After a 657-day delay and multiple reviews by the Tasmanian Ombudsman following a right to information (RTI) application made in April 2018, an EDO client has obtained copies of the Halls Island ‘eco-tourism’ leases.
The Ombudsman’s decision to instruct the Environmental Department to release the leases rejects the Department’s justification for secreting them and shows there was no basis for its refusal to release Crown leases. The decision highlights the lack of transparency in the Environment Department over private development on public land and has implications for 17 other proposed developments in Tasmania’s pristine national parks and World Heritage Area.
The leases show that the luxury development proponent will pay $4,000 a year in rent for the Island to the State Government once developed, $1000 before it is developed and $2000 to rent a private hut on the Island, an amount described by EDO Managing Lawyer Nicole Sommer as “giving World Heritage away for a song”.
The tourism development plans to helicopter guests into the Walls of Jerusalem National Park in central Tasmania to stay on Halls Island for three nights at a luxury price. The proposal has been the subject of two legal challenges [see Supreme Court appeal and Federal Court result].
The development proposal was facilitated through the Tasmanian Government’s Expressions of Interest (EOI) process for private tourism in the state’s national parks and reserves, which has been criticised by environmental groups, anglers and bushwalkers for lack of transparency.
“Our client was notified by the Department of Primary Industries Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE) that it had ‘been instructed’ to release the lease documents in full”, said EDO Managing Lawyer, Hobart, Nicole Sommer. “The decision of the Ombudsman shows DPIPWE withheld the lease and rents charged with no good reason and at substantial delay – 657 days after the leases were first requested. Without the Ombudsman, these leases might never have seen the light of day.
“While the Environment Department argued a lease drafted by it was “confidential information”, the Ombudsman found by the terms of the lease itself it is not.
“The Department then attempted to keep the leases secret by arguing the leases were commercial in confidence. The Ombudsman declined to consider that argument but commented:
“I consider that an exemption relying on that provision for information relating to third party businesses utilising public world heritage land for profit might face a high threshold in terms of the application of the public interest test.”
“The leases show that the rent being paid for Halls Island is $1000 until development is completed, then $4000, with a $1 licence fee. This is how much you might expect to lease degraded rural land in the Central Highlands. It in no way reflects the value of the lease itself to the proponent, or the inherent values of the property”, said Nicole Sommer.
“We call on the Tasmanian government to release the valuation methodology used for this lease. In every other State there is transparency over how public land is valued – not here. If the government has a good record on this, they should simply show us how they come up with the $1000 and $4000 figures.
“This is important not just for the Lake Malbena proposal, but for the 17 other leases in negotiation under the EOI process, including the South Coast Huts, the Walls of Jerusalem Huts and the Bruny Lighthouse, and for other proposed leases like the Treasury building”, Nicole Sommer said. “This is public land, with inherent public values – we all deserve to know how these rental values are assessed and the terms of public leases.”
The lease and licence agreement were signed before the three main planning processes — the state reserve activity assessment, the council development application and federal environmental assessment — were completed.