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What is actually happening in the Tiwi Islands?

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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  1. gangey1959

    Once again Kaye lee you are at the coal face.
    “The Singaporean owner and developer of the port, Ausgroup,……”
    WTF. IF the whole project needs to go ahead,and if it’s legal and all of the rest of it, why do we need singapore to be involved. Let them stay north of the equator where they belong. The singapore government has already screwed Victorians out of billions of dollars via “Energy Australia”, formerly known as “spasnet” or “singapore power ausnet”, so their record can stand on it’s own merits. Or lack there of. Just ask the residents of the Latrobe Valley around Hazelwood. The power station had no fire fighting equipment left in operational order because spasnet felt it was too expensive to maintain. (I know one of the local firemen down the. We went to school together)
    All the local Indigenous population asked for is a financial hand up to get their wood chips to market.
    Anything that the globally reprehensible specimen, malcolm ‘brough end of the pineapple’ is involved in is about as straight as a Ballarat bishop, so what hope do the Tiwi Islanders have. Meanwhile, back in Canberra, the minister who has singlehandedly redefined “Best”, imadumac hunt is back in the headlines for doing absoultly sweet FA, let alone his job.
    Roll on the start of the NRL season. At least I’ll have something to cheer about, even on the occasions that Melbourne Storm come second.

  2. Kaye Lee

    According to Ausgroup,

    “After entering into a 50 year lease agreement with the Tiwi Land Council, Teras Australia has constructed and developed Port Melville into a fully regulated and operational port.

    Port and Marine services contractor, Teras Australia, was formed in 2011 as Ezion Holdings continued to expand into Australia.

    Now a subsidiary of AusGroup, Teras Australia supports the offshore oil and gas industry through the provision of marine services

    Port Melville will primarily be used for cargo operations, fuel distribution and as a logistical hub for the oil and gas industry.

    The Port commenced full operations with the loading of the Daio Papyrus [a wood chip carrier] on 26 November 2015.”

  3. Miriam English

    Our government seems entirely composed of fools and scoundrels.

  4. Kaye Lee

    Indeed Miriam. Adam Giles tells us it is just for wood chip for the locals, the company who owns it says it is for oil and gas, and everybody keeps talking about a military base and then denying it.

    One less scoundrel as Mal Brough announces he will not contest the next election. Does this mean the police may be closer to an end to the investigation that should have taken them a week?

  5. Arth

    Never trust Govt, as usual they have sold the Tiwi people out, while a few make $millions from the rest.

  6. Kyran

    It’s hard to know where to start unravelling this knot.
    On an environmental basis, you only need look at the wiki for Tiwi Islands to see the potential for a devastating environmental impact, to which ghunt is oblivious.
    On a ‘strategic’ basis, seems odd that you would develop a port to service oil and gas interests when it is so far from the clients it wishes to service. It seems odd you would try to establish a support facility for the US military less than 100 kilometres from the port you just leased to a Chinese company. Not to mention the NT government forgot to tell the Australian government, who, therefore, couldn’t tell their American mates. Oops.
    As for the Singaporean government (at the risk of offending gangey, whom I respect), they are geniuses. Since the late 70’s, they have declared an intent to purchase ‘infrastructure’ on a global scale, having noted governments around the world thought it better to sell their infrastructure assets. Google GIC Private Ltd. They are mercenary in the prosecution of their agenda. In the modern world, this is not only acceptable, it’s admirable.
    Ms English’s observation is pertinent to the extent our government is comprised of fools, when acting in the public’s interest. When acting in their individual interests, they are, indeed, scoundrels. And just as mercenary in the prosecution of their individual agenda’s as the Singaporean government. You need look no further than the recently (politically) departed brough as an exemplar of foolish skulduggery. Thank you, Ms Lee. Take care

  7. metadatalata

    Interesting that today Mal Brough has decided to quit parliament due to “the AFP’s continuing investigation into corruption over Peter Slipper’s diary”. I will chalk it down to another scalp via the AIMN though…

    Nice work Kaye Lee!

  8. jim

    How could you blame the LNP of any wrong doing don’t you know they are responsible for all of our idea’s we should all head to the ideas boom the LNP started, does anyone know the address of this “ideas boom” if so ‘ll be going to it and getting some if it, the “ideas boom” lets go now!. incredible don’t you think? It must be good as the LNP has spent $millions advertising it so far.

  9. Paula

    Australia has no oil and gas supplies if China cuts off the sea lanes. This would seem the solution to that strategic vulnerability. An asset to our main ally the USA, and a supply of fuel for the country in time of war. Strange way to go about it. Thank you Kaye Lee.

  10. gangey1959

    @Paula. Maybe we could stop exporting what we produce, except that our foreign owned oil and gas companies wouldn’t continue to make their huge profits at our expense. I somehow don’t think we will run out, war or not.
    Bugger the chinese. They belong north of the equator, as do the poms, septics, singaporeans, russians, indians, japanese and anyone else who’s country lies in the northern hemisphere, regardless of their trade interests in and around Australia.
    Australia needs a government that stands up for us and our southern neighbours, and we don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to exist as Australia.
    The TPP, chafta and kata can get shoved as far up the respective arses as they can be put. None of them are remotely in Australia’s interests. Take the final scene from “The Last Samurai” as inspiration.
    Mouldy Gold FM here in Melbourne ran a top 500 songs all week, which finished today. Number 1? “Working Class Man” Nothing wrong with that, but it does show what we on average think of ourselves.
    I have a big Southern Cross on my dunnydore’s back window. The last time I got pulled over, the walloper said when I asked why that the stickers suggested that I might be worth a look. I’m no racist white pride dickhead, just very honored to be Australian, and if I had a good golden wattle sticker I’d have that too.
    In the words of the great Henry Lawson.
    “I’ll fight for Her, I’ll die for Her, And when at last I lie,
    Then who to wear the wattle has a better right than I”
    I don’t think I’m alone, and I despise what is being done to my country and ALL of my fellow Australians by bastards who don’t understand or care.
    @Kyran. Go for it dude. We can discuss it over a beer some time.


  11. Ricardo29

    Ah yes, a tourist hotel overlooking the pristine, sandfly infested mangrove mudflats stretching away for kilometres. Another so called deepwater port for the oil and gas industry? 100 km from Darwin where there is already a more than adequate example? As for stationing thousands of American troops there, they would mutiny within a week with nothing to do but fish for Barra, wrestle crocs and fend off the mossies and midges. Mind you, if Singapore is involved, they might have some expertise in remaking mangrove swamps into international cities. Perhaps that’s what this is about, a new northern city to rival Darwin.

    Anyway, thanks Kaye Lee, yet again, for illuminating a dark place. And goodbye Brough your intervention was yet another blow to Indigenous self determination.

  12. Adam Howard

    My first language was tiwi, it hurts to see good people being used.
    Thankyou for bringing this to my attention.

  13. Brett

    some more interesting info can be found here ““It’s important for northern Australia to build on its strengths and natural values, while also increasing the opportunity to bring in services that currently don’t exist. I’m hoping to bring a perspective to the role shaped by being the chair of the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance.” http://www.kred.org.au/blog/2014/7/21/wayne-bergmann-appointed-to-northern-australia-advisory-group


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