“The Southport Spit will probably become a monument to the greed, arrogance, negativity and lack of vision of those who seem incapable of rejoicing in God’s gift.”
Father Ray Smith at the funeral of State MP Doug Jennings, Monday, April 13, 1987.
FOR the mourners, the sermon struck with the ferocity of unexpected lightning.
More than 600 people had gathered at St Peter’s Anglican Church in Southport on the Gold Coast on that Monday morning of April 13, 1987, to farewell the National Party MP for Southport, Doug Jennings. At only 57, Jennings had died of a suspected massive heart attack the previous Thursday. Cleaners had discovered the fitness fanatic’s body in the sauna of the Parliamentary Annexe gymnasium in Brisbane.
Sitting at the front of the church for the funeral service was the then Queensland premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the entire State Cabinet, and National and Liberal state and federal politicians, as well as family, friends, and a wide cross-section of the Gold Coast community.
Father Raymond Smith, who conducted the service, was a good friend of his parishioner Jennings (whose electoral office was opposite St Peter’s in Nerang Street). On this day, Fr Smith unleashed a warning from the pulpit. He told the congregation that Jennings, son of Sir Albert, the founder of national construction giant A.V.Jennings, was a parliamentarian who “represented all people, not just himself and not just the arrogant and corrupt few”. The good father also celebrated Jennings’ love of nature and his vision for the need to preserve public open space, particularly the Southport Spit.
Jennings’ close friend, Ann Davies, remembers with a chill the proclamations made on that day. “You can imagine how we were feeling at the service – great sadness – and then this came at us from the pulpit,” she says. “It was so representative of Doug, of what he fought for, and it was so powerful it passed through you to the back of the pew. Father Smith was saying – if you touch what Doug tried to protect, you will have to account for yourself on Judgement Day.”
Jennings fought tooth and nail against any further development of the Southport Spit. Almost a year to the day after his death - in May 1988 – a 12-hectare piece of land at The Spit’s northern tip was dedicated to the memory of Jennings and his environmental aspirations.
But now The Spit - that narrow finger of land that constitutes the last genuine ocean-side parcel of undeveloped real estate on the Gold Coast – is at the centre of another fight. The Beattie Government’s vision for it to house a cruise ship terminal has ignited a fierce private sector battle for the potential tender, public outcry, rumours of violence, arson, and secret deals, rallies, radio talkback debate and whispers of cloak and dagger negotiations over developing multi-million dollar blocks of Crown land.
As well as the cruise ship terminal, the development plan for The Spit includes a marina precinct for super yachts and other commercial and recreational vessels, and a tourist/commercial development on land on the western foreshore south of Sea World. An Aboriginal cultural centre has also been mooted.
It is shaping up to be perhaps the last great environmental battle on the Gold Coast, the city itself an homage to untrammelled development and excess. And at the very heart of the matter is that 12-hectare rustic patch of seagrass and Casuarina trees known as Doug Jennings Park.
THE Southport Spit, for much of its history, has been a field of dreams. In 1897-98 a series of gales tore through a sliver of land called Jumpinpin and broke Stradbroke Island into two (North and South). As a result, a sand spit evolved north of Main Beach Point.
It was eyed by speculators as early as the 1950s, when a young Keith Williams, the legendary Gold Coast entrepreneur, traversed its dunes in search of suitable places to water ski on the Broadwater. Throughout the 1960s there were suggestions The Spit be turned into an airstrip, that it house an aquarium, an “amusement oasis”, a caravan park and a “mini-city”. Williams tendered for the rights to build a marine park. It became Sea World, which opened in the early 1970s. There were subsequent hair-brained schemes for giant “horizon tanks” to facilitate movie making, and a statue of a lifesaver on nearby Wavebreak Island to rival New York’s Statue of Liberty.
