At both State and Federal level, Australia has come under increasing pressure, including from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee (WHC), to better protect the Great Barrier Reef. In response, the Queensland Palaszczuk Government introduced the Sustainable Ports Development Bill 2015 (Qld) (the Bill) to Parliament on 3 June 2015.

The power of UNESCO's persuasion

As it is, the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBRWHA) is not only home to the world’s most stunning array of aquatic life, but also eleven of Queensland’s commercial trading ports. The WHC has been deliberating whether to inscribe the GBRWHA on the ‘List of World Heritage in Danger’ since 2011. If the GBRWHA was listed as ‘in Danger’, it could be removed from the World Heritage List. The repercussions of this would be significant given the $6 billion tourism industry and 60,000 jobs the GBRWHA supports.

Heeding this threat, the previous Queensland Government and Federal Government drafted the ‘Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan’, a proposal; to secure the health and resilience of the GBR.

The Plan has now culminated in:

  • The Bill to manage port development around the GBR;
  • the Commonwealth’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment (Capital Dredge Spoil Dumping) Regulation 2015, which operates to prohibit the dumping of capital dredge spoil in the GBR marine park; and
  • UNESCO WHC’s decision of 1 July 2015 to not place the GBR on the ‘in Danger’ list.

The crux of the Bill: 

Priority ports & planning

The Bill will regulate four of Queensland’s priority ports: Abbot Point, Gladstone, Townsville and Hay Point/Mackay (Priority Ports).

If implemented, the Bill will create a largely self-contained, two port planning framework for the Priority Ports comprising of Minister issued:

  • Master plans – high level plans setting the strategic vision for the Priority Ports; and
  • Port overlays (POL’s) – to regulate port development in a master planned area.

POL’s will give the Minister greater control over development at the Priority Ports. Significantly, POL’s will also prevail over any inconsistencies with planning instruments made under the Sustainable Planning Act 2009 (Qld) (SP Act).

Capital dredging & disposal

The Bill will:

  • Ban capital dredging in the GBRWHA (except in a master planned area or for projects subject to an active EIS);
  • Prohibit sea-based disposal of capital dredge spoil in the GBRWHA (subject to certain exceptions);
  • Mandate beneficial reuse or land-based disposal of port-related capital dredge spoil; and
  • Require an assessment manager to refuse development applications relating to port facilities that are within the State Marine Park, or within the GBRWHA but outside of existing port limits.
    (This is not applicable to applications for dredging or disposal of dredge spoil within these areas).

Maintenance dredging & disposal

The Bill does not regulate maintenance dredge spoil disposal (ie. dredging required for ongoing operation of existing port facilities). Port authorities will continue to follow existing processes.

What does this mean for business?

The Bill has the potential to have significant operational and cost implications. The various levels of regulation add complexity that must be well understood. The mere existence of the Bill has honed public attention on the GBRWHA and any public perception of behaviours contrary to the underlying policy of the Bill could have adverse implications for your business and its reputation

Continual monitoring of the Queensland Government’s actions in relation to dredge spoil disposal and port planning in and surrounding the GBRWHA will be critical

While on the one hand master planning may be conducive to certainty, confidence and future investment, the proposed changes to manage onshore dredge spoil through beneficial reuse or land disposal and incidental costs are likely to impact the viability of port expansions generally.

Watch this space

Committee activities

The Bill has been referred to the Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources Committee. The Committee is required to report on the Bill by 1 September 2015.

The Committee held a public departmental briefing and a public hearing for the Bill, in mid-June and mid-July 2015 respectively. Transcripts for both are publically available. Hearings in Cairns and Mackay were also organised.

Master plan schedule

The Queensland Government has indicated that master planning will commence for Gladstone and Abbot Point later this year, and next year for the Hay Point/Mackay and Townsville ports, pending parliamentary processes on the proposed legislation. Consultation will occur prior to implementation of the plans.

State planning regime

The Queensland Government announced in May 2015 that the State planning laws will be re-written. While the Bill is predicated on the current Sustainable Planning Act regime, the Bill and new Act will need to interact to regulate port development in the future.