West Australian - April 14, 2003


Labor weighs cost of NW Cape chaos
By Tony Barrass

IF THE controversial Mauds Landing proposal fails to get Cabinet approval, some will claim that the decision will have little to do with developers failing to follow proper process and a whole lot to do with backroom preference deals, celebrity politics and government back-sliding.

Whether you believe that development of the remote coastline is long overdue or are passionately opposed to it, one thing is certain; Mauds Landing, if misread, could spell the end of a Government that surged to power after tapping into another delicate environmental issue, the South-West logging debate.

Just as Labor hard man Graham Richardson delivered to a struggling Bob Hawke an historic fourth term in 1990 after convincing environmental groups that the Federal Government had turned Green, the State Labor machine is desperate to secure Green preferences.

Labor is fully aware of its position. On the one hand it needs preferences from the Greens - vehemently opposed to the development - while on the other it faces a considerable payout to developers increasingly fed up with the constant moving of planning and environmental goal posts.

In the build-up to the next election due before 2005, Dr Gallop and his Government have two obvious options. One is to support the development in the next few months and remove any threat of drawn-out and costly litigation and give themselves 18 months to woo back the Greens via other, less problematic issues.

The second choice is also fraught with danger; drag the issue on, knock back the development just before the next poll, get the Greens on side, tiptoe back into office and worry about court costs and compensation payouts later, preferably when they're not in office.

The developer, Coral Coast Marina Development Pty Ltd, is not saying so but its intentions are clear. Its legal options are numerous and varied if Cabinet refuses to allow the development to go ahead. Even its critics acknowledge it is on solid ground to launch substantial and wide-ranging action against the State.

And who could blame it? The chronological history of the development paints a disturbing picture of government ineptitude, some strange goings-on by some public servants and general bureaucratic dilly-dallying.

In 1987, the then Labor government approached the company and asked it to come up with a plan for a marina at Mauds Landing because of environmental pressures on Coral Bay. CALM invited expressions of interest and in January 1989, the company submitted its plan of an inland marina, golf course, tourism facilities and 1200 freehold residential lots.

"CALM's view is that an effective marina and associated facilities at Mauds Landing would greatly enhance public access to the marine park and contribute to the economic development of the region while taking the pressure of Coral Bay," then CALM director Dr Barry Wilson wrote to his minister in 1989. "From CALM's point of view, the Coral Coast proposal is desirable and the 1000 residential lots acceptable."

Cabinet approved the plan as the preferred development option, subject to environmental and planning approvals. For the next three years for various reasons, including a recession and some nervous investors, the plan sat dormant.

But in 1994, Richard Court's planning minister Richard Lewis and lands minister George Cash again publicly backed Coral Coast as the preferred developer and the next year CALM executive director Syd Shea said the proposal had many environmental benefits. The Department of Land Administration wrote to the developers in 1996, saying a special lease for the project would be finalised soon.

BUT in 1997, then Labor environment spokeswoman Dr Judy Edwards raised serious environmental questions about the proposal and its effect on the fragile reef. Then environment minister Cheryl Edwardes, on split advice from her bureaucrats, upheld an appeal and yet again the proposal went back to the drawing board

One of the pivotal antagonists in the recent fight against the development has been Barry Wilson, now the head of the Marine Parks and Reserve Authority, the same bureaucrat who as a CALM director was a keen supporter of an even bigger Mauds Landing proposal.

Dr Wilson, according to company searches, became in 1995 a director of Australian Wildlife Conservancy, a non-profit organisation which has approached the Gallop Government seeking approval for, in its words, "a proposal which would form the key component of an alternative strategy to Mauds Landing".

While not suggesting that Dr Wilson has in any way acted inappropriately, his input into the debate over Mauds Landing was potentially damaging to an authority which is supposed to be independent. CALM, asked by the minister for advice, stressed that Dr Wilson had always acted within the authority's code of conduct.

Nonetheless, he was removed from the decision-making process. His minister was also removed from the debate because of her previous opposition to Mauds. Premier Gallop has now taken control.

On Thursday, Liberal leader in the Upper House Norman Moore accused Dr Wilson of leaking information to the Save Ningaloo Fund and demanded he be stood down completely. Dr Edwards said she would be seeking further information from Dr Wilson when he returned from overseas.

But back to Australian Wildlife Conservancy. Its head, Martin Copley, is an English-born multi-millionaire who has bought several WA stations for conservation programs. He is a passionate believer in rehabilitating the environment but his media-shy personality unfortunately creates more suspicion in locals than confidence.

AWC has also bought 25 per cent of Ningaloo Station, owned by the Lefroy family, a stunning piece of country that backs on to the reef. And while the organisation seems keen to see a low-level ecotourism and research facility which would be an alternative "strategy" to Mauds Landing, claims that AWC is behind a massive eco-development that would be in direct competition to something the size of Mauds are rather ambitious.

Nonetheless, AWC is a strong supporter and substantial donor to the Save Ningaloo campaign, which can only be to AWC's benefit.

Which brings us to celebrity politics.

WA author Tim Winton has almost single-handedly dispatched the marina proposal to oblivion. Cleverly and passionately, he has successfully painted the developers as a 1980s white shoe brigade hell-bent on stripping the reef of its beauty and peppering the Cape with palms trees and Gold Coast condos.

HE'S a formidable opponent. Who in their right mind would question Winton's love of the sea, his connection to the landscape, his ability to move people with eloquent, heart-felt verse? The developers, on a hiding to nothing, haven't even tried, keeping their heads down and saying little.

One media outlet, wanting to get both sides of the argument, once rang the developers and told them that they were hoping for Winton to write 1000 words on the subject and could they find someone to push their side of the argument.

With Hemingway dead, their options were somewhat limited.

Bring into the mix an admired sports star, multi-millionaire basketballer Luc Longley and celebrated Australian actress Toni Collette and you've got all bases covered. While some letter-writers to The West Australian mocked Collette as a world renowned marine biologist, it was obvious that she didn't have to be.

A film star would suffice.

The debate, thankfully, has gone beyond that. The State Government is now at the crossroads and the proposal, after 15 years, will finally be judged on its merits.

If it isn't, West Australians will be paying for it, in more ways than one, for many years to come.

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