Tracks - - Buzz -

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 saveour­ and


Un­known sam­pling some Sth Strad­die juice.||

Il­lus­tra­tion by stan squire

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