Chapter 33...... Daydream Island
I have mentioned before how Labor came to power on the implied promise to ‘address’ the concern about ‘foreign land ownership’ and when the going became too tough, they folded. Daydream Island, does more to paint the weakness of the present government, than any other action so far. Daydream Island was about cynical posturing and the game of ‘politics’ over-riding commonsense. It was also about the bastardisation of the peoples rights, where one standard serves to ‘placate’ and the other to 'subjugate.
Unfortunately, the disinterest of the people as a whole, allowed the government to ‘do exactly as it wanted’ and had it not been for the vigilance of myself, the issue would not have necessitated a drafted bill that finally never even came into effect. Few people realise the chance that came our way to have this serious matter of who should buy our land nailed home once and for all. It was the chink in the armour that I had been looking for and when it came to the crunch, the saving of political scalps was expeditiously protected by ‘all politicians’. In effect when it comes to the right of the citizen, there must be political advantage, otherwise the sanctity of parliamentarians is protected. Under this canopy of ‘government for the people’ we would do well to ask ourselves, just who is ‘boss’ in our much vaunted system of democracy?.....the people or the politicians? Keith deLacy a man who better than most had some idea of the anger of the people toward the Japanese in particular, buying up Australia, allowed the trappings of his job to over-ride his deep concern on this matter. Unlike most politicians, he could not escape the full impact of Japanese investment, that shifted from the Gold Coast, after public outrage so upset Daikyo in particular that it commenced it’s Cairns takeover. Unlike the Gold Coast where the public were ‘weaned’ into doing something, Cairns despite valiant efforts by a few thinking people, never really blunted the Japanese buying spree. In a sense Cairns was open to rape, being like the innocent virgin; not knowing really what was happening , but liking the feeling. White Rocks cane farm was a case in point. Put on the market it was said that the price expected was in the vicinity of $1.2m. For reasons that remain to this day obscure it fetched $23m; the buyer, Japanese developer Daikyo Kanko. Without wishing to go into the possibilities of why any company would wish to pay such an exotic price tag, this action set, as it had on the Gold Coast, the agenda of high expectations. From now on, anyone wishing to sell, had their sights set on the buyers with the money; and those buyers were the Japanese. Daikyo’s preoccupation with Cairns, where money was no object, saw it buy not only large tracts of land, but also capture the top end of the four and five star hotel market. Many expressed alarm, which in turn was picked up by Keith deLacy. DeLacy part of the ‘inner sanctum’ of the new government, would have been well aware of the political connotations that had already faced the government with the fallout coming out of the Gold Coast. Tom Burns, long time advocate against foreign ownership and most outspoken critic of Japanese land buys was now ‘muted’; Wayne Goss hiding under the skirt of ‘racism and extremism’, pitched at those who had the courage to actually speak out tried to express alarm, without wishing to offend either the Japanese or the business community who relied heavily on their business. Now here was the State Treasurer, not liking what he was seeing in his own backyard, just as concerned as the ‘ordinary man in street’ suddenly sitting in the very seat that every other politician in the nation was running as far away from as his legs could carry him. DeLacy had two options; he could put his stamp on his new position or he could become the tool of not only the federal government, but also the servant of powerful business. It would take a strong character to resist either. DeLacy along with the new government, tried to appease public disquiet, by talking sweet and doing nothing, whilst at the same time wishing to accommodate the flow of vital capital investment. For its efforts it was caught in between, pleasing no-one and ending up sending out signals of indecision and equivocation. It was a position that both the Federal Government and Daikyo were quick to exploit.
Had the State Government, had the courage to hold a referendum or better still the astute stewardship to legislate against ‘foreign ownership of land’, it would have won the day. Foreign ownership of land, is a separate issue to foreign investment. Our politicians will tell you different and have done so from Hawke, Keating and Goss down. They will tell you that you it will ‘cause disinvestment’ if you prohibit the sale of our real estate. They are liars and they are disinheriting this nations future generations, by deceit.
When Hawke and Keating, slammed their collective fists on the table and told deLacy that he would ‘shape up or they would ship him out’ and Sir Sydney Schubert reinforced their hand by ‘threatening to take the money and run’, a dramatic change came over the State treasurer. His knees may have knocked, but his tongue was a clone of Canberra. Still shaking from the buffeting received from Canberra, deLacy declared that leaseholds to which he had openly sought to have seriously considered by Canberra, were now “ not a workable option”. So why did the Queensland State Government, force an ‘unworkable option’ on an investor, whose water-tight agreement gave rise to ‘special retrospective legislation’, designed to negate freehold title? This question I do not intend to go unanswered, for at the time little publicity was given to it. I had been told to ‘back off’ and whilst this warning activated my curiosity, my main interest was the ‘two faced front’ that the government could present to the people and furthermore ‘get away with’. There were times in this fight against ‘foreign land ownership’, that I craved for ‘sound constitutional advice’; there were times that I felt horribly inadequate to the task of trying to enunciate the ‘problem’ of what I saw.