The first official inkling of a cruise ship terminal for the Gold Coast emerged after the collapse of a Brisbane terminal plan, instigated by former Queensland premier Rob Borbidge in 1997. The Beattie government closed down the $170-million Hamilton Quay project in May 2001, following years of legal complications and lost revenue. Premier Peter Beattie then pledged a new cruise ship terminal for Brisbane - the $350 million Hamilton facility, Portside Wharf, is due to be finished by the middle of this year - and said the government would investigate other potential sites in Cairns, Townsville, Mackay and the Whitsundays. It wasn’t until 2002 that Beattie, on a US tourism and trade promotion mission, revealed he wanted a facility on the Gold Coast to make Queensland “the cruise mecca of the South Pacific”. At the same time it was revealed the former National Party state secretary and Bjelke-Petersen government advisor Mike Evans had formed a consortium, Australian Cruise Port International, interested in a Gold Coast terminal.
Former State Development Minister Tony McGrady told the Gold Coast Bulletin in 2004 that the whole idea for the Gold Coast terminal came from Evans and his consortium. The consortium also appears to have been consistently touted as the “frontrunner” in the race for tender.
Evans concedes the idea was born out of a lunch he had in July 2001 – just two months after the demise of Hamilton Quay - with the renowned Brisbane Harbour Master and chairman of Brisbane Marine Pilots, Captain Steve Pelecanos. “Steve explained to me that the Gold Coast Seaway had enough depth in the channel (for cruise ships) and the great advantage was that it was a day closer to the South Pacific than Sydney,” Evans recalls.
With The Spit again looming as a battleground, groups such as the Main Beach Progress Association, Gecko (Gold Coast and Hinterland Environment Council), and the Friends of Federation Walk (volunteer custodians of the 91-hectare ocean-side Federation Walk Coastal Reserve that extends north from Philip Park, opposite Sea World, to the northern tip of The Spit) began to mobilise. They would eventually amalgamate under the umbrella of the Save Our Spit (SOS) Alliance.
Drama teacher, academic and surfer, Steve Gration – now acting head of SOS – became actively involved in the issue after attending a protest meeting in January last year. “I thought - we’ve got a Labor Government, they’re smart, they’re for the people. In a few months time it’ll be seen as a silly idea. But the whole thing just got heavier and heavier. The people opposed to it were being vilified in the press. Fear and lies were being peddled. I got so angry the working class boy in me said – alright, I see the game now and I’m going to do what I have to do.”
The first major public rally against the terminal was staged at Doug Jennings Park on April 3 last year. More than 2000 people attended. Surfers Paradise Liberal MP John-Paul Langbroek called for an inquiry, and local Gold Coast City Counsellor Susie Douglas demanded a referendum. “I don't think the Beattie Government has all the support they think they have on this,” she reportedly said at the time. “I believe there are deals being done . . . (that developers) have got an arrangement with the Government to access that land.”
The Beattie Government forged on, producing a study it commissioned from Star Cruises Ship Stimulation Centre in Malaysia that showed it was “highly feasible” for 300m cruise ships to navigate and dock at the Southport Spit. The suggestion for the Malaysian study came from Captain Steve Pelecanos.
On October 17 last year the terminal and associated marina and tourist developments were declared a “significant project” by the State Cordinator-General, Ross Rolfe. That month the government began the tendering process, publishing a detailed document Gold Coast Marine Development: Expressions of Interest. In the introduction it declares that the Gold Coast has “enjoyed significant interest from cruise lines” and that interest had resulted in a number of “unsolicited” proposals to the State for the development of a cruise ship terminal.
However, Qweekend understands the Government actively solicited at least two cruise terminal bidders prior to publicly releasing the tendering document.
It is believed Mike Evans was asked by the Department of State Development in December 2002, April 2004 and July 2005 to submit a proposal for the project. At least two of those requests were allegedly made by then State Development minister Tony McGrady. McGrady, who relinquished the portfolio in August last year, refused to comment.
Jeffrey Leigh-Smith, one of the Gold Coast’s leading marine industry figures whose family sold boats on The Spit in the 1970s, confirmed he also was encouraged to submit a bid. “I wasn’t going to tender with anybody up until last year. I was asked by a high-ranking public official to put the tender in. At that stage I think the government was of the tune that there might not be many tenderers out there.” Asked the name of the public official, he said: “I don’t want to go there. It was a situation that we were encouraged to get in there by government.”
