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No private leases in national parks

Queensland Greens statement on privatisation of national parks

The Labor State Government is proposing to offer exclusive 60-year leases of state-owned national park land to private businesses in three locations at Hinchinbrook Island National Park, Whitsunday National Park and Great Sandy National Park at Cooloola. The government launched this proposal without adequately consulting local residents and traditional owners. This rushed-through plan poses real real risks to local communities, tourism industries and the parks’ natural environment.

The Government’s Proposal

In October 2018 the State Government called for Expressions of Interest for commercial eco-tourism activities at Thorsborne Trail (Hinchinbrook Island), Cooloola Great Walk (Great Sandy National Park) and the Whitsunday Island Trail (Whitsunday National Park), including walking trail tours and private eco-accommodation. The government has also offered $5 million in public funds for the development of private eco-accommodation along the Whitsunday Island Trail. Expressions of interest closed on 30 November 2018, with leases to be finalised in late 2019.

The Greens’ Position

Michael Berkman MP and the Queensland Greens want an urgent halt to this proposal, based on an overwhelmingly negative response from the community. We support eco-tourism ventures in the vicinity of our national parks, but this proposal as it stands is not acceptable. The key concerns are:

Privatisation of national park land

By offering exclusive 60-year leases of national parks to private commercial ventures, the Labor State government is handing over some of our most precious public land to private corporations whose primary motive is profit. Not only is this a method of privatisation by stealth, but it shifts land management responsibility out of public hands, and we know business don’t have a great track record when it comes to looking after the environment.

In fact, we’ve already seen what happens when the government offers long, exclusive leases of national parks to private enterprises. In 1978, a 75-year lease was granted over national park land for the development of Cape Richards Resort on Hinchinbrook Island. When the area was hit by Cyclone Yasi, the resort was badly affected, with asbestos-riddled debris left littering the area for years while the leaseholder refused to clean up the mess. By issuing leases as opposed to permits, which are also reviewed more frequently, national park land is taken out of State hands and responsibility. If business isn’t going well, Queenslanders end up with under-maintained areas like those at Cape Richards pictured below.

debris left on cape richards next to ocean  swimming pool debris left on cape richards

The above issue is especially pressing because we know there are particular risks relating to permanent structures in areas like Hinchinbrook, given it is prone to extreme weather events such as cyclones.

Lack of consultation with traditional owners at Hinchinbrook  

The State government claimed in its Expressions of Interest brochure that the involvement of local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be “paramount”, and the Greens agree.

In the case of Hinchinbrook Island, it alarming to hear that the Girrungun Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the interests of traditional owners from nine local tribal groups, was apparently not consulted before the government called publicly for expressions of interest in the project. Like others in the community, traditional owners apparently weren’t given a chance to consider this proposal and formulate a position, let alone have their voice heard, before the government began rushing this plan through.

We understand that Girrungun are currently organising to meet to discuss the proposal, and the Greens believe that Girrungun’s position must be taken into account before this plan goes ahead in any form.

Broken election promise to restore the Nature Conservation Act

At the 2015 State election Labor committed to restore the Nature Conservation Act 1992 after the Newman Government’s broad amendments in 2013. We commend Labor for delivering on their promise to restore the object of the Act to retain the “cardinal principle” of “the conservation of nature”. However, the proposals to lease national park land for private eco-tourism facilities, especially on Hinchinbrook Island, fly in the face of that promise. The government’s primary aim should be conserving our national parks, but involving commercial enterprises means profit becomes the priority, and this cannot be consistent with the cardinal principle.

Impact on existing tourism industry

The government’s proposal ignores the local tourism businesses currently operating in and around national parks. In particular, some of those businesses on Hinchinbrook Island are likely to suffer to the benefit of big operators if this proposal goes ahead, as the financial requirements of the leasing process make participation unaffordable for local tourism operators. What’s more, the commercialisation of our national parks is likely to make these trails less attractive to the existing market.

Conflict of interest

Many stakehelders have raised concerns that some individuals involved in government policy development are likely to also by involved in the tender process. For example, the current Chair of Tourism and Events Queensland Mr Brett Godfrey is the owner of luxury eco-tourism businesses including the Australian Walking Company, which is apparently involved in the tender process.

Coordinated/ “one government” approach

The “one government” approach offered in this proposal means proponents can sidestep proper community consultation and environmental impact assessments.

Steps forward

The Queensland Greens believe the government should take the following steps:

  1. Conduct genuine consultation with local tourism operators, residents and traditional owners to develop tourism solutions that will not negatively impact on the existing industry, community and natural environment.
  2. Make a commitment that no private leases will be issued for national park land. Locals and conservation groups are open to eco-tourism operations in the vicinity of national parks, but public land should not be handed over to private interests.
  3. When national park land is used by private operators, the government should use permits rather than leases. Permits are regularly reviewed and should maintain the primary management objective of environmental conservation.
  4. Follow Labor’s election promises to restore the integrity of the Nature Conservation Act by removing the harmful amendments made by the 2013 Newman government and ensure national parks are managed under the cardinal principle.

Petitions

If you're interested in stopping this proposal going ahead, please sign the North Queensland Conservation Council's petition here, or the change.org petition here. You can also contact the Tourism Minister Kate Jones on (07) 3719 7530 or at tourism@ministerial.qld.gov.au and ask her to scrap this proposal and rule out future private leases in QLD national parks. 

Funding to manage and expand Queensland's protected areas

I'm also supporting the Queensland Conservation Council's petition to the Qld Government to: 

1. Maintain the commitment to double the size of Queensland’s protected area system.
2. Invest in well-managed new National Parks to protect species and help rebuild regional tourism.
3. Increase funding for management of our existing national parks, creating more jobs for Park Rangers and land managers.

In 2016, Labor committed to double the area of protected land from around 8% to 17%, but since then very little has changed. I've previously written to Environment Minister and the Treasurer requesting they properly fund protected area management and Indigenous Rangers for Queensland, and will continue pushing for this.