White Shoes and Bare Feet: The Kirra Cruise Ship Terminal
By Jock Serong
The Kirra Cruise ship terminal project had a wonderfully entertaining two-week life. That’s how long it took, between Bob Ell blowing the dust off his mothballed concept by wheeling out a bunch of concrete prospectors in Hawaiian shirts with a whiteboard; and state Premier Campbell Newman issuing a press release killing the thing stone dead. Compared to the decades-long agony of groups such as Save Bastion Point, this was speed dating for the megaphone crowd. As much as those two weeks have been a fervent environmental and social struggle, they’ve also been a study in political method.
Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate has loomed large in Queensland’s cruise ship power games, since long before Bob Ell stuck his head over the parapet. He’s consistently been lumped in with the developers despite his protestations to the contrary. And he doesn’t want his prime billing in this debacle. It’s arguable that he did at first, when playing the hard man looked like a winning strategy. In late 2012, he carelessly tossed an insult Mick Fanning’s way ("He's a good surfer but I tend to listen to people with qualifications and information to add"), either out of sheer inattention, or somehow assuming a slapdown would do the trick. It didn’t.
Choosing the right victim is Schoolyard Bullying 101. As if Mick didn’t have enough standing in the community already, he won a widely celebrated third world title and then immediately made clear that he’ll use the podium to speak his mind on issues that he sees as important. This one was important, and he had plenty to say. The Gold Coast community swung behind Mick, and the dopey snub went national – here was a politician with a prodigious gift for misreading his audience.
The local media couldn’t contain their delight: a public, man-on-man struggle to the death is rarely good politics, but it sure is good copy. So the Mayor’s office unpacked the backdown strategy: speaking through his media advisor (watch the hand…), the Mayor said there was no proposal, only a sketch on a napkin or some such nonsense, as if C-grade development dreams were ever drawn up on any other stationery. Then he assured a rapt public that the napkin will only ever wipe someone’s grinning mush in the event that the pre-existing Broadwater proposal fails. But it won’t fail, continued the media guy, because people are prepared to invest billions of dollars in it, but that’s up to the state government not us, and we can’t control it, and whilst we’re against a terminal at Kirra, we can’t rule it out for you because there’s nothing before us. Only a napkin, somewhere.
You’re keeping up? Good, because you don’t need to be worried about napkins, cooed the advisor. Tom Tate is a businessman not a politician, and therefore, goes the logic, you can trust him. He doesn’t need the job, you see. He’s doing this out of the goodness of his heart. Hey, he extended the Kirra Groyne, and a bit of gratitude wouldn’t go astray. So anyway, these are his principles, and if you don’t like them, well, he has others.
The Bilinga/Kirra terminal idea, more formally known on the napkin as the Ocean Terminal proposal, seems to have come about not in order to provide easy landing on the Gold Coast for cruise ship passengers, but as a means to capture one of the several casino licenses currently being offered by the Newman state government. Sure, cruise passengers could do better than Brisbane’s industrial themed facilities, and the Gold Coast could do with the tourists and the employment that flows from them, but this was always about the roulette wheel.
Enter Bob Ell. He’s been at the helm of Leda Group, an Australian-owned private property developer based in Sydney, since 1976. They have a “projects” page on their website, but it’s described without apparent irony as being “under construction”, and has no listings. Which in a roundabout way lends credence to Tom Tate’s assurance that “there is no proposal”.
But at the announcement of their bid on 27 December, Ell’s people described the vision as incorporating a cargo ship berth and three cruise ship berths, 28 super-yacht and 560 traditional berths. Then there’s the casino and six hotel sites for all those thirsty stevedores. Needing somewhere to crash after operating the gantry all day, the proposal included fourteen apartment sites, shops, a wave pool and recreation area, all of it perched across the road from Gold Coast airport at Bilinga, north of Kirra. The total tab was estimated at $2 billion.
The unveiling was no more than a hairy toe dipped in the Pacific. No submission was passed to the state government, or indeed to the Mayor’s office. This was a juicy political half-volley, and it didn’t go to waste. The acting Premier over Christmas, Jeff Seeney, immediately expressed his scepticism. So did Queensland Tourism Minister Jann Stuckey, who’s also the member for Currumbin. She publicly voiced her concern that the Kira proposal could affect major events such as the Quiksilver Pro, the Australian Surf Lifesaving titles and the National Kite Festival at North Kirra.