By the January deadline, the Government received formal bids from nine consortiums - some of the heaviest hitters in Australian construction and development. Mike Evans’s group, retaining principal backers Leighton Constructions and Sinclair Knight Merz, but revamped and renamed the Gold Coast Cruise Port Consortium, is one of the nine; as is Leigh-Smith’s Oceana, led by Brisbane-based developer Devine Homes (former Deputy-Premier and Treasurer Terry Mackenroth is a board member of Devine Ltd). Among the others are the Macquarie Bank/Seymour Group (Seymour is headed by one of the country’s richest men Kevin Seymour); Multiplex; Raptis Group, led by coast developer Jim Raptis; and the Sunland Group, the developers behind the Q1 tower in Surfers Paradise.
When asked if it was protocol for government officials to actively encourage submissions from the private sector for a government tender like the Gold Coast cruise ship terminal, deputy Premier and State Development minister Anna Bligh’s office issued the following statement: “The Department of State Development and Coordinator (sic) General’s office has no knowledge or information in relation to this claim.”
Opponents have argued that it makes no economic sense to build a cruise terminal on the Gold Coast with the Brisbane terminal nearing completion. Would two major terminals, less than an hour apart by road or train, be fiscally viable? Indeed, research into cruise ship passengers conducted by Tourism Queensland itself in late 2004 provided a snapshot of an industry that did not seem to match the government’s hopes of annual revenue from the cruise industry of up to $80 million. “Cruise passengers (to Australia) spent an average of three days in Queensland,” the report said. “Overall, cruise ship passengers spent an average of $80 per person during their stopover in Brisbane.” Just 29 cruise ships per year currently visit Brisbane, although Bligh has predicted a Gold Coast terminal would welcome one ship every 10 days, or about 36 ships per year.
In December Bligh announced a five-person panel to oversee the Environmental Impact Study into the terminal proposal. The tender offer for the EIS closed on February 20 this year. On March 9 Bligh told State Parliament that Gutteridge Haskin Davey (GHD) had been appointed contractor for the EIS. GHD has been involved in other Queensland projects such as the Gold Coast airport and Gladstone coal terminal expansions. A decision on the winning consortium bidder will be made depending on the outcome of the EIS, which may not be completed until mid-year.
“We’ve been very upfront about this,” Bligh told Qweekend. “We’re very keen to have this happen. We’re very keen to get a slice of this (cruise ship) action. But every place we’ve identified for a possible terminal we’ve been very clear, it has to stack up economically and it has to stack up environmentally, and we are still in the process of deliberating on that. So, is this do or die against all sensible evidence? No it’s not. We’re not going to do something stupid.”
A winning consortium, in exchange for building and operating the terminal, would be granted development rights to parcels of priceless waterfront State Government land further down The Spit.
In what some critics are hailing “a return to the days of the White Shoe Brigade”, a culture of fear and rumour has emerged the closer the Government gets to a final decision. “I thought the city had moved on from those days,” says former Gold Coast deputy-mayor Alan Rickard, who vigorously objected to early Gold Coast City Council plans to turn the Broadwater into a harbour, complete with ship terminals, marinas and hotels. “But you’ve seen some of the names involved who are interested in the terminal. It goes to show that dinosaurs can come back.”
Federal Liberal MP for Moncrieff, Steve Ciobo – whose electorate encompasses much of the Gold Coast, from Southport to Burleigh Waters – believes the Beattie Government “more than 18 months ago” made its decision on the terminal and who would construct it. “The rest is a political game Peter Beattie is going through,” Ciobo says.
IT just wouldn’t be the Gold Coast if a development project as big as a multi-million dollar cruise ship terminal didn’t come with a subterranean whiff of scandal. The battle for The Spit is no exception.
For more than ten years local businessman and theatre guru, Leonard Lee, of Westend Theatre Management, had a vision for a world-class performing arts centre on the Gold Coast. He raised capital and negotiated with the State Government for a potential site near the southern end of the Southport Spit. Lee claims in April last year he received an anonymous telephone call from a man telling him to “back off” with his theatre project, and was threatened with actual violence. Lee says he reported the call to the police. He received another call around August, telling him to butt out of The Spit area as he was “dealing with the big boys”.
