Uncovering secret documents

Protecting wetlands at Toondah Habour

A globally important Ramsar wetland were under threat from plans for a huge marina and high-rise apartment complex

EJA is represented the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) in their appeal of a federal department’s decision to refuse access to documents relating to Walker Corporation’s plans for a Marina and high-rise apartment complex, estimated to cost $1.4 billion, on sensitive wetlands at Toondah Harbour, near Brisbane. 

Why was this case necessary?

Toondah Harbour wetlands are located in Moreton Bay on the Queensland coast near Brisbane.

These sensitive wetlands are globally protected under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and are home to threatened wildlife including dugongs, dolphins, whales, sea turtles and the critically endangered eastern curlews.

The area is also known as a top migratory bird site in Australia. The proposed development by Walker Corporation would involve dredging and drying out about 40 hectares of Ramsar-listed wetlands.

Every summer 32 species of migratory shorebirds – some 40,000 individual birds – visit Moreton Bay. Around 20 percent of the world’s eastern curlews and 50 percent of all grey-tailed tattlers feed, breed and rest at the wetland following their amazing migration from Russia.

Plans for a marina and high-rise apartment complex on this site have been in the works since 2013, but have faced vigorous opposition from locals and environment groups. 

The Toondah wetlands are supposed to be protected under our national nature laws, but continued failures in our laws mean a proposal for the development of this land was able to progress in 2018, under former Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg who rejected his own department’s advice that the development would damage the wetland.  

About the client

The Australian Conservation Foundation is a national environment group. It is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit organisation focused on advocacy, policy, research and community organising.

The case

EJA lawyers, for ACF, successfully sought access to the documents relating to Walker Cooperation’s secret meetings with the department and their plans for the development.

The documents recorded meetings between the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment and the Walker Group.

The Walker Group sought to build a marina and associated development at Toondah Harbour. Toondah Harbour forms part of an internationally protected Ramsar wetland and provides habitat for turtles, dugongs, dolphins and Eastern Curlews.

The Proposal was originally rejected by the Department outright because it was clearly unacceptable, but was subsequently accepted for assessment by the then Environment Minister, Josh Frydenburg.

The Walker Group had met with the Department a number of times prior to lodging an application for assessment under the EPBC Act. These are known as pre-referral meetings.

ACF sought access to copies of notes of these meetings, which was refused on the basis that the documents were confidential and that, by disclosing the documents, the Department’s ability to undertake its work would be prejudiced.

ACF sought to challenge on the grounds that there was no basis to assert the notes were confidential and that the public interest in disclosing the documents outweighed any prejudice to the Department, which was in any event, overstated.

This was an important case because that tested exemptions consistently relied upon by the Commonwealth to avoid public scrutiny in the environmental decision-making process.

The public has the right to know what is in these documents that were for a long time kept secret.