It was the busiest day of the spring so far as thousands of locals and visitors took to the Gold Coast’s last remaining undeveloped coastal reserve – The Spit.
It’s a pretty busy place these days, but wow, when you step off that road into the dunes or the surf, into those blue waters – you can be worlds away within seconds. Never has there been a greater need for open coastal space, park land and uncluttered amenity than today – and that need is only growing more critical as our population climbs. The Spit was certainly delivering on all fronts that morning, it was magic.
For the past few decades there has been a relentless stream of white-shoe-wearing developers and politicians who have eyed the place off, glaring down from their lofty self-entitling positions with a sort of jealous gaze whilst scheming up ways they could possibly dupe the community and seize the lands here for massive developments and private terraformation. Seeing people rejoicing freely in recreation by the sea seems to strike a nerve with this lot, I mean, where’s the profit in that, right?
Earlier this year, plans initiated by the city’s mayor for a Broadwater cruise ship terminal and massive private development again failed to get up, with the incoming state government sinking the controversial and divisive proposal. The development would have seen the bulk of the southern Broadwater become a private city within a city – a sort of concrete enclave for the benefit of private residents and investors.
The local community rallied and voiced their anger in scenes rarely seen on the apathetic Gold Coast. Thousands upon thousands took action at protests, on air, online and in person to prevent the development on Crown public parks and waterways. And they succeeded.
The dust from this fight for public beaches and waterways was beginning to settle when on Saturday the 21st of October this year, just after 9am, large ‘plumes of thick black smoke’ suddenly erupted and belched skyward at the northern end of the Federation Walk Coastal Reserve – from within the beating heart of The Spit. By day’s end, hectares of precious bushland were destroyed, along with hundreds of hours of community-volunteer planting work. The final toll on the established wildlife habitat and ecosystem in the area will probably never be fully determined.
Conversations quickly turned from the safety of people to suspicion, as eyewitness accounts described unusual black smoke, unlike scrub or bushfire smoke, at the start of the incident. They also reported the ‘strong smell’ of petrol or diesel in the first few minutes of the smoke crossing the beach. Historically the Gold Coast is no stranger to suspicious fires surrounding property that is contentious in terms of developer motives.
In 2004, also on The Spit, the famous Humphry’s Boatshed was almost entirely torched to the ground amidst developer and media lobbying for change on the site. The boathouse and slipway were pioneering cornerstone icons of the area, with history dating back to the 1940s, however at the time of the fire, pro-development agitators and neighbours had been driving a campaign to have the site levelled, the building removed and new development eventually in its place. At around 2am on the morning of the blaze, a man was seen running from the building moments before it went up. The asbestos-laden building was destroyed but police were unable to locate the person of interest and the culprit was never caught.
Ferguson’s theory appears to have been ironically predictive. A day after the fire, despite its near destruction, a Department of Natural Resources spokesperson told the Gold Coast Bulletin, “the future of Humphrey’s Boatshed is being considered within the broader context of the future land-use planning for the entire Spit precinct”. The spokesperson reportedly added that a cruise ship terminal might be part of that future. Shortly after the fire, State member for Southport Peter Lawlor, called for the remnant heritage-listed building to be demolished. He came out swinging saying, “I think that the western side of Seaworld Drive will eventually be developed … all that site is good for is a bulldozer.”
Federation Walk was also subjected to a series of highly suspicious fires that were reported to have been systematically lit in the lead up to 2004. As many as seven unusual fires were sparked in that time, burning out parts of The Spit reserve. The fires began in the northern part of the area, and one by one, they appeared southward towards Seaworld over the course of several years.
“The word is it was done to ravage the place and make it more amenable to development,” a local resident reportedly told media at the time. It was also reported that the fires were most likely deliberately lit.
With each successive fire, those pushing for development lined up to lament that The Spit was a ‘wasteland’ that needed to be built upon to save it from itself. The ruse itself was so obvious, yet without catching the culprits in the act, the community was left with no vector for recourse.
It’s a recycled theme all over the world – be it a heritage or cultural impasse, community opposition or an environmental road block – mystery fires have long been the weapon of choice for those wanting to steamroll the immovable and further their private agendas.
Right now we see a plethora of private interests circling over The Spit, with the ASF China Consortium, Breakwater Group, Sunland and the Aquis Group all planning massive developments on public land that defy the city’s height limits.
The 2015 Spit fire has again breathed life into what locals are calling the ‘zombie proposal’ – a highly contentious plan to build an international shipping port in the shallows around The Spit or Broadwater. For decades the plan, in its various mutations, has been killed and dismembered time and time again, if not by voluminous community uproar, then by the pure technical constraints and idiocy of the idea itself. It keeps rising from its grave.
Shallow sand-drift sea floors and narrow estuarine entrances coupled with direct exposure to the oceanic wind and swells have not only proven to be critically restrictive, these factors have raised significant concerns from industry experts who have noted neither Carnival (P&O) or Royal Caribbean have been willing to offer any commitment to a future cruise schedule on the Gold Coast.
It has been reported that Carnival Australia boss Ann Sherry has indicated Carnival’s focus is for a new Brisbane home port, and has gone so far as to suggest that they would be willing to invest in a consortium to see it happen.
A senior executive from Royal Caribbean has also said it would be unlikely the company would support a ‘way port’ on the Gold Coast, as they are seeking the kind of infrastructure only a fully equipped home port can provide.
This indicates they are not looking for the kind of ‘way port’ that Mayor Tate is proposing for the Coast ahead of the 2016 local government election. Industry experts agree that the Gold Coast proposal’s proximity to Brisbane would be prohibitive in securing economically viable visits – that no ships would leave Brisbane to stop again just 70km away.
