How an alliance of enraged and engaged oceanusers are taking on a gold coast mayor and a powerful cHinese consortium to protect one of australia’s best waves. - by kirk owers
When a proposal for a cruise ship terminal near Kirra Beach was first announced the dominant reaction – at least in the surf media – was incredulity. As if. Get real. Not gonna happen. The Bilinga cruise ship proposal never got an inch off the ground thanks in part to protests from local surfers who took the matter more seriously. Days before a mass paddle out protest at Kirra Queensland’s Premier Campbell Newman publicly rejected the proposal, citing lack of community support. World Champions Joel Parkinson and Mick Fanning lent their voices to the Save Our Southern Beaches Alliance (SOSA) protest which then shifted its focus to the broader region. Parko spoke for most present when he emphatically stated, “We want the premier to guarantee there’ll never be a cruise ship terminal on the Gold Coast full stop. He must say no to developments like this from Stradbroke to the border.”
It was a significant victory and an impressive flexing of the Gold Coast surf communities growing political muscle. But the defence against the notorious “white shoe brigade” of Queensland developers is far from over. The Gold Coast Ocean Terminal group are still hoping to build a multi-million dollar integrated tourism resort and casino at Bilinga. More worryingly, the Gold Coast mayor, former property developer Tom Tate, is pushing for a cruise ship terminal at the northern end of the Gold Coast, either at the Spit or inside the estuary at Wavebreak Island. Critics argue both proposals would require enormous and continuous sand-dredging of the seaway which would threaten the world class waves on South Stradbroke Island.
The Nerang River estuary (including the Spit and South Straddie) is treasured by surfers, fishos, divers, paddlers and boaties alike. It’s the Gold Coast’s last remaining area of coastal greenbelt, a natural oasis tucked away from the towering high-rise apartments and commercial infrastructure for which the Goldie is famous. The diving is phenomenal and is estimated to be worth over 30 million dollars a year for the local economy. Over 450 marine species including protected animals like dugongs, sea turtles and Queensland groper inhabit the estuary. Marine life and the dive industry would also be put at risk by the proposed terminal.
Then there are the waves. The surf at the Spit is reliable and popular and across the seaway lie some of the best beach breaks anywhere in the world. A deep water trench channels the wave energy into Straddie which is kept stocked with banks from an existing sand pump operation. It’s not just the quality that is treasured, it’s the whole experience. Many locals get their first taste of surf adventure paddling across to The Other Side and surfing the Hossegor-like barrels on offer. When they look back to the land they see melaleucas, casuarinas, tea trees and a pristine, natural environment. The water is usually clean and green and busy with sea life. It’s a genuine surfer’s paradise right under the nose of a manufactured, marketeer’s version (Surfers Paradise).
The high value the local community place on conserving the area explains why the Save Our Spit (SOS) alliance has become such a formidable force. Formed 11 years ago it is made up of a wide network of ocean users and community groups. Originally a protest group it has morphed into a research and analysis organisation which makes use of its supporter’s rich and varied expertise - marine biologists, lawyers, coastal engineers, marine engineers and surfing elders all contribute.
“We’ve found that scientific research gets you further than waving placards,” says SOS’s president Steve Gration. “Transforming into a research and analysis group has been our greatest weapon. We are now in a position to analyse and refute the bullshit that comes out of the commissioned reports that rely on faulty modelling.”
Gration spoke to Tracks at length about the group’s on-going fight to save the spit from cruise ships and marinas. As we navigated deeper into the Broadwater Marine Project’s underbelly words like corruption, backroom deals, official misconduct, state inquiries and defamation suits began piling up. At one point Gration mentioned that he suspected that his phone might be tapped and his emails hacked - maybe from the People’s Republic of China. It’s a big story, condensed here due to limited space.
It begins with the election of Tom Tate to the office of Gold Coast mayor in April, 2012. Tate, a former property developer who had unsuccessfully run for mayor three times, won office with only 37% of the vote. “During his campaign Tate had gone on the record stating he was opposed to developing the Spit,” relates Gration. “Two days before the election he announced support for a small cruise ship terminal at the Spit via his website. Because the majority of the vote was split between the other four candidates Tate fell over the line.” Mayor Tate has been heavily pushing for the cruise ship terminal ever since, which has now grown to include an enormous property development with a housing estate, high-rise tower, and casino proposal.
According to Gration all of the other mayoral candidates opposed a cruise ship terminal for the Spit because a very similar proposal had been thoroughly investigated and rejected in 2006 due to a host of environmental, practical and economic reasons. The original proposal also faced stiff opposition from the local community some of whom formed the Save Our Spit Alliance to fight it off.
Since then SOS have commissioned scientific research to bolster their argument that the surfing and diving amenity will be substantially compromised. Their surf quality claims have been contested by Professor Andrew Short who conducted a different study and assessed that the impact of dredging the seaway would have next to no effect on surf quality. Gration and Short have engaged in a vigorous email debate over the issue. Short’s study has not been tabled in the public domain for analysis (the SOS study is on their website). Surfrider have listed TOS on their endangered waves list.
