GREENS MOTION: Private development in Flinders Chase National Park

Today Mark moved a motion to express concern at proposals to develop private luxury accommodation in Flinders Chase National Park on Kangaroo Island.


That this Council—

Expresses its deep concern at proposals to develop private luxury accommodation in Flinders Chase National Park on Kangaroo Island.

This motion calls on this council to express its deep concern at proposals to develop private luxury accommodation in Flinders Chase National Park on Kangaroo Island. I brought this motion to parliament on behalf of all those South Australians who believe that national parks were created first and foremost for the conservation of nature. I want this parliament to consider the future of our national parks. Are they natural areas where conservation and protection of the environment comes first and all other uses rank lower down the list, or are they simply an untapped economic development opportunity to enable private investors to profit from our shared heritage?

The moment the penny dropped for me in relation to this issue was when I heard that the Friends of Parks group that looks after Flinders Chase had gone on strike. That is unheard of. These are passionate conservationists who donate thousands of hours of unpaid labour and expertise to look after our most precious natural areas. The Friends of Parks are the ones who manage weeds, they help with surveys of plants and animals, they help to maintain infrastructure and all of the other jobs that our underfunded professional park rangers do not have the time or the money to do themselves. So when I heard that the volunteers had gone on strike I knew something must be very wrong. The government had clearly gone too far and the cry from the wilderness must be heeded.

Flinders Chase National Park is the jewel in the crown of our conservation estate. It is wild and remote. It is largely free of weeds and feral animals and it is largely undeveloped, with few public roads, few buildings—some of them heritage listed—and a limited number of confined camp sites. The absence of major human intrusion is the main reason why it is in such good shape. Parts of the park have since been declared wilderness protection areas.

This year, the park is celebrating its centenary and this should be a time of pride and celebration, including for the hardworking Friends of Parks group, but they are not—to coin a phrase—happy campers. Their strike includes withdrawing from the organisation of the park's centenary, which has thrown many of the planned events into doubt.

How has it got to this point? What is the government doing that has so upset some of the most passionate and dedicated conservationists in the state? Why have they gone on strike? Why are a growing list of environmental and conservation groups lining up behind them to say that they are unhappy with what the government is doing to our national parks?

To answer these questions we need to go back a few years. Clearly, Kangaroo Island is a much promoted tourism destination. Images of its wild coast, the abundant wildlife and the iconic Remarkable Rocks feature prominently in state tourism promotions. Flinders Chase National Park is the largest park on Kangaroo Island and the government has sought to capitalise on its wonderful qualities through the construction of things such as the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail.

The trail is a five-day, four-night experience for walkers which has been generally well received. The experience ensures limited numbers on the trail at any one time and strictly controlled camp sites designed to minimise environmental impact. I make no criticism of the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail. Whilst I have not yet walked it myself I understand that it is a good project and it is sensitive to the natural environment.

The Hon. T.J. Stephens: Do you want to pair? I will get you out there.

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: My daughter has walked it; she thought it was great. I think an interjection from the Hon. Terry Stephens was inviting me to join him walking it, and I may take him up on that. There is no criticism of the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail from the Greens. However, the push is now on to expand facilities on the trail to open it up to those who are seeking a more luxurious experience. This is where we need to pay close attention to what is going on.

Members might be familiar with the concept of glamping or so-called glamorous camping. Generally, these concepts involve accommodation that is a little more permanent in nature. It is often a larger size tent, bigger than you can carry in a backpack, and one that does not need to be erected and dismantled each day. These tents are often on permanent platforms. They are tall enough to stand in, and they will usually contain a camp stretcher or maybe even a bed. It is still camping, but it is not roughing it.

If that was all that was proposed for the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail I do not expect there would be too much opposition. I have no great problem with glamping, provided it is done sensitively and the impact on the environment is minimised. In the case of the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail what that should mean is that the facilities would be placed in or near existing campsites, and it would involve existing infrastructure such as roads and trails. But that is not what is being proposed here.

We also need to go back to the management plan for the Flinders Chase National Park. Certainly, the idea of this type of glamping accommodation was envisaged by the previous government; they consulted on a change to the management plan, and the management plan was changed to allow this type of accommodation in limited locations. The management plan for Flinders Chase National Park now refers to major and minor development zones, and the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail was identified as a minor development zone; in other words, minor forms of development would be envisaged in relation to the trail.

