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Favours, deals and deception: Mining in Queensland

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Campbell Newman's State Government was very pro-mining (image via YouTube).

Sand mining will finally end at the last mine on North Stradbroke Island, off Brisbane, when the mining leases expire on 31 December.

Popularly called Straddie, the Island is known for its magnificent beaches, abundant wildlife and freshwater lakes. It is the world’s second-largest sand island (Queensland’s Fraser Island is the largest) and is a natural holiday haven for South-East Queenslanders. 

Sand mining on Straddie has been controversial for decades, ever since sand mining was stopped on Fraser Island in 1976, but it intensified after the Belgian owned Unimin (which later changed its name to Sibelco) bought Consolidated Rutile Limited's (CRL) mines in 2009. Unimin already owned a third sand mine on the Island. 

Sibelco’s political relationship (via donations) with former Queensland Premier Campbell Newman was one factor in Newman lasting just one term, from 2012 to 2015. 

Prior to this, the mining companies, via a subsidiary, wanted to obtain approval to extend sand mining into the sale of non-mineral sand for construction purposes, for a period of up to 98 years.

The application was successful in the Planning and Environment Court, but in 2010 a group of North Stradbroke Islanders, including two indigenous owners, successfully overturned the business expansion proposal on appeal. The business plan was then dropped by Sibelco. This may have occurred because by that time Sibelco (then called Unimin) had been charged over unlawfully removing and selling non-mineral sand from Stradbroke Island. 

While pro-developers will continue to exaggerate the impact of ending mining to justify an alleged need for economic alternatives, the truth is sand mining has been winding down for years. There used to be three sand mines operating simultaneously, but only one since 2015. 

Employment of Island resident sand miners has declined further over the last two years to around 30, with some employed after the closure date was known. Others took early redundancies or have already retired. The State Government provided a five million dollar fund to assist workers, which numbered about 100 when there were three sand mines.

While mining has declined in importance, visitor numbers have been steadily increasing for years, with most coming from the booming population of SEQ. Last year, of 375,000 visitors, 95 per cent were ‘domestic tourists’, with 72 per cent living within a 50km radius of Stradbroke.

Did mineral sand mining continue on Straddie for too long? The end could have occurred at the last mine Enterprise, a decade earlier. A key mining lease ML 1117, granted in the Bjelke-Petersen era, expired in 2007. Renewal was not automatic. Conversely, the Mines Minister had to be satisfied of various factors before renewal legally could occur. 

Mining was permitted to continue, pending a decision. Environmental groups and some of the Island’s Indigenous owners were opposed to renewal. Detailed reasons were sent to the Mines Minister and the Premier, and a meeting was held with senior Mines Department officials. 

But despite a vocal, organised campaign for protection of the fragile landscape instead of mining, the Bligh Government bypassed the usual procedures for deciding applications to renew, and passed special legislation, the North Stradbroke Island Protection and Sustainability Act 2011, to extend expired leases to enable sand mining to continue until the end of 2019. The rights of objectors to challenge renewal in the Supreme Court were extinguished by the Act

But from environmental and native title perspectives, worse was to follow with the election of the LNP Government in 2012. 

According to current Mines Minister Anthony LynhamSibelco spent over one million dollars campaigning against the Bligh Labor Government, and over $90,000 in donations to the LNP. 

Former Premier Campbell Newman broke an election promise and granted the mining company Sibelco, a political donor, a legislative right to extend sand mining until 2035.  

At the time of Newman’s legislative favour, Sibelco was still before the Courts on criminal charges concerning its unlawful removal and sale of non-mineral sand from the Island.

Those charges, although ultimately dismissed on technical grounds, were preceded by a Supreme Court civil case which found that Sibelco, then known as Unimin, had no lawful authority to sell the sand for landscaping and building purposes. That decision was upheld on appeal. 

Current Deputy Premier, Jackie Trad, labelled Campbell Newman’s 2013 legislation designed to further extend sand mining as a "morally corrupt cash for legislation deal" with Sibelco.  

North Stradbroke Island native title owners brought an action against the Newman Government in the High Court, asserting that Newman’s legislation conflicted with native title rights recognised by the Federal Court in 2011. 

In June, 2016 the Palaszczuk Labor Government restored the December, 2019 end date, honouring an election promise. 

But Straddie continues to be in the news, with the State Government’s post-mining “Economic Transition Strategy” (ETS) clashing with the views of many, including some native title owners, who want the Island to remain a relaxing holiday destination with no man-made “tourist attractions”. They argue that there are already plenty of those on the Gold Coast and visitor numbers to Straddie are rapidly increasing anyway.  

In January this year, hundreds attended a protest at Point Lookout on Straddie against a  proposal to erect a building to house a whale skeleton in the iconic Point Lookout Public Reserve, to attract tourists. 

Over 23,000 "Straddie Lovers" have signed a petition opposing the building site

And on the other side of Moreton Bay, at Cleveland’s Toondah Harbour – where the Straddie ferries depart for the Island – the State Government controversially wants to allow a political donor property developer, the Walker Corporation, to "reclaim" Ramsar protected wetlands and build 3,600 high-rise units and a marina.  

The claimed justification is Straddie’s “economic transition”. The Toondah proposal is mentioned seven times in the ETS. 

There are many reasons why the Toondah plan is opposed by thousands, but it would also breach Australia’s obligations under the Ramsar Convention for the protection of wetlands, signed by Australia and 170 other nations. 

Sand mining will end this month, but Straddie’s future – pro-development versus maintaining the laid-back, old-world holiday feel – will remain a focus of controversy for some time. 

Richard Carew is a writer and lawyer.

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