Chapter 1 - Overview

Chapter 1 - Overview

Conduct of the inquiry

1.1        The Senate referred this inquiry to the then Environment, Recreation, Communications and the Arts References Committee on 14 May 1998. The inquiry was re-adopted by the renamed Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts References Committee when the new Parliament met after the October 1998 general election. The terms of reference for the inquiry are:

  1. The relationships between Federal, State and local governments and developers in the Hinchinbrook Channel
  2. The effect of developments on the environment of the Hinchinbrook Channel and surrounding environs
  3. Whether governments have met their obligations under the various Acts and agreements that deal with the Hinchinbrook area
  4. Alternatives to the existing regime
  5. What lessons have been learned and what can be done to prevent problems like this occurring in the future.

1.2        The inquiry was prompted by continuing public controversy over the Port Hinchinbrook resort development at Cardwell, North Queensland, an area adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. The Cardwell site was cleared in the late 1980s; the development company failed; a new developer resumed work in 1994 until stopped by the former Labor Commonwealth government in November 1994 because of concerns about possible environmental impacts on the adjacent World Heritage Area. In August 1996 the newly elected Coalition Commonwealth government gave the approvals necessary for work to resume, and the development is now well under construction. A more detailed chronology of the Port Hinchinbrook development is in chapter 2.

1.3        The Committee advertised the inquiry on 19 May 1998 in the Brisbane Courier Mail, the Townsville Bulletin, The Australian and a number of North Queensland regional newspapers. It received 166 primary submissions (see APPENDIX 1) plus a large amount of additional information (see APPENDIX 4). The Committee heard 60 witnesses at hearings in Cardwell, Townsville and Canberra (see APPENDIX 2). During its visit to Cardwell the Committee inspected the Port Hinchinbrook development site by invitation of the developer, Mr Keith Williams.

1.4        The Committee relied for its information on written submissions, evidence given at hearings, and further information received in answer to questions which the Committee addressed to certain parties following the hearings (see APPENDIX 4).

1.5        The Committee was expected to report by 17 September 1998, but was delayed by the election campaign at that time and the need to re-establish the Senate committees in the new parliament. In the first half of 1999 the Committee had to give priority to a number of other major or urgent inquiries, including an inquiry into the environmental effects of the government’s tax reform package, an inquiry into the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Bill 1998, an inquiry into the Commonwealth’s environmental powers, an inquiry into the Jabiluka uranium mine, and inquiries in the broadcasting and telecommunications area.[1] Consequently, the reporting date was extended to September 1999.

Overview of submissions

1.6        The controversial Port Hinchinbrook development was the focus of most submissions. Most of these submissions divided clearly into supporters and opponents of the development. A clear majority of the submissions were opposed to the development.

1.7        Supporters of the development were mainly local interest groups (such as Cardwell and Hinchinbrook Shire Councils and the Cardwell Chamber of Commerce) and sympathetic individuals. They argue that Port Hinchinbrook will provide much-needed economic development for the region; that the development does not have detrimental environmental impacts; or that the various environmental controls will adequately prevent or mitigate impacts. They argue generally that there has to be a ‘balance’ between jobs and the environment. Their view of where the right balance lies is obviously much different from that of environmental groups. The right balance between conservation and development is discussed in chapter 5.

1.8        Opponents of the development were predominant in submissions to this inquiry. They were mainly environment groups (both local and national) and sympathetic individuals. They deplore the lack of a thorough upfront environmental impact assessment for such a major development abutting the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (the reasons for this lack, dating back to the 1980s, are discussed in chapter 3). They say that such a study should have been an input into the decision whether to approve the development in the first place, not merely an afterthought concerned with monitoring and mitigating environmental impacts. They do not think that the Deed of Agreement between the developer and the governments (explained in chapter 2) is a satisfactory substitute. They think that the authorities involved at all three levels of government have been too eager to expedite the development, at the expense of their duty to protect the environment. They claim that the development is having detrimental environmental impacts. They agree with the need for ‘appropriate’ economic development in the region, but think that this development is not appropriate. They argue that the benefits of the development to the local economy of Cardwell are unresearched and uncertain, and the development is just as likely to draw economic activity away from the existing town as towards it.

