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Environment and Parks – EOI Projects

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Tags: Lake Malbena, Parks EOIs, Reserve Activity Assessments

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, I want to talk about the proposal to establish a tourism operation on the now privatised Halls Island in Lake Malbena and the Walls of Jerusalem National Park in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. As you are aware, the decision to progress the proposed development to lease and licence was made by your predecessor in 2015, and a level three RAA was sent to the Commonwealth in September 2017. As you are aware, a level three RAA meant that there was no requirement on the Commonwealth's part to consult.

We since have had a court case which exposed the manifest failings of your Government and its pro-development agenda, but the consequence of that has been that your federal counterpart minister Ley has made it clear that the original decision to lodge the application to RAA as a level 3 was wrong and she points particularly to the use of helicopters and says this -

The use of helicopters during the construction of the camp to transport guests and goods to and from the standing camp and to conduct surveys for Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagles will create ongoing noise and visual impacts in the TWWHA and will create a new point of mechanised access to the TWWHA. On the basis of the information about the impacts of helicopter use summarised above, I found that the relatively undisturbed nature of the TWWHA means the impacts from helicopter use are likely to have a significant impact on the natural heritage values of the TWWHA.

Can you explain why your department lodged the RAA for Lake Malbena as level 3 instead of a level 4, which requires a higher level of assessment?

Mr JAENSCH - I would be happy in a moment to have Mr Jacobi comment on the distinction between the different levels and the rationale for making that call, but what I will open with is that the Government is not the proponent for this development -

Ms O'CONNOR - Geez, you could have fooled me.

CHAIR - Order, Ms O'Connor, the minister is answering the question.

Mr JAENSCH - The Government, and I as minister, have responsibility for the asset of the World Heritage Area, our parks and reserves, the legislation that protects them and the various acts and regulations that any development will need to be assessed under. In this case our job is to allow that proposal to be assessed under all relevant legislation and regulations, including Commonwealth legislation as appropriate, and we welcome the federal minister's referral of this development proposal and look forward to the outcomes of the subsequent assessment. When all of that is done, the Lake Malbena Halls Island proposal. if it is passed. will return to Tasmania and still needs to complete a full RAA assessment process before it can be granted a lease or license to proceed.

Ms O'CONNOR - You'll have a blockade there.

Mr JAENSCH - There are a lot of acts, regulations and processes that this, like any other development proposed in Tasmania to proceed and particularly in our parks and reserves, needs to pass through.

In terms of the technical assessment of which category of RAA applies, I will ask Mr Jacobi to respond.

Ms O'CONNOR - Mr Jacobi does not need to explain to the committee what the RAA is. The question is, why was it lodged as a level 3?

Mr JACOBI - I take advice from my staff who do an initial assessment of all RAAs. The initial assessment of that particular proposal at that time back in 2017 was that it should be an RAA level 3; in fact it was a 2-3. On the reaching of steps 6 and 7 of that RAA I had personal concerns and also there were concerns amongst the department about the scale of the impacts to wilderness, in particular World Heritage values, and a decision was made by me on the advice also of my staff to refer the proposal under the EPBC Act to the Commonwealth minister. The proponent voluntarily agreed to make the referral and the rest is history.

Over the last two years we have seen that particular RAA go through a number of steps at Commonwealth level but also in state appeals to address a number of concerns that have been raised. Those proposals still are under appeal and the Commonwealth has now made a decision to declare the proposal a controlled action. We respect minister Ley's decision to do that and we await the outcome of the preliminary documentation that the proponent now has to provide to the Commonwealth minister and the full public consultation process that needs to follow from that.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you, Mr Jacobi. The consultation process was not allowed to happen because it went to level 3 in the first place. Minister, I want to read you another part of minister Ley's statement of reasons. She refers to wilderness quality assessments undertaken by both the Parks and Wildlife Service and wilderness expert Martin Hawes. On the basis of those assessments she was provided with she said -

I accept that these assessments provide a useful demonstration of the possible extent of the impacts on exceptional natural beauty associated with a relatively undisturbed nature of the property and the scale of the undisturbed landscape. I found that the anticipated loss of 700 hectares of high-quality wilderness area and the reduction in wilderness quality of over 4200 hectares will constitute a significant on these key values or attributes. I consider that the scale of the proposed reductions in wilderness quality, including the size of the total area affected, mean that the impact on the relevant values is substantial.

Do you accept that this proposal, which has been enabled by a change explicitly made to the World Heritage Area Management Plan in 2016, if it went ahead would have a significant degrading impact on wilderness quality and values in the TWWHA?

Mr JAENSCH - Regarding the wilderness quality assessment matter and the comments from federal minister, Ms Ley, the wilderness quality assessment tool is based on the national wilderness inventory developed by the Australian Heritage Commission in the 1990s. In an early stage of the reserve activity assessment for Lake Malbena the proponent identified impacts to wilderness quality, and I am advised that the impacts contemplated then were deemed by the proponent to be negligible -

Ms O'CONNOR - Of course they were.