But the zone was not defined. There is nothing in the management plan that says, you know, 'The Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail zone is within 100 metres of the trail' or 'within 10 metres of the trail'; it is not defined at all. So one of the questions it will come to is whether a facility three kilometres from the trail, unconnected to the trail by any existing roads or paths, is in fact envisaged by the management plan for Flinders Chase.

The Sandy Creek proposed development site is the one that is furthest from the trail. It is on a very remote coastal area, up on the cliffs, with magnificent views looking out over the sea, but it is not on the trail. And what is proposed in that location is not glamping. In fact, it is effectively a village. What they are proposing—and the details are limited—is, as I find the words here, eight accommodation pods, whatever they are; a long house, whatever that is; two lookouts; a services building; and ancillary water tanks and connecting pathways. So it is effectively a village not on the trail, and that is not envisaged by the management plan.

That is one of the reasons why—

The Hon. I.K. Hunter: It wasn't the original proposal, either.

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: And as the honourable former minister interjects, it was not in the original proposal, and we will come back to that because I think he is very likely right; he would know. The other thing we should point out is that the public funding on the trail—it is well publicised—was around $5 million, from memory, to build the trail. There is no problem with that. We now have nearly $1 million of public funding being given to the Australian Walking Company to build their private accommodation—and I did ask in question time today of the Treasurer a question around that, and I hope to get an answer back from him in due course. So there is a large public investment in this, and of course at the risk of stating the obvious it is on public land; in fact, it is on some of the most precious public land that we are responsible for in this state.

So the friends are unhappy with the concept. They are fearful of the nature of development, the size of development. Apparently—although we have not seen the plans—one of the buildings is nine metres long and four metres high. That is not glamping. That is commercial development. In fact, the total cost of the development, I think, including the million dollars or so that the state is putting in, is something like $4 million. You get a fair bit of development for $4 million. We are not talking about tents, we are not talking about glamping.

What we now see is that development applications have been lodged. There are four in total but there are three main ones. One of them I do not propose to talk about. It is less contentious. It involves fixing up the old lighthouse keeper's cottages at Cape de Couedic. I have stayed in those cottages. They are pretty rundown. You rent them from National Parks. I have to tell you, though: location, location, location! What a fantastic place! So I do not have a great problem that they are fixing up those accommodations. I would still prefer them to be run by National Parks and rented out by National Parks for public use. I understand that, if they are not being used by Australian Walking Company walkers, they will be available for the public to hire from National Parks, so I am not going to explore that one.

But the two other locations—Sanderson Bay and Sandy Creek—are seriously contentious. The applications that have been lodged, as I have said, effectively are for permanent villages on those locations. Certainly what upsets me, and what is upsetting many locals on Kangaroo Island, is the level of secrecy that is surrounding this project. I will have to give people a bit of 'Development 101'. These development applications have been categorised as category 1. Category 1 means they are not advertised, no-one is invited to make comment, no-one is invited to make a submission in person. In fact, it is done entirely in secret. That is category 1.

The plans are not available. Whilst there are some conceptual architect's drawings that are floating around, that is not the same as seeing the actual development application. We are all familiar with the architect's drawings of something that suck us into thinking, 'This will be fantastic.' You need to have a look at what actually has been proposed. We have not seen that. I know the architects involved, I know their work is of high quality, but that does not mean that what they have proposed is the right development in the right location. That is what this motion is largely about.

I have lodged freedom of information applications to try to get copies of the development applications, but why on earth should I have to do that? Why should I have to lodge a freedom of information application to get plans that are publicly funded in a public national park on public land? Why on earth should that be secret? First of all, I asked the Department for Environment and Water. I lodged a freedom of information application there. They said, 'We do not have the plans. We do not have them. We will send it off to the planning department to DPTI.'

I know for a fact that that is not correct and the reason I know that for a fact is because the environment department is effectively the owner of the land. They are the ones who run national parks and they have signed off on this project. They are the ones who have put in a letter to the State Planning Commission saying, 'The CEO of the environment department supports these plans.' Don't tell me the environment department does not have a copy of the plans. Anyway, I have not challenged that because it has gone off to DPTI and I know they have them as well, so I will hopefully get those plans from the planning department. It is remarkable that we are having to jump through so many hoops.