From the outset, the whole idea was predicated on the failure of the Broadwater terminal project further north “There can be only one,” said Leda mouthpiece Dennis Hughes, oddly echoing Christopher Lambert in the 1986 stoner classic, Highlander."If the Government gives it (The Spit proposal) the tick then we're done and dusted. I'll pack my photos up and go home".
Widely reputed to be physically impossible and already slammed by the Beatty and Bligh governments, Broadwater seemed to be a dead duck, and therefore a convenient stalking horse for Bilinga. But under the Newman government, Broadwater had doggedly hung in there, and state cabinet is due to make a decision about its future in February.
Meanwhile, opposition at Kirra gathered momentum: the Save Our Southern Beaches Alliance (SOSBA) had a running start because the template for this kind of action had been struck by the Save Our Spit (SOS) mob at Broadwater. Among SOSBA’s arguments: Ell’s 94-hectare proposal would impede the sand flow necessary to replenish the beaches to the north. A SOSBA engineer estimated the Ocean Terminal complex would devour about 30,000 million cubic metres of rock and concrete, stretching a kilometre out to sea and a kilometre from North Kirra Surf Club north to Bilinga. The North Kirra Surf Club would be relocated (presumably with sweeteners thrown in). The locals would lose their ocean views, with a consequent plunge affecting property values. Public foreshore land would have to be acquired for the project, cutting across the Premier’s earlier rejection of a development application on Coolum’s public foreshore land by one Clive Palmer.
Others speculated that pollution from visiting ships would affect marine life and water quality, endangering annual whale migrations. It was pointed out that the Miles street reef, one of the best dive sites in the area, and the reputed resting place of the 1846 Coolangatta shipwreck, are both within the boundaries of the proposed development.
Then there was the clincher: the potential to devastate the world class righthander at Kirra which, anecdotally at least, is said to generate millions of dollars in revenue for local businesses.
Another fear lay unspoken beneath the top layers of more obvious concern: if a public beach and coastal land could be taken away from future generations of Gold Coasters to make room for such a development, what does that say about our much-vaunted egalitarian beach culture round the nation? Access for all? Or Hollister Ranch-style access for paying elites? It’s a genuinely foreign notion to most Australians that a piece of their beach – a legendary stretch of that beach – could be destroyed, rebuilt like some concrete Frankenstein’s monster, and then gated.
The flipside of all this is employment. The cruise ship sector is undoubtedly in the ascendancy, and the thousands of jobs which would come with construction and operation of the facilities, both directly and indirectly, might save a community which is said to be “ravaged by unemployment” and consequent social problems. Easy to say, harder to prove. Although Gold Coast jobless rates peaked in late 2011 at about 6.7%, they are currently sitting at 5.66%, below both the state and federal rates. For some time now, the Gold Coast has fared better than the Brisbane metro area. Tourism is said to be booming on the Goldy this year.
How else could the Kirra proposal be justified, aside from by those whose pockets it would fill? Scour the internet, and there’s not much that impresses: there are those who say the northerly sand flow may be blocked by the terminal, but the northern Gold Coast beaches are stuffed already, and hey, it’s only sand. Some say cruise ships have exceptionally good environmental controls, and will come and go without leaving so much as a handful of streamers in the water. And as for waves, well waves appear and disappear like so many sandcastles, and there’ll be others. Hey, who knows what the bulldozers might accidentally create? And maybe the surf culture money will be eclipsed by the millions that’ll be splurged by loved-up cruise passengers. Maybe, maybe.
Meanwhile, back at the protest front, things started to get weird. A break-in at the offices of a SOSBA committee member immediately got people thinking Watergate. Or maybe it was the crime rate, driven by the mythical unemployment rate, all of which necessitates massive, immediate economic stimulus.
Then, just when things were starting to heat up, along came the Premier’s media release, and for SOSBA at least, the 19 January paddle-out will now proceed as a celebration rather than a call to arms. Kirra is, for the time being, safe, and the napkin manifesto has been officially scrunched. Some will say that Gold Coast surfers were paddling at shadows. But even taking that at its highest – no formal proposal, no back-room deal, no napkin - isn’t a massive, pre-emptive statement of opposition the safest course when your elected representatives are talking in riddles?
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