When I confronted the issue of the Japanese buying up our land, I touched upon a nerve. Firstly, the greater percentage of Australians simply opposed the Japanese owning any part of Australia. Call it ‘gut’ feeling, call it historically motivated; they didn’t like it and they said so. Secondly, there were those who saw great financial advantage to not only cultivating Japanese relationships, but actually promoting it. Thirdly, through the passage of economic development since the Second World War, Australia had become a major customer of Japan, therefore relied heavily on retaining that ‘close working relationship’. Fourthly, there were those who in this ‘new age of enlightenment’, born of idealism, with no grounding in realism, choosing to see the ‘attack on the Japanese’ as nothing more than sinister racism or as Barry Cohen, so eloquently tried to paint it ‘ covert racism, hiding under the blanket of protecting Australia from foreign ownership’. The latter group, promoting the spectre of racism, did much to negate the legitimate concerns of a nation, silencing many, who were adequately versed and knowledgeable, to contribute to a debate started by those who had the courage to speak out. In a country of mediocrity, the scythe sweeping aside ‘uninformed opinion’ aided and abetted by a media marinated in the art of ‘sensationalism’, swamped those who could see ‘just a little further’.
Daydream Island, warranted an article on the front page of the SUNDAY-MAIL of February 3. 1992. Under the headline, Move to Stop Island Freehold with an eye-catching picture to help attract attention, the article said the ‘State Government would introduce retrospective legislation to block the free holding of Daydream Island. ‘ It quoted the premier Mr Goss as saying that “ I admit it is a drastic and unusual step for a government to pass retrospective legislation, but we feel there is no choice.” He went on,”as far as the Labor Party is concerned, offshore Islands should remain the property and under the control of the State. ....it would be a very bad precedent to start selling off freehold islands”.
This statement angered me. Here was the newly elected Wayne Goss in all his infinite wisdom extolling the virtue that our ‘islands’ should remain under control of the State; in other words the ‘people of Queensland, yet his government not only condoned, but openly promoted the selling off of our mainland. Why this differentiation? Is not land a generic commodity? Is the mainland less an asset and heritage, than our islands? What was so ‘special’ about Daydream that could not apply to other parts of Queensland? And what special qualities did the ‘Labor Party ‘ possess, that allowed them exclusive rights to deliberate what was right and wrong for future generations of Queenslanders?
Whatever the reason for the governments action, the relevancy of ownership I believe had little to do with it. There was more to this than the ‘sudden interest in foreigners owning Australia’.
I went to see the Leader of the Opposition; surely he would pick up the cudgel. Rob Borbidge, was uneasy about the issue. From what I could glean, the developers had gone to the previous government under Mike Ahern and presented a proposal to redevelop Daydream Island that had previously been devastated by a cyclone. Apparently the company proposed spending in excess of $100m and for this they sought the conversion of ‘leasehold title to that of freehold’. Whether, they sought this to capitalise on its investment remains a matter of speculation, but the memo to the press issued on March 11 from Borbidge’s office would suggest this. Mr Borbidge described the legislation as “ unjust and that it would wipe tens of millions of dollars off the value of investments on the Island”. He went on to say “ Millions had been spent on upgrading the Whitsunday tourism island on the basis of a successful approach to the previous government on freeholding”. On the strength of this statement, even the Opposition was perfectly at ease with selling the State’s land to foreign owners. Any pretence at ‘abhorrence of selling off our land to foreigners’ from now on would be purely window dressing, a ‘political statement’.
