asked we not disclose their identity, said the pressure inside the department was intense.
"Those of us who hoped the minister would accept the advice, that carefully constructed expert advice, were disappointed," they said.
"But then the department moved to accommodate the minister's desires — so still providing advice to the minister about the range of impediments, still pointing out it was clearly inconsistent with Australia's obligations under the Ramsar convention, but also searching for a pathway to accommodate that development."
The insider also said the company and the man behind the project were important.
"It's not some tin-pot development run by some small no-name company," they said.
"This is Lang Walker. Everyone knows who Lang Walker is.
"Everyone knows he's politically connected, there were stories he could pick up the phone and talk anytime to the prime minister. I don't know whether that happened or not. That was certainly the view held."
Minister rejects department's advice
In May 2017, after 18 months of delays, Walker Corporation withdrew its original plan and submitted a smaller proposal, which still encroached on around 50 hectares of the Ramsar site.
A month later the department provided formal advice to Mr Frydenberg.
Despite all the back-room wrangling, the department said the second proposal remained "clearly unacceptable" because it would "result in permanent and irreversible damage to the ecological character of the Moreton Bay Ramsar wetland".
However, Mr Frydenberg rejected that advice in June 2017.
Mr Frydenberg told the ABC he acted within the relevant legislation by sending the project for assessment by an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS):
"Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity 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."
He also said Walker Corporation's donation history had nothing to do with his decision.
Referral a good outcome for Walker Corporation
The decision was a significant victory for Walker Corporation.
The project hadn't been approved by the Minister, but it had cleared a significant first hurdle.
Figures from the Department of the Environment up to 30 June 2018 show that of the 96 projects that have been assessed by Environmental Impact Statement under the EPBC Act, only one has been refused approval.
Since that decision, Walker's pursuit of the project has even gone international.
Its corporate advisor Stephen Davis, and Walker executive Mr Saba met with the Ramsar secretary general in Switzerland. The ABC understands they discussed the project.
Back at Toondah Harbour, there are competing views on what should happen next.
Mayor Williams said she hoped the EIS process would scientifically address environmental impacts.
That's what the process is all about," Mayor Williams said.
"Council's done their bit.
"We've looked for a solution, we've got a tool, we've asked [the] community and now we wait for the Federal Government to go through that process if it stacks up.
"If it doesn't then we're back to square one."
Birdlife Australia spokesman Robert Clemens said he hoped the development site would be reconsidered.
"This would be one of the last places you would choose to do something," Mr Clemens said.
"It's one of the jewels in this council region.
"If we take a step back and look at all the areas where we could put an apartment complex this would come out at the bottom of the list, surely."