1.9        The Commonwealth[2] and Queensland governments and the developer (Cardwell Properties Pty Ltd: principal Mr Keith Williams) assert that there are no significant detrimental impacts and the environment is adequately protected by the various environmental management measures under the Deed of Agreement. The developer additionally argues that he has complied with all the environmental requirements of the authorities and ‘...if the opponents of Port Hinchinbrook have any justifiable grievances then they should level their criticism at the government and not at my company.’[3]

1.10      The Committee received submissions and evidence from a number of scientists, mostly in relation to the risk of damage to the environment from acid runoff from the Port Hinchinbrook property (discussed in chapter 4). These had mixed opinions about the extent of actual environmental damage; but significantly, almost all were concerned about the risk of damage and believed that the procedures used in approving and controlling the development have been flawed.

1.11      Some submissions talked about other environmental threats to the Hinchinbrook region (particularly effluent from aquaculture and effects of clearing land for canegrowing). These submissions were not numerous enough or detailed enough to support more than brief comments by the Committee (see chapter 5).

Controversial character of the Port Hinchinbrook development

1.12      The Port Hinchinbrook development has been unusually controversial and much of the argument about it has been bitter. The Committee attributes this to the unhappy conjunction of several factors:

1.13      A few of the submissions and evidence to this inquiry - but including some key ones - were acrimonious, and attacked each other’s bona fides in various ways. Some supporters of the development spoke of ‘rentacrowd objectors’ and ‘militant fanatical elements who masquerade as conservationists’, or claimed that the conservation movement in this matter has a ‘political agenda’.[7] In this there is obviously a strong undercurrent of generalised local resentment against outside interference, whether by ‘Townsville academics’, the Queensland government or the Commonwealth. Some environment groups attacked the development not only by arguing about environmental impacts, but also by various statements apparently aimed at generally undermining the credibility and reputation of the developer.[8] In response the developer claimed to be the victim of a personal vendetta.[9] He also attacked a number of scientists who have expressed concern about the development as having ‘political motives’ or ‘bastardising their credentials’ - the specific accusation is unclear but the general idea seems to be that they have compromised their professional ethics in some way because of personal opposition to the development.[10]

1.14      The Committee is satisfied that the developer is motivated by a bona fide desire to build a profitable development. We are satisfied that the local interest groups who support him are motivated by a bona fide desire to obtain beneficial economic development for the region. We are satisfied that the environment groups and the many individuals who oppose the development are motivated by a bona fide concern to prevent environmental harm to one of the most beautiful areas on the Queensland coast. The main dispute is over where the right balance lies between conservation and development, and how big an environmental impact must be to be called ‘significant’.

1.15      The Committee would like to comment specially on the position of the scientists in this debate. The scientists who came forward to give evidence did so because they have relevant expertise or have somehow been involved with the development. Most of them obviously also had personal opinions about the developmentĀ  - and their opinions were mostly negative. They are entitled to have personal opinions, and to express them. Others with different personal opinions are entitled to disagree with them. On the other hand, the Committee has no evidence whatever to suggest that any scientists have acted unethically - for example, by designing their research programs, doctoring their research results or tailoring their professional advice to support predetermined conclusions based on personal opinions. The Committee deplores personal attacks on scientists because their research results or their professional advice happen to be unwelcome to the attacker. More comment on the role of scientists in this type of debate is in chapter 5.

1.16      Senate committee procedures provide that where evidence ‘adversely reflects’ on a person or organisation (for example, by accusing them of deliberate lies or illegal acts), that person or organisation should have a reasonable right of reply. In a number of cases in this inquiry the Committee pointed out ‘adverse reflections’ to the affected parties and invited reply. Their replies are part of the public evidence of the inquiry (unless the Committee accepted a request for confidentiality) and are noted in APPENDIX 4.

Overview of issues

1.17      The Port Hinchinbrook dispute stands as an example of some interesting general problems about development control and environmental impact assessment. For example:

1.18      The Port Hinchinbrook development is discussed in chapters 2, 3 and 4. Most comments on more general questions are in chapter 5.

Navigation: Previous Page | Contents | Next Page