Whistleblower speaks out about defence housing project

A whistleblower has accused Defence officials of ignoring environmental warnings and planning rules over a housing development on land that is home to several threatened species.

Lee Point in the Northern Territory - known as Binybara to its Larrakia traditional owners - is home to vulnerable and endangered birds including the Gouldian Finch, Great Knot and Greater Sand Plover.

Defence Housing Australia plans to develop 800 homes, businesses and community facilities in the seaside area north of Darwin.

Defence Housing Australia plans to develop 800 homes and other facilities at Lee Point.

Amanda Lilleyman, an academic expert in migratory shorebirds, was engaged by EcOz Environmental Consulting in 2016 to report on the potential impact of the housing development for migratory shorebirds.

Her report, which was first published in 2018, found there would be significant disturbance to several threatened species.

Dr Lilleyman recommended implementing a monitoring program and engaging with community members about the environmental risks.

A second version of her report, published by the consulting firm in September 2022, said the monitoring program had been implemented as recommended.

This came 28 days after initial land clearing was carried out on the Lee Point site.

Dr Lilleyman was not consulted about the republication of her original work.

“They had to have that out before any work could take place,” she said.

Defence Housing Australia said it obtained all necessary approvals, consents and permits.

Under a work permit issued in 2018, Defence Housing Australia was required to develop and implement the monitoring program recommended by Dr Lilleyman.

If the agency was aware of this condition and did not put it in place before starting work, they would be in breach of NT planning laws.

Dr Lilleyman alleged the federal agency breached these conditions.

She described the publication of her work as a box-ticking exercise that did not fulfil the requirements of the planning permit.

“I had done this whole body of work as an expert, paid as a subcontractor, and my work wasn’t being used appropriately,” Dr Lilleyman said.

She has made several complaints to the Northern Territory government.

“There's just been a lack of response, a lack of accountability," she said.

Dr Lilleyman has written to federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, outlining allegations of misconduct in relation to Lee Point.

Ms Plibersek is yet to respond to the letter.

A public interest disclosure has also been lodged with the Commonwealth Ombudsman, with Dr Lilleyman asking the watchdog to investigate suspected wrongdoing at Defence Housing Australia.

The agency stopped work at Lee Point in August 2023 as a cultural heritage application was assessed.

The housing agency voluntarily stopped work at Lee Point in August 2023 to allow a cultural heritage application to be assessed.

Members of the Larrakia nation described the area as culturally significant and asked that it be preserved and protected.

The application was rejected in March and works are expected to resume despite an ongoing community campaign against the project.

Defence Housing Australia said it fulfilled all requirements in relation to the shorebird monitoring program and would determine the next steps for Lee Point in due course.

The government business enterprise said it had obtained the necessary approvals, consents, permits and other authorisations as required by Commonwealth and Northern Territory law, including clearance for the proposed development by the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority.

Ms Plibersek has previously acknowledged the development will have significant impacts on at least one endangered bird.

But she was satisfied this would be acceptable if changes were made to approval conditions to "mitigate, manage or otherwise compensate" for these impacts.

A spokesperson for the federal Environment Department referred questions about planning approvals to the territory government.

A spokesperson for the NT Department of Infrastructure and Planning acknowledged community concerns and complaints had been received related to the shorebird monitoring program at Lee Point, but said it would not comment on enforcement matters. 

Dr Lilleyman accused both levels of government of failing to act and said it had been left to the community to hold the housing agency to account.

“It’s just a complete disregard for the environmental processes that are in place to protect threatened species,” Dr Lilleyman said.

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