Mr JAENSCH - Immediately after receiving this documentation, the very next step in the RAA process was that the Parks and Wildlife Service referred the matter to the Australian Government, demonstrating that there is a process and a system that works -

Ms O'CONNOR - Tell that to the fishers and walkers.

CHAIR - Order, Ms O'Connor, the minister is answering your question.

Mr JAENSCH - Following various requests for further information by the Commonwealth, the Parks and Wildlife Service applied the assessment tool to the proposed Lake Malbena standing camp proposal and that information was provided to the proponent to inform his RAA and EPBCA environmental impact assessment.

CHAIR - Mr Ellis has the call.

Ms O'CONNOR - With respect, Chair, the minister had not finished answering the question.

Mr JAENSCH - These assessments were completed. The tool is used to guide decision-making. It doesn't supersede the management plan's allowable uses which, to be clear, do allow for helicopter landings in the self-reliant recreation zone in designated locations -

Ms O'CONNOR - Since you fiddled the management plan - yes, that's right.


Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, I take you to the decision which was made in secret to extend a lease over all of Halls Island to Mr Hackett in 2016. As you know, Reg Hall's Hut was originally held by Ms McQuilkin, Reg Hall's niece, but the whole island has been handed to a private developer for a lease and licence fee of $80 a week. Can you explain to the large and growing constituency, which includes fishers and bushwalkers and other lovers of the wilderness, how signing a lease over to private developer inside the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area is not only unprecedented, but it is privatisation of an island inside a public protected area?

Mr JAENSCH - I am advised that there are two leases in relation to Halls Island that have been issued. A commercial lease of Halls Island was granted in January 2018 and is presently in force. The lease grants Wild Drake Pty Ltd exclusive possession of the island for the purpose of Wild Drake constructing and operating a standing camp accommodation and other approved uses, including a docking point for a row boat to transfer clients and goods, and walking routes to and from a helicopter landing point. Fly fishing, kayaking and transport services are activities permitted under the agreement through a business licence component.

There is a separate private domestic lease for the use of the historic hut on the island, similar to the licence held originally by Reg Hall since 1957, but, as I understand it, re-issued under contemporary conditions and standards, which are quite different to those which might have applied to Mr Hall. Both agreements have been issued and feature contemporary terms and conditions.

The island is approximately 10 hectares in size. Lease and licence areas are determined by what is practical and reasonable in managing a proposed activity, whether that be for telecommunications, or accommodation, or access.

The statement of reasons issued by Ms Ley notes the sensitive vegetation such as alpine sphagnum bogs and associated fens, threatened ecological communities that occur in the locality of Lake Malbena, in particular, on the island. The need to mitigate impacts on these values is further detailed in the controlled action decision. The values were identified very early by the proponent's specialist flora and fauna consultant as a key value that would require ongoing management and controls to mitigate impact from human activity, whether that be existing users or proposed. Biosecurity hygiene measures, the prevention of fire-related impacts and the use of elevated mesh walkways are just some of the mitigation actions that are identified in the protected matters environmental management plan prepared by the proponent as necessary actions to protect these values and to manage human impacts between the arrival point and the standing camp.

As these were known very early in the assessment process, and given that the proponent is likely to be obligated to manage all visitors to the island, and the protection of these species and habitats if the decision is issued as either not a controlled action or a controlled action in a particularly manner, it was not considered reasonable to restrict the lease area only to the standing camp footprint.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, we have just heard the words for the first time from Government, a confession that what your Government has done is give exclusive possession of an entire island at Lake Malbena in the Walls of Jerusalem to a private developer. As the record shows, this was only revealed two years after that island had been signed over after a protracted Right to Information process. You have avoided answering my first question about how it is not privatisation to hand over a whole island to a private developer inside the TWWHA.

I want the record to note for everyone who receives this Hansard that you read your entire answer, as you usually do, out of your briefing paper. Can you answer the question I asked in the first place? When you say 'exclusive possession of Halls Island' can you confirm what you mean is privatisation?

Mr JAENSCH - You are doing this again, you are putting your ridiculous loaded question as your question and demanding that I say yes or no, which I will not do. I have explained to you why the decision was made to issue a licence, a lease covering the whole island because the lessees or the proponent's management responsibilities would extend over the entire island.

Ms O'CONNOR - It should be Parks managing the island.

CHAIR - Order, Ms O'Connor. I ask that you let the minister answer the question.

Mr JAENSCH - Under the proposed development, access to Halls Island remains available to members of the public. The lessee will have responsibility for managing their impacts too.

Ms O'CONNOR - Only if they ask for permission.

CHAIR - Order, Ms O'Connor, this is your second warning. I remind members that if I have to name the member because she is a substantive member of the committee -

Ms O'CONNOR - You did not name me; you warned me.

CHAIR - Order. You get three warnings and then I name. If I name the member, the committee closes down. I then have to seek a ruling from the Speaker. That time is not added onto this portfolio.