The next thing is that, whenever you have a development like this, it has to be referred to various government departments for comment. Just think about it. We are talking about a fire-prone area, so they have to refer it to the country fire authorities, the Country Fire Service. They have to refer it to the coast protection boards on the coast. They have to refer it to the NRM board, to the local council. When you go to the planning portal—in fact, if you went to the planning portal two weeks ago you would have found a list of all the government agencies that had been consulted and that list would have included when they were consulted and whether or not they have responded. I went onto that same website this afternoon. Zilch. It has all been removed. All information about who has been consulted has been removed from the public register.

To be fair, I used their feedback form and I said, 'Where is this stuff? You have taken it off the public register.' I rang them. Of course, you do not get a person, you just get a voicemail, but I have left messages. I told them I would be talking about this at 5 o'clock in parliament. No response. I look forward to seeing what they say. Even if all we knew before was who had been consulted, we still do not know what they said. Again, we come back to it: public money being spent on facilities on public land in a national park and we cannot see what these agencies have said.

I have heard on the grapevine off the back of the truck that the NRM board, for example, was dead against it. I have heard that but I cannot prove it because I do not have the documents. Why should I have to go through FOI? This stuff should be routinely put on the public register for members to see—members of the public, not just members of parliament.

I also point out that I have written to the honourable minister, David Speirs. I have written to the head of the Planning Commission. In fact, I have written to anyone who I thought could help with this. I wanted to point out to the minister, first of all, that he was legally wrong with what he has been telling the public through the media but also to give him an opportunity to make it right. I am from the Greens and we are here to help. I want the minister to be able to make it right.

On ABC radio a couple of weeks ago, on I think 22 January, the minister and David Bevan had this exchange:

Bevan: "…David Speirs, good morning…are you going to listen to the Friends of the Park? They're so cranky they have withdrawn their labour?"

The minister's response: 

"Well…it's very disappointing that they've taken that approach. We will be consulting more and more on this project. There has been consultation to this date and the planning development process going forward requires considerable consultation. So the idea that people have been shut out of consultation isn't correct…there has been some consultation and there should and will be more…"

This is where I say the minister is wrong: with all due respect to the minister, I am the planning lawyer and I know category 1 developments do not have public consultation. In fact, it is not even just that they do not, there is a provision in the Development Act which basically stops them from consulting. Section 38(3) of the Development Act provides:

Where a person applies for a consent in respect of the Development Plan for a Category 1 development—

that is what we are talking about—

(a) the relevant authority—

in this case the state Planning Commission, or SCAP as it is known—the State Commission Assessment Panel—

must not, on its own initiative, seek the views of the owners or occupiers of adjacent or other land in relation to the granting or refusal of development plan consent…

It actually prohibits them from finding out what anyone thinks. Mind you, there is a loophole. I am a lawyer, and the loophole is that they are not allowed to, of their own initiative, seek views. But I tell you what, I will be encouraging all those people on Kangaroo Island and anyone else who cares about the future of our national parks to make their views known. I hope that the Planning Commission will take that into account.

I have written to minister Speirs and I have urged him to instruct his CEO to basically put the brakes on this project, and basically to say, 'As minister I have promised on radio that there's going to be more public consultation. Can you stop the process so we can actually do that now?' It is a very simple thing because, as you know, the owner of the land holds the whip hand when it comes to development applications. You cannot develop on someone else's land without their permission. Whilst I am not saying that the department has to withdraw all permission to do anything in a national park, they can at least put the brakes on it so that we as a community can discuss whether this is the type of project that we think is appropriate for land that is held in trust on our behalf.

So no serious consultation to date. As I have said, I am fearful that even the small amount of information that is available is now being withdrawn, and I am really not happy with that. Luckily, I had a screen snapshot of the planning portal before it was modified, so there is certainly evidence of what was there a few weeks ago compared with what is there now.

As I foreshadowed earlier, because I have a number of live requests out there looking for a response, I am going to seek leave to conclude my remarks. I want to have the opportunity to see what comes back before we conclude this debate. In summary, I have several applications out there. I certainly have freedom of information applications. I am still waiting to see plans of the development. I have FOI requests for the submissions that were made by public agencies, including the local council, the Native Vegetation Council and the NRM board, and I am waiting for those. I have a request in to the department to find out why they have removed information from the planning portal; I am still waiting on that.

I have requested a meeting with the State Planning Commission and I hope that that will happen soon. They have been very cooperative so far. As I said, earlier today I asked the Treasurer a question about how this $1 million of public funding is being spent and whether it is being spent, as the honourable former minister said, 'on something that was in the original plans or is it something that is new?' I hope to get that answer back soon. As a result, I now seek leave of the council to conclude my remarks at a later date.