The first time I heard of the Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin, in the news was when it was suggested Mal Brough had tried to do a land deal up there.
Having amended the NT Aboriginal Land Rights Act in 2006 to allow whitefellas to buy Aboriginal land, Brough found himself out of parliament.
So he boarded a flight to the Tiwi Islands, and tried to convince locals to enter into a joint venture with him, which involved signing over their land.
The deal was blocked by the Rudd government.
In true Brough style, he simply made up the media script to suit the political winds, telling The Australian newspaper on February 8, 2008 (while the deal was still on) that he was “seeking to make a profit from – and lend a hand to – the islanders”, then later when the deal was shot telling the Sydney Morning Herald he never stood to “make one cent out of it” and that the Rudd government was playing politics with the lives of Aboriginal people.
Then in August 2013, details of a proposal for the NT government to gain 99 year leases for 10,000ha of agricultural land were reported in the Australian.
The government would also gain control of industrial land close to the new Tiwi Islands port — which some predict will be the best deep-water harbour in the region once construction is complete — as well as an area of prime beachfront, which would be suitable for development of a resort or a hotel.
In return, the Tiwi would receive what sources familiar with the secret plan describe as a “bailout package” for their struggling forest enterprise, on which many have pinned their hopes for employment and progress.
The plan emerged after Tiwi Islanders approached the government for financial assistance.
The government at first rejected the request, but then assembled a proposal under which the Tiwi would receive $1 million in short-term funding plus a guarantee on a further $2.8m loan from government-owned lender TIO, in return for the leases – in total, $3.8m which the Tiwi said they needed to bring their plantation wood chip to market.
Many government MPs described the deal as a rip-off which would see the people lose control of their land and the government make a significant profit.
In May 2015, the Tiwi Islands hit the headlines again when the ABC revealed that construction of a $130 million deep sea port known as Port Melville had flown under the radar, and was about to begin servicing the Top End’s offshore oil and gas industry without any conditions in place to protect the local ecosystem.
It is in an area listed as internationally significant for wildlife but no formal environmental impact assessments were carried out by either the Northern Territory or Commonwealth governments before the port facility opened for business. The development included a 30 million litre ‘fuel farm’ and accommodation for 150 offshore oil and gas workers.
The plot thickened when the Tiwi Land Council revealed in a Senate hearing it has been “briefed in part” about the potential for the US Department of Defence to use Port Melville. Cory Bernardi as chair and Nigel Scullion as the Minister both tried to shut down further questioning but it was later revealed that an Aboriginal company set up by the Tiwi Land Council had met with the port developers, who “mentioned a broad range of opportunities that could possibly be explored for Port Melville, including use by US Marines”.
New matilda reported that, in September last year, Francis Xavier Kurrupuwu – the Country Liberal Party member representing Tiwi Islanders in the Northern Territory parliament – told at least one Traditional Owner that meetings about a US military base were ongoing – something he later denied having said.
New Matilda also asked the NT Government whether it knew of any plans by the US military to use the new port, or establish a base on the island.
“It is the Northern Territory government’s understanding that the Department of Defence — in conjunction with the US Force Posture initiative — has no current plans for a military base to be established on the Tiwi Islands, nor for the deployment of US Marines to the islands”.
In 2012 Captain Larry Johnson, a former senior officer in the US Coast Guard, met with an Australian union official to discuss a looming shortage of marine skills in the region. He told him a US military base was part of the logic of establishing Port Melville in the first place.
At the time, Capt Johnson was a board member of Ezion Holdings Limited, the company developing the port, and was spearheading the Singaporean firm’s expansion into Australia.
“He said there was potential for 80,000 US Marines to be stationed… [at a]base to be built on the Tiwis, and that Ezion were a top-tier company with contracts in moving cargo for the US.
“He spoke from a point of view of, ‘This is something that might happen and we might position ourselves to be in the right place at the right time’.
In March 2014, Capt Johnson told The Australian newspaper that he had met “with the US Marine Corps at the Pentagon” to discuss their interest in Port Melville, as America canvassed what services it might require in the region.
“Now there are some US Navy guys in town talking to the Australian Defence Force,” Capt Johnson said at the time.
The Commonwealth Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development issued a notice in April 2014 that declared Port Melville was intended for use as a “security regulated port”.
NT Labor’s infrastructure spokeswoman Natasha Fyles said “ the Federal Government has signed off on giving it security classification so it can be used for defence purposes.”
The Singaporean owner and developer of the port, now Ausgroup, has been promoting it as a marine supply base for the offshore oil and gas industry.
The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA), the peak body for the Australian oil and gas industry, said no oil and gas operators were currently using or planning to use the facility.
In May last year, Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt ordered the port construction “be investigated as a matter of priority” to determine if federal environmental laws have been breached.
“The department is currently examining a range of information acquired in relation to the proposal to determine if a contravention of the EPBC Act has, or is likely to result from the construction works to date.”
Today we hear that, on the first day of a Federal Court challenge to the decision launched by the Northern Territory’s peak environmental group, Greg Hunt has been ordered to hand over a departmental briefing on the decision to give Tiwi Islands’ Port Melville the go-ahead without environmental assessment.
In a statement to the ABC, a spokesman for Mr Hunt said the project was “assessed in accordance with national environmental law”.
Mr Morris, lawyer for Environment Centre NT, said the delegate who made the decision on behalf of the Minister did not in fact assess the project.
“We dispute that,” he said. “We say that it wasn’t actually assessed at all – what was assessed was the referral information.”
The Environment Minister’s delegate decided in October last year Port Melville did not require an environmental impact assessment under federal laws because it was not a “controlled action”.
The decision was subject to the port’s developer Ezion Offshore Logistics Hub (Tiwi) Pty Ltd taking steps to “avoid significant impacts” to listed threatened species and ecological communities.
The NT EPA also announced last year it would not require an environmental impact assessment or public environmental report from Ezion.
After investigating, the NT EPA said environmental risks associated with the port’s future operations could be managed to avoid significant environmental impacts.
“In this case it worked out very well, and we believe that the project should simply go ahead,” NT EPA chairman Dr Bill Freeland said at the time.
However, in its statement of reasons, the NT EPA said it was concerned the company’s procedures for fuel storage, fuel transfers and emergency responses to cyclones and spills were “not fit for purpose”.
It seems the Tiwi people have been ripped off and the true purpose of this development obscured. One wonders what China would think of all this.
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