You have had two warnings. I ask that you allow the minister to speak without interruption, please. I know you are very passionate about this issue so I ask that you allow the minister to respond.

Mr JAENSCH - I want to highlight there are Parks management reasons why the lease extends to the whole of the island, including the management of continued public access to the island which will occur under the lease arrangement if this proposal proceeds. There will be public access but it will be managed public access, which the lessee has responsibility for because of the natural values on the island.

I know that you do not like it but there are good and real reasons for the way this lease has been configured. I stress again that the Government is not the proponent but is responsible for developing the terms and conditions under which this proposal, if it is to proceed, must operate. That is our job. We do not yet have final approvals for this proposal. It still has a way to go, as you pointed out earlier.

Ms O'CONNOR - You gave away an island.



Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you, it was a really clear question. Can the minister confirm that the only way Mr Johnstone can make his rent-seeking proposal for the South Coast Track, one of the great coastal wildernesses in the world, viable, despite receiving $2 million in public funds, is if he can activate the South East Cape walk, which is another EOI proposal? Can you confirm that would require yet another change to a management plan?

Mr JAENSCH - Going to the nature of your question, I don't know what the business margins are of Mr Johnstone's various operations and what they require of each other. I don't think that is a matter that is taken into account when doing lease and licence assessments. I ask Mr Jacobi if he has anything that he wants to add?

Ms O'CONNOR - Yes, and when Mr Jacobi is doing it, perhaps he could just tell us if there is anything in this massively blacked-out RTI about Mr Johnstone's proposal that he would be able to share with the committee?

Mr JACOBI - The two proposals that were submitted by Ian Johnstone, to be clear, we haven't received any reserve activity assessment for either of those proposals to date -

Ms O'CONNOR - They are in lease and licence negotiations?

Mr JACOBI - No, we haven't advanced the lease and licence negotiations to a sufficient point at this time because we haven't received a reserve activity assessment. They have been approved by the assessment panel to progress to assessment and lease and licence negotiations. We haven't proceeded with lease and licence negotiations because we haven't received a reserve activity assessment for either proposal yet.

Ms O'CONNOR - That's written by the developer, isn't it?

Mr JACOBI - What is?

Ms O'CONNOR - The reserve activity assessment.

Mr JACOBI - The reserve activity assessment - I know that the proponent has commissioned a number of specialist consultants to undertake a variety of different works; Aboriginal cultural and heritage investigations, flora and fauna, but that hasn't been provided to the Parks and Wildlife Service yet in any form for assessment.

The two proposals are separate and I can't comment on the reliance or the business viability of one proposal against the other. However, I can clarify your concerns around the South East Cape track because in our initial advice to the assessment panel, we made it very clear that there is no graded or formed walking track to the South East Cape. It is a route, and the current management plan has that area zoned as a wilderness zone. A wilderness zone does not allow for the upgrading of the track to a formed walking class standard.

That information was communicated clearly to the proponent at the time that he was granted approval to progress to lease and licence negotiations. He absolutely understands that if he is to proceed with the South East Cape walk it must be a guided walk, as per his proposal, so it is led by a guide, and he must conform to the existing route standard, which is a distinguishable route at the South East Cape, but it cannot be upgraded to a formed walking track class standard without a change to the management plan.

Ms O'CONNOR - That hasn't stopped the proponent before. Last question, because I'm just on this line of questioning.

Thank you for your answer, Mr Jacobi. To be clear, it has never prevented an EOI proposal from progressing that a management plan is not consistent with the development; in fact the converse is true. The world heritage area management plan of 2016 was changed in multiple areas in order to facilitate development.

Can you explain, minister, why when we sought information on the South East Cape walk, the Walls of Jerusalem proposal for world expeditions and Tasmanian Walking Company's proposal at Lake Rodway in relation to the proponent addressing the assessment criteria and guiding principles of the expressions of interest process, we would get back something that's pure black and white apart from very little? Can you explain why we are not being given any information about how these proposals comply with basic assessment criteria?

Mr JAENSCH - In terms of the redaction of the documents that you've received, I have no involvement or line of sight to why material was redacted except that under the RTI legislation, operated at arms-length from me as minister, those were thought to be appropriate redactions in this case.

Ms O'CONNOR - Can you rule out amending the Southwest National Park management plan?

Mr JAENSCH - The issue is that, very clearly, we've shown again that the EOI is not a way of circumventing due process. It adds additional process to the front end of what was otherwise a walk-up unsolicited bid process which entered at the RAA, like it did when you were a member of the government.

Ms O'CONNOR - No, because we didn't have a management plan that allowed for lodges and huts in the wilderness.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, let the minister finish. Mr Ellis will then have the call, thank you.

Ms O'CONNOR - The minister is rewriting history.

Mr JAENSCH - What the EOI process does, conversely, is that if a proposal enters the EOI process and then is deemed suitable to present to the next stage of assessment, the details of it are published, which they weren't before. You never knew in the past and the world heritage council authorised it.

Ms O'CONNOR - We had a management plan that protected the wilderness. You wrote one to degrade it.