Prior to Christmas last year, he says he was told by a senior State Government official that his theatre plans were “off the table”, a rejection he believes was related to the cruise terminal plan. “I think it’s wrong,” he says. “The developers want everything.” Lee has since met with State Government officials and is in negotiations over another potential site for his theatre in nearby Southport.
Then there’s the case of Humphreys Boatshed, a former heritage-listed building at the western entrance to The Spit, near the Southport Yacht Club. The famous engineering and boat repair workshop, dating back to the 1940s, abuts land that houses the Naval Cadets headquarters and a facility that incorporates the Gold Coast Water Police, Queensland Transport, the Queensland Department of Primary Industries and the Department of Environment and Heritage. Both these parcels have been mooted as potential land offered to developers as part of the cruise ship terminal deal.
Throughout the first half of 2004, the Gold Coast press reported that the historic shed had fallen into disrepair and was riddled with asbestos. Former local councillor and real estate guru Max Christmas claimed in the Gold Coast Bulletin on May 6 of that year that the State Government wanted to demolish the boatshed as part of a revamp of the area. Suddenly, in late July, the boatshed was partially destroyed by fire. The then commodore of the neighbouring Southport Yacht Club, Neville Ferguson, reportedly said in the Gold Coast Bulletin it was a fire “waiting to happen”, and that the worse the building’s state of repair “the more chance of the building being demolished” to make way for developers.
Ferguson’s theory seems to have been prescient. A Department of Natural Resources spokesman told the Gold Coast Bulletin the day after the fire “the future of Humphreys Boatshed is being considered within the broader context of the future land-use planning for the entire Spit precinct”, and that a cruise ship terminal might be part of that future.
The Bulletin also reported that police were “trying to locate a man seen running from the site when fire crews arrived just after midnight”. Police investigations never ascertained arson as the cause of the fire.
Labor MP for Southport, Peter Lawlor, demanded after the fire that the heritage-listed building be demolished. “I think that western side of Seaworld Drive will eventually be developed,” he said on November 29, 2004. “All that site is good for is a bulldozer.”
Steve Ciobo adds: “There has been a whole range of things going on right back to the boatshed fire. It was a Gold Coast icon for sixty years, then suddenly the whole thing burnt down.”
Local residents and the Friends of Federation Walk also noted a disturbing pattern of fires on The Spit between 2001 and 2004. Seven major blazes burnt out segments of the Federation Walk Coastal Reserve during that three-year period, starting at the northern tip and working back towards Sea World. “If you look at the locations of the fires it does appear to be systematic – that whoever did it wanted to damage as much of the reserve as possible,” says one resident, who declined to be named. “The word is it was done to ravage the place and make it more amenable to development.” The fires were never officially investigated, although the Gold Coast City Council, local fire fighting crews, and police always believed they had been deliberately lit.
Another source says the Gold Coast Water Police have already been issued their “operational directives” to prepare for the inevitability of a cruise ship terminal at The Spit, and to adjust work timetables and staff levels accordingly, although a spokesperson for Police Minister, Judy Spence says “there have been no formal considerations or staffing briefings” on new operational procedures.
In early February this year, the Gold Coast Sun reported that John Johnstone, the deputy chairman of Sunfish Queensland, the state’s recreational anglers lobby, had received an unsigned letter “in a plain envelope” offering inducements to “see things the shipping terminal way”. One of the offers was for a cruise liner holiday. Johnstone told Qweekend that in the envelope was a photocopy of an American one dollar bill. “It said there would be plenty more where that came from. I sent it on to the CMC (Crime and Misconduct Commission) and the Premier’s Department. Since I haven’t heard anything I’m wondering if it was a practical joke.”
Shona Pinkerton, proprietor of Devocean Dive and Gold Coast spokesperson for the local diving industry, says protestors and interest groups were being offered “amenities” for a project that seemed a fait accompli.
After an SOS meeting in September last year, which was attended by Ross Rolfe and Premier Beattie’s Deputy Chief of Staff (Policy Coordination) Damien McGreevy, she said: “I was asked what my ‘wish-list from the developers’ might be in relation to diving and The Spit. It was suggested we might like some steps put in for divers off the rocks, or barbecues and showers. I said – what do you mean wish list from developers? They haven’t even conducted the EIS yet.” Steve Gration’s notes from the meeting also recorded an offer of “barbecues and other amenities”.
