Sunday, November 3, 2013

Comments on Aquis development from Denis Walls

There are a few local blogs in our part of the world that give an alternative voice to the MSN drivel that is fed to us daily in the Far North. One of these is Cairns Hillbilly Watch and although I don't always agree with the comments posted, frequently the author/s hit the nail right on the head. The response from the comments section often make for an interesting read also and I am sticking my neck out by assuming I would have Denis Wall's permission to reproduce his comments on the controversial Aquis casino development here.

Here is the link to Cairns Hillbilly Watch where the comments were originally posted

"I have five key points to make about Aquis which I will have to send as five separate posts because of space limitations. Here is the first: First, city, regional and coastal planning schemes will be overturned if this development is approved. These plans are the result of lengthy consultation and reflect community consensus about the nature of development and where our urban footprint should lie in relation to varied social, economic and environmental criteria. These plans are the result, however imperfect, of democracy in action. For example, the Regional Plan for FNQ 2009-2031 envisages our region as a world class, ecologically sustainable tourism destination. It is intended to protect areas with landscape and rural production values like the northern beaches from incompatible developments such as Aquis. The construction of a 27 storey tower and three 18 storey buildings at Yorkeys Knob, on a known flood plain, as proposed by this development, is inconsistent with the existing local planning scheme and the regional plan. It will create a dangerous precedent leaving the door open for further high-rise developments on the northern beaches.

Second, the cost benefit analysis of this development for the local economy requires closer examination. The economic viability of the current development proposal needs to be demonstrated. There is no published business plan for its $4.2 billion construction and advertised $2 billion annual turnover. Nor is any information available regarding the investors, except Mr Tony Fung who is the sole owner of the proponent company Aquis Resort at the Great Barrier Reef Pty Ltd. There is a long history of broken promises and environmental damage as a consequence of large, failed developments in Far North Queensland. One need only look to Port Hinchinbrook or False Cape as recent examples, and both of these are on a scale that pales into insignificance compared to Aquis. It is also important to scrutinise the future of the Chinese tourism market on which this development depends. Who can guarantee that many thousands of Chinese visitors will travel long distances to an expensive destination like Cairns when Chinese-speaking Macau, with its numerous casinos, is right next door? Cairns has already learnt of the inherent danger of depending on the Asian tourism market which can be significantly affected by a wide range of factors including economic downturns, the high Australian dollar, extreme weather, disease outbreaks and increasing travel costs. The FNQ regional economic development strategy has recognised that it is essential to diversify the Cairns economy, but if Aquis proceeds the local economy will be overly dependent on one company in one sector of a very risk exposed industry over which we will have no control. The assumption that the development will provide residents with large scale permanent employment also needs to be questioned. Far North Queensland’s main training provider, TNQTAFE, is experiencing sweeping budget cuts and cannot provide quality training for local jobs’ growth on the scale envisaged by Aquis. In addition, few locals can speak Chinese and, in consequence, the resort may prefer to employ Chinese workers. This should not be construed as a criticism of Chinese workers but raises the question of how many long term jobs this development will really create for local residents.

Third, the economic and social impact of the casino, which is the key component of the Aquis development, is a major concern. Significantly, the current Cairns casino struggled for many years to break even. Following the recent state government decision to allow seven casinos in Queensland, doubts have already been expressed that even Brisbane, with a population of over 2 million, may not be able to sustain two casinos. While the Aquis casino is primarily designed for the additional tourists it will attract, it is reasonable to ask how Cairns, with a population of only 150,000, could support two casinos. At the very least it will severely impact on the operation of the existing casino while employment in businesses in the Cairns Central Business District may also be affected as jobs move to this mega development attracted by its range of retail and tourism activities. Researchers Francis Markham, from the Australian National University (ANU), and Martin Young, from Southern Cross University, are among many who have written about the negative impacts of gambling on communities. “When locals spend money at casinos, it drains income from other businesses, or syphons household savings into the pockets of multinational corporations and billionaires like James Packer” . They also state: “recent research suggests that poker machines in casinos are more dangerous than those in clubs or hotels (and) there is good reason to worry that the expansion of existing casinos and the development of new ones will only increase the harm gambling does to the Australian community” . Chair of the Australian Churches Gambling Taskforce, Tim Costello, emphasises the point. “If you spend $1 million on gambling, you create two or three jobs, $1 million on hospitality you get 20 jobs, on retail 100 jobs. High rollers only ever account for 11 per cent in the casino. The rest of casino profits are accounted for by 'the grind' a term used for locals, largely playing pokies and tables.” Between $7 million and $11 million is lost on pokies every month in Far North Queensland alone . Another significant community concern and potential social harm of a mega-casino development near Cairns is the fear of organised criminal activity similar to that reported over the last two years at Sydney’s Star Casino.

 Fourth, there are many environmental concerns linked to the Aquis development proposal. Where, for example, will the massive amount of excavated and potential acid sulphate soil waste be dumped and treated? In addition, scientific studies and topography point to a possible change in the course of the Barron River through Thomatis Creek adjacent to the development site. The latter is the shorter and steeper route to the sea and conditions already exist for this to occur in the event of major flooding. Finally, and most importantly, there will be an inevitable and detrimental change to the character of Cairns and the Marlin Coast from a moderately sized eco-tourism destination in keeping with the environment, to an artificial gamblers’ paradise which will dramatically increase population and most likely result in more such high-rise mega-developments. The construction and operation of Aquis will lead, by conservative estimates including Aquis’s own projections, to a 25% increase in population over the next five years. This is quite out of keeping with the nature of development in Cairns over the last 20 years which has seen steady 2% annual population growth largely allowing the city to keep pace with physical and social infrastructure demands. A population of around 200,000 by 2018 would place enormous pressures on our geographically constrained environment. The natural environment and quality of life that characterise Cairns will be threatened. Increased population density will require more housing and high-rise buildings and further widening of highways. Water, waste and sewerage systems will be severely stretched and more schools and hospitals will be required. Noise levels, both during construction and afterwards with the increase in air traffic, will have a significant impact on locals’ quality of life. Clearly the Aquis proposal at Yorkeys Knob merits considerable discussion and review. Such deliberation is essential before state and federal governments sanction a development which is likely to have irrevocable, adverse, long term consequences, transforming Cairns and its current environment and lifestyle forever.

 The last paragraph should have said, 'state and local governments'. Apologies for the typo. It is clearly vital that concerned members of the community make their voices heard as loudly and clearly as possible given the headlong rush by local, state and federal politicians as well as News Ltd into supporting this unknown development behemoth."

Friday, November 1, 2013

Standing up to the man!

Despite releasing this information sheet the politically conservative Cairns Regional Council has decide to step back in time to a mentality of Nature Bad / Development Good that has pervaded the Far North in previous decades. This in turn has fired up several groups such as  Save our Flying Foxes to fight back with advertising  to support the iconic bat colony that draws thousands of tourists to our little 'city'.