It came as a shock, but also not surprisingly, that Mayor Tom Tate, fresh from licking his wounds over the earlier failed Broadwater proposal, literally appeared within hours of the latest fire, standing on the burnt out reserve and announcing yet another plan for a cruise liner terminal to be built on The Spit.
A day later, a member of the public commented on the Mayor’s Facebook page, “The site looks cleared ready for building. Can’t wait. Keep up the great work Tom,” to which Tate, perhaps inappropriately, ‘liked’ the post.
Such was the overt chutzpa of his rushed announcement, it sparked a week-long war between himself and a significant proportion of the community – led by community research and advocacy groups such as Save Our Broadwater and Save Our Spit, as well as impassioned locals.
Days after the fire, Mayor Tate launched into a wild and baseless personal attack live on ABC radio, levelled at a Save Our Spit member who had simply asked him how he could consider spending even more public money on another questionable idea, given the evident reluctance of the cruise companies to commit to a new Gold Coast terminal. His tirade was brief but perhaps also as revealing as it was unsubstantiated. In the end, he did not answer the question, unable to support his position with any tangible retort. Tate had also broken a sacrosanct unwritten rule of breakfast radio – swearing live on air – much to the astonishment of the host whom he had already boisterously shut out of the conversation as well.
Tate’s anger at these matters being raised was audibly evident and he appeared to refute the existing reports and correspondence from the major cruise companies. In another strange episode, he later took to social media and continued his attack, again without any supportive evidence. If the Mayor truly believes the major cruise companies are serious about the Gold Coast, they’re certainly being strangely tight-lipped about it.
In his post, Tate claimed that he does not tolerate “profanity, bullying and/or personal attacks”, despite he himself, just a day earlier, swearing on live radio and branded a listener as a jobless liar after they simply questioned him over already-published facts regarding cruise ship companies and the Gold Coast – a spray which left many bewildered.
Nonetheless, Tom presses on with his pet project ambitions. One thing he has got right so far is that the cruise ship industry is growing fast, really fast. A glaring omission though, on his end, is that these companies very much seek surety, facilities, centralisation and safe reliable passage, which multiple industry experts contend is unlikely to be possible from any Gold Coast terminal.
It is reported that Tate’s new proposal would see a large rock wall barrier, or rather breakwater island, built out to sea opposite Seaworld on The Spit. It would be connected to the mainland via a long jetty, which would be the conduit for passengers and supplies between ship and shore. Tate has yet to mention that the onshore base facilities and infrastructure would likely have to resume a large section of the Federation Walk Coastal Reserve and it would have to be forfeited for terminal infrastructure.
It is understood that ports and terminals for major ships, even way port and transit port locations, require significant associated infrastructure ranging from huge bus corrals, secure car parks, office and commercial buildings, loading warehouses, emergency facilities, ticketing, transit spaces and of course customs facilities if you wish to receive or send ships from outside of Australian waters. That’s not even beginning to take into account the obvious environmental impacts these ships would deliver as well.
No doubt such a structure would have an impact on the swell and currents, sand and seas of the surrounding areas – one can only speculate which famous beach breaks would have their south swells blocked, and perhaps which new surf breaks may in turn be created.
The infrastructure and development costs for Tate’s plan is no small amount, and in fact even the cost of investigating and proposing such plans will be notably significant. Tate has already indicated he plans to use ratepayers’ funds to pay for his investigation into the matter, should they provide him a ‘mandate’ at the next election – however doubts have already been raised to the validity of such a mandate, if it is derived by providing a truncated and skewed presentation of the facts.
So, like a morbid and writhing undead beast, the same set of circumstances manifests yet again, as has time and time before and before that. The worse the proposal is, as in the greater the cost and the poorer the potential for economic return, then the more public land can be offered to private interests so that they may subsidise or pay for the terminal infrastructure in exchange for receiving priceless and irreplaceable public coastal lands for their own private developments. This method of relieving the people of their assets has been well and truly exposed time and time again, however it refuses to die.
Ideally, The Spit in its entirety has been earmarked as ‘public reserve’ since the mid to late 1800s. Admittedly it was a little shorter then and was a dynamic and changing natural sand spit. Since the shortening of The Spit and the placement of the seaway rock walls in 1985, the land has stabilised to become one of the most significant public green spaces in South East Queensland, with an immeasurable value to the community provided it remains undeveloped and not slowly privatised.
The wetland, abundant bushland, dunes and waterways are now ingrained and established as one of the most ecologically rich and vibrant locations in the city – a place of true natural wonders.
The fires have averaged about one a year for the last decade and endured a prolific period of ‘systematic’ flare ups between 2001 and 2004, with it widely understood they were deliberately lit. Award-winning Courier Mail journalist Matthew Condon wrote in his 2006 much-revered investigation into The Spit events, “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.”
Nobody is suggesting that Tom Tate would resort to such measures – not at all – but would he seize on the opportunity that such fires may present? He certainly wasted no time in catheterising the emerging situation, lurching down to the burned area of The Spit to pose for photographs and announce his development plans after the recent fire.
Never has there been a greater need for the preservation of our great open spaces than today, in 2015. The Gold Coast and indeed the South East is growing rapidly – expanding and consuming like an unrestrained bulldozer with a broken autopilot setting. Thanks to many outspoken members of the local community, a lot of facts and information that would have been missed or lost along the way, have been brought to the surface of this debate – and it appears, judging by his outbursts, this displeases the mayor.
Despite the success of the mysterious fires, and the pro-development lobby continually striving for a disenfranchised community, many believe those who dream of developing The Spit may be waging an unwinnable war. History tells us that it is the truth that will set things free – and that lies will tether like an iron anchor, to the feet of those that preach them //
Words: Trent Stapleton