Rolfe says: “Nobody has any recollection of using those precise words, but certainly it’s the case that there’s been discussion with people about their ideas for enhancing the overall amenities for The Spit and including how any adverse impacts on their existing uses might be properly mitigated. That would be a normal thing to do.”
Bligh told Qweekend that steps and barbecue areas could not be considered as “inducements” to the protestors: “My understanding is that the Alliance feels very strongly about maintaining public amenities and recreation on The Spit and I would expect that government officers who are sitting listening to people would be saying – so would this make it better? I don’t think that anybody for one minute would think that a barbecue was an inducement.”
THE Gold Coast cruise ship terminal proposal has elicited opinions as diverse as they are surprising. Arguably the father of Gold Coast development, entrepreneur Keith Williams, says he is “100 per cent behind the protestors”. “To put the terminal on the end of The Spit is absolute stupidity,” he says from his home at Main Beach. “They’re going to bugger up the last piece of ocean front public land left on the Gold Coast. It should be left as public open space.”
Professional charter fishermen claim the Malaysian study into the Seaway’s feasibility for cruise liners has miscalculated the average flow of the current. The local surfers, legion in number, believe it will destroy the world-class break off South Stradbroke Island. Marine scientists say it will impact heavily on the Broadwater, a “nursery” for fish, prawns, crabs, and a huge array of sea life.
Gold Coast mayor Ron Clarke stated on the council website earlier this year that if the terminal could be built without environmental repercussions it could be “a wonderful boost to the Gold Coast economy”. Yet in an about face a few weeks later, on February 18, he declared in his weekly newspaper column in the Gold Coast Bulletin he hoped the Premier was examining “all options” during the environmental impact investigation, specifically the importance of berths for money-earning super yachts.
Opposition leader Lawrence Springborg is unequivocal: “We oppose development of The Spit, full stop.” At the Nationals State Conference in July last year, a unanimous resolution was passed condemning the Beattie Government’s plans for further development of The Spit and calling for the area to be protected from development “for future generations”.
The ALP’s Peter Lawlor, who occupies Doug Jennings’ old seat of Southport, believes the issue will ultimately have political implications. “It’s an important issue, an emotive issue,” he says. “I imagine it will impact on the (next) election, and me in particular. But the government has an obligation to promote tourism. The argument against development (of The Spit) was lost when Keith Williams put Sea World there.”
Bligh, who grew up on the Gold Coast , adds: “I guess from government’s perspective (and) as I said before, we think it would have been irresponsible to contemplate developing a cruise shipping industry and not to include the Gold Coast in our considerations. It would be great if (The Spit) was less environmentally sensitive, if people had less emotional attachment to it - that would make it a lot easier but tough decisions are tough decisions. I should say I haven’t seen the developers’ proposals. It’s also possible that what they’re proposing is unacceptable.”
She told parliament in early March a lot of “misinformation” had circulated throughout the Gold Coast in relation to the cruise ship proposal.
Bligh says only a single hectare of Doug Jennings Park would be utilised if a cruise ship terminal went ahead. This hectare would have to facilitate the terminal wharf, some form of arrivals building for officials and tourists, bus and car parks, taxi ranks and public toilets, as well as facilities for security officials and port staff, and possibly refuelling infrastructure. “That’s all that we’re making available. One hectare,” Bligh says.
At the first public protest at Doug Jennings Park last year, Ann Davies and friends decided to plant a tree in the reserve to continue the memory of the area’s namesake. Right up to his death, Jennings regularly swam across the Broadwater from Southport to The Spit and back before work in the mornings. He often started out so early it was still pitch black. “It’s a tuckeroo,” she says. “It’s a beautiful tree with the deepest green leaves and they grow really well in the sand dunes. They’re the trees you see along Narrowneck and coming into Main Beach. They’re all very windswept. It’s a coastal tree and it does very well where there’s sand and wind. It’s beautiful, the tuckeroo, and we planted it for him. It’s still standing.”