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Frydenberg proposed delisting part of wetland to allow Queensland's Toondah Harbour development

Lisa Cox
·5-min read

The former federal environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, proposed removing protections from an area of internationally significant wetlands after he was lobbied by a developer wanting to build 3,000 apartments at Moreton Bay in Queensland.

A letter, obtained by Guardian Australia under freedom of information laws, shows Frydenberg wrote to the Queensland government in 2017 about Walker Corporation’s proposed Toondah Harbour apartment and retail complex to suggest the two governments jointly create a proposal to delist part of the Moreton Bay Ramsar wetland.

Walker Corporation, which has been a major Liberal party donor, has applied to build 3,000 apartments, a marina, a hotel and shops inside Moreton Bay, south-east of Brisbane.

Related: Developer lobbied Frydenberg to de-list area of wetland for Queensland's Toondah Harbour complex

The site is an important habitat for migratory birds and is listed under the Ramsar convention, an international treaty set up to protect the ecological character of listed wetlands.

On 4 August 2017, Frydenberg wrote to the former Queensland environment minister – now deputy premier – Steven Miles, about the “significant challenges” in granting the project an environmental approval because of Australia’s international obligations under the convention to protect the wetlands.

He told Miles one option was the two governments could develop a case to change the boundary of the wetland, if they could demonstrate it was in the “urgent national interest”.

“I am now writing to seek your agreement to Queensland working with the Commonwealth to inform the development of proposals to ensure that the proposed Toondah Harbour development can maintain the ecological character of the Moreton Bay Ramsar Wetland,” Frydenberg wrote.

“One option that may arise is for a case to be developed to amend the boundary of the Ramsar wetland.

“To meet Australia’s obligations under the Ramsar Convention, any such proposal is required to demonstrate that the change is in the ‘urgent national interest’, and that additional areas of compensatory habitat be included in a revised boundary.”

Frydenberg stressed that the two governments would need to demonstrate that a boundary change would benefit the ecological character of the wetlands.

He then told Miles he had asked officials in the federal environment department, including in the Ramsar Administrative Authority, to provide information and cooperate with Queensland officials.

He said Queensland, as the property manager, would have to assess and endorse removing part of the wetland before the proposal was submitted to the federal government.

“Through this process, I would expect Commonwealth officials would provide advice to Queensland on the capacity of any developed proposals to fully address Australia’s international obligations, in advance of any case being presented for my consideration,” Frydenberg wrote.

Walker Corporation has been a major donor to Australian political parties.

In 2015-2016, the company made a $225,ooo donation to the Liberal party and a $23,000 donation to Queensland Labor, the same financial year in which the initial development proposal was submitted for assessment.

Guardian Australia has previously reported that Walker Corporation lobbied Frydenberg to remove part of the wetlands at a meeting in Melbourne in August 2016.

Departmental records of that meeting between Frydenberg, senior environment officials, Lang Walker, Walker Corporation executive Peter Saba, and advisers Stephen Davis and Troy Collings show the company “noted the potential to delete or restrict a boundary under the Ramsar convention in the ‘urgent national interest’.”

In June 2017, Frydenberg rejected department advice that the development, as proposed, was “clearly unacceptable” and sent it to the next stage of federal assessment.

He wrote his letter to Miles two months later.

James Trezise, a policy analyst at the Australian Conservation Foundation, said the letter was “an outrageous attempt by Josh Frydenberg to remove habitat for critically endangered species from an internationally protected wetland, all to smooth the way for a marina and apartment complex proposed by a major donor to the Liberal Party”.

“This case highlights again why we need a strong national integrity commission and an independent regulator to oversee our national environmental laws,” he said.

The ACF has launched a legal bid to try to gain access to documents kept secret by the federal government related to its meetings with Walker Corporation.

Frydenberg did not answer detailed questions about the letter or the extent to which the two governments worked together to develop a case to change the Moreton Bay wetland boundary.

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A spokeswoman for Frydenberg said: “No environmental approval was provided for the project while the former minister was in the portfolio.”

A Queensland government spokeswoman said a reply to the letter “was sent to minister Frydenberg saying that the Queensland government will await any further information from the Australian government regarding any boundary amendment proposal”.

“A subsequent comprehensive mapping review concluded that there was no justification to amend the Ramsar boundary,” she said.

Samantha Vine, the head of conservation at BirdLife Australia, said habitat within the Moreton Bay wetland was used by critically endangered birds, including the eastern curlew.

“I’m just outraged that the minister responsible for protection and conservation of the environment would be actively seeking a way around our obligations,” she said.

“It makes a mockery of our international commitments. Imagine if we tried to do this with an iconic site like Sydney Harbour.”

A spokeswoman for the federal environment department said “the department is not currently considering any change to the boundary of the Moreton Bay Ramsar site”.

“We impress that the proposal considered by former environment minister Frydenberg … along with its corresponding discussions have no bearing on the proposal that is currently before minister [Sussan] Ley,” she said in a statement.

Walker Corporation submitted a revised proposal to the department in 2018 that the company has previously said made improvements to the development to better integrate it with the Ramsar wetland.

The department’s spokeswoman said the department expected to receive Walker Corporation’s draft environmental assessment in early 2021 and it would be published for public comment.