By Denis Walls, Aquis Aware
In recent months there has been a great deal of publicity about the proposed Aquis development at Yorkeys Knob, north of Cairns. Much of the publicity seems to have been in favour. Local, state and federal politicians, many business leaders, as well as News Ltd media, have been extolling its virtues. Many residents have been encouraged to believe that large numbers of local jobs will be created and that their house prices will increase substantially.
Concerns about the project
We encourage community members to make their voices heard within the limited time frame for comment on the Aquis EIS as this will be the best opportunity for input. There are a number of serious issues which we encourage people to consider carefully.
Conflict with existing planning mechanisms
If approved, the project would be in conflict with the Cairns Planning Scheme (the proponent would need to apply to the State Government to override this planning scheme), the FNQ Regional Plan and coastal planning legislation. These plans are the result of lengthy consultation process that is, however imperfect, 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. Its position on a coastal floodplain, and planned heights of up 27 stories, are inconsistent with the existing local planning scheme and the regional plan and create a dangerous precedent, leaving the door open for further high-rise developments on the northern beaches.
The economic viability of the current development proposal is yet 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 much smaller scale than 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 to an expensive destination like Cairns when Chinese-speaking Macau, with its numerous casinos, is right next door? Economic reliance on a single market it inherently dangerous. 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 local jobs 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.
Social impacts of a new casino
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 has struggled for many years to break even. Following the recent state government decision to allow seven casinos in Queensland, concerns have 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 (population around 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 money moves 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 siphons 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.
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 as an outcome of major flooding.
Future of Cairns
Finally, and most importantly, there will be a detrimental change to the character of Cairns and the Marlin Coast from a moderately sized eco-tourism destination to an artificial gamblers’ paradise which will dramatically increase population and possibly result in more such high-rise mega-developments. The construction and operation of Aquis will lead, by Aquis’s own projections, to a 25% increase in population over the next five years. In contrast, over the last 20 years Cairns 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, will have a significant impact on locals’ quality of life.
Next steps and more information
Clearly the Aquis proposal at Yorkeys Knob merits considerable discussion and review. Such deliberation is essential before state and local governments sanction a development which is likely to have irrevocable, adverse, long term consequences, transforming Cairns and its current environment and lifestyle forever.
Please come along to the public meeting – 7pm Wed 4th December at the Serbian Cultural Centre, Greenslopes St, Cairns.