I could expect no help from Borbidge and his warning to ‘leave it alone’, raised further questions in my mind. With this I approached the Liberal Party, only to be told that their Party supported the Governments stand. They would raise no opposition. In such a situation, where legitimate concern in a democracy finds no favour with ruling party or two oppositions, where does one turn? I was receiving no help from either the National Party or the Liberals. I sought it elsewhere and was given a copy of the ‘bill’, now before the parliament and introduced on Leave on March 10. Entitled ‘ Land (Daydream Island) Clarification Bill 1992., it was an exercise in utter hypocrisy and ‘served to underline the concerns that I had been expressing for the last four years’. Written under the signature of Bill Eaton, Minister for Land, I had to wonder why his parties leader had pointed the finger of racism at me, whilst he was prepared to push retrospective legislation through the house, with rhetoric that could well have come from my pen. For instance,... ‘One of the many roles modern governments must fulfill , is that of protecting this State’s heritage; in this case natural and irreplaceable assets’. After saying that the previous government had virtually agreed to convert their perpetual lease to freehold, if the improvements were carried out and that because of a change of government he had decided to ‘exercise his discretion as Minister’ and prevent it; he justified it on this ground....THESE ISLANDS ARE NOT OURS TO SELL!!!!!!! I could not have agreed more Mr Eaton. Having said that, the Minister advised the parliament, that the Bill applied only to Daydream Island. Why then the exclusivity ? Why only Daydream Island when the Bill distinctly stated, islands. The ‘Bill” was to languish on the table, pending it’s third reading; being set-down to debate, being relegated and finally removed from the political agenda, never to be used.
Parliament, in recess at the time was due to sit again on April 28. On March 29 I wrote to the Minister of Lands Mr Bill Eaton. In a letter dated April 2, he acknowledged my concern and said he would ‘respond as soon as possible’. .......That reply came six weeks later.
Before I set in place the letter to the Minister and the reply, it is informative to look at some of the ‘parameters’ that created this dilemma.
The Daydream Island Travelodge Resort was jointly owned by Australian and perhaps surprisingly New Zealand interests. Both companies are old and reputable building firms who over the last few years have diversified and spread their investment base. A V Jennings and Jimmy Fletcher started out as small house builders and through dint of integrity and business acumen, consolidated their early successes. Fletcher in New Zealand, built many of the familiar State houses. In later years the company had interests in the giant pulp and paper mills at Kawerau in the Bay of Plenty, expanded when it went into partnership with the farming giant Wright Stephenson’s. With restructuring the name changed to Fletcher Challenge and the conglomerate went onto embrace oil, forestry, tourism and a basket of minor interests. It was this expertise, in the hands of Australasians that had injected ‘local capital’ into a market that had been dominated by Japanese buyers. So why did the joint venturers apply for freehold. Did they have the final product in sight for sale to a foreign investor? Possibly they did and with Green Island, Fitzroy and Turtle Island, being touted for ‘investment targets’, the government might have been frightened into ‘sending out messages’. If this was the case then Daydream Island would act as the catalyst to announce government concern. In laying down the criteria it expected, it was doing so to investors who would not necessarily cause ‘ massive ructions’. Neither Australian or New Zealand investors were likely to cause more than a yawn, had they threatened to ‘withdraw their investment”. It will always remain a point of conjecture as to whether the Bill placed before the parliament would have even have been entertained had the investor been Japanese. In a newsletter sent to me from Auckland in December 1991, this interesting paragraph appeared:
Japan in particular is buying our state assets and also buying them through buying Fletcher-Challenge. This company is 40% foreign owned and given its joint ventures, its activities are majority foreign owned now. In a year or two it will be Japanese owned and controlled company.
This then was my assessment of what was going on, yet as I endeavoured to solicit help from any parliamentarian, my reading of the situation was thrown out the window by a purely gratuitous remark during a telephone conversation with a member of the legislative assembly. I say gratuitous because our conversation was getting nowhere. He was being coy I knew, because in some ways he had indicated in the past that he had a great sympathy with my cause, but being a member of a party carried certain obligations. Unity was one of them and until such time as views and policy changed, then he had to stick with those guidelines. It appeared as though he was on the same line as other colleagues...... the Opposition would support the Government on this ‘retrospective bill”. Without warning , quite casually as if it was ‘common knowledge’, the parliamentarian said, “Of course the ownership of the land, Bruce, has little to do with it (the Bill).
“What do you mean”, I was now acutely interested.
“It is about writs against Ministers”
I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I pressed on. “Who would have been responsible for payment of those writs had they succeeded.?
“They would have had to settle them themselves , because the alleged defamatory remarks took place before they became ministers.”
One name was mentioned, but off-hand the caller could not remember who the others were.
I went on “So this was some sort of trade off, to save the hides of Labor members of parliament and cabinet minister’s at that. In other words the interest of these politicians were placed before the greater interest of the people.” “You could say that, but don’t loose sight of the fact that the people of Queensland end-up retaining Daydream Island and that is what you want anyway”.
Borbidge had said “leave it alone”. So why would the opposition close ranks with the government? Here then is what in parliamentary terms might be called the ‘address and reply’ debate. My letter to the Minister and his reply some six weeks later.
Letter from Whiteside
Reply from Eaton.