While that point remains debatable, SOS cite multiple studies on their website which seem to indicate that a cruise ship terminal inside the spit is impractical. “Firstly, to allow cruise ship entry to the seaway will require a massive amount of dredging and because so much sand drifts northwards it would need to be continuously dredged, which would cost millions per year,” says Gration. “Secondly, hydrology studies have shown that because of the predominate wind and swell patterns cruise ships would only be able to dock a handful of days a year – maybe as little as one or two. In addition, cyclones and east coast lows could close the channel for extended periods, stranding ships or barring entry. We believe no insurance company would even insure a cruise ship to dock inside the spit.”
Gration describes the proposal point-blank as economic vandalism. While Mayor Tate has spoken of 36,000 full time on-going jobs and there has been talk of an annual injection of $750 million a year into the Gold Coast economy the SOS alliance have accessed research that suggests those claims are misleading, over-stated, or plain wrong. “The economic projections that have come from Council are absolute lies,” continues Gration. “You would need 14 cruise ships a day to even get near the $750 million figure. There are two Council reports – an economic report and an ecological report – which suggest that the true value of the Broadwater is higher without the cruise ship terminal. The reports weren’t given to the state government or the public. We believe they were deliberately hidden. One of our supporters – a marine biologist– had to go through freedom of information to access a finished report which he had worked on.”
Another relevant study which Mayor Tate appears to have dismissed examines the economic benefits of surfing on the Gold Coast. The report by Griffith Centre for Coastal Management estimated that recreational surfing on the entire Goldie strip was worth 1.6 billion and that South Straddie alone injects 20-30 million a year into the local economy. When the ABC asked Tate about the study he displayed his ignorance of his surfing constituents by responding: “I just want to point out to the surfers that there’s 65kms of beaches here on the Gold Coast… take your pick.”
So why would a major economic and community asset be put at risk for a cruise ship terminal that appears to be unsuited for its task and for a proposal that has already been assessed and roundly rejected? Gration has a theory which he would like to see tested by an official inquiry. “I believe it’s not about cruise ships – it’s about a land grab and property development,” he says. And this is where the story gets complicated and controversial.
Tom Tate made two overseas trips shortly after becoming the Gold Coast mayor. One included a visit to America’s casino capital, Las Vegas; the other was for a
trade conference in China. “It’s on the public record that Tate’s business lawyer, Tony Hickey, accompanied him on the China trip. Not long after their return Tony Hickey emerged as the official spokesperson for ASF China and now Hickey Lawyers are a project partner with ASF China,” says Gration.
ASF are backed by two massive construction companies owned by the People’s Republic of China. They have been chosen from the short list for the Broadwater Marine Project and their five billion dollar proposal includes a 50 storey tower, casino proposal and residential development on crown land. The land – in and around Broadwater estuary – is currently public green space but it is believed that it will be leased/sold or given away by the government to the company who builds the cruise ship terminal.
Given that Mayor Tate’s lawyer is assisting ASF it raises the question of a conflict of interest. So how close are Hickey and Tate? The Hickey Lawyers website contains the following quote about Tony Hickey from Paradise magazine’s “power ranking” from October 2012: “The legal eagle has seen his power stocks surge this year on the back of Mayor Tom Tate’s election win. The two are close friends and Cnr Tate seeks regular counsel from Mr Hickey. The lawyer has also turned developer… [and] has extensive contacts in China.”
Gration believes that ASF have already behaved improperly in regards to cruise ship proposal. ‘ASF told the stock exchange they were the preferred proponent of the Broadwater Marine Project, which signals that they are likely to get the tender. Overnight their share price seemed to double on the back of that announcement. But they aren’t the preferred proponent. We had a oneon-one meeting with Premier Newman and his deputy and we tabled evidence that ASF had potentially advantaged themselves through misinformation. We handed over the documentation and five days later ASF took the “preferred proponent” claim off their website and informed the stock exchange by the backdoor that they were “possible proponents”. We have taken our complaints to the stock exchange and recently we were told they will investigate our complaint.’
Clearly the SOS and the SOSBA aren’t groups to be trifled with. But even with a team of tenacious and legally astute supporters they remain a rock-throwing David. The international developing Goliath, ASF, has much more money with which to bedazzle the public. Recently they took out a series of full page ads spruiking an artist’s impression of their finished Spit project. According to the SOS they are trying to win community support before they offer any details: economic data, environmental impacts, design layouts or even the final location of the proposed terminal.
Publicly Mayor Tate is pushing the ‘good for jobs’ line and has made it clear which section of the community he listens to. When asked to comment about Mick Fanning’s opposition to the project he responded. "You can be the best surfer, diver, artist, I'm happy for you, but I will be listening to the people that matter ... It's more of an issue for high-profile people like the CEO of a cruise ship company ... they're the high-profile people I'm worried about ... Every Mick Fanning that comes out, I can find a high-profile surfer to say it's a fantastic idea".
Tracks contacted Tom Tate’s office but they ignored our request for an interview and didn’t respond to our emailed questions. Follow the story at saveourspit.com and tracksmag.com
Unknown sampling some Sth Straddie juice.||