Whatever happened to Great Keppel Island?

By Mark White

Once well-known for an iconic party resort with the slogan “get wrecked!”, Great Keppel Island is reeling from a bitter dispute over plans to build hundreds of villas, a huge marina and a casino. Aboriginal owners and even a herd of goats are now involved.

It seems almost everyone on Great Keppel Island has a tale to tell – off the record and scandalous – about someone else. They range from the deliberate introduction of cane toads, to a lesbian orgy.

When rumours were spread that a recently-arrived resident was growing marijuana on his property, police intervened.

Divisions run deep in the small community over a $600 million development plan by Sydney property company Tower Holdings that would transform the largely undeveloped island, 15km off Yeppoon.

Supporters point to the economic boost that a marina, 750 villas, 300 apartments, a 250-room beachfront hotel, golf course, infrastructure, retail village, casino, airstrip and research centre – powered by more than 24,000 solar panels – would bring to a region suffering 10 per cent unemployment and the end of the mining boom.

Opponents are aghast at the environmental impact and argue for something much smaller, based on the existing footprint of the island’s derelict resort, which now sits behind fencing, just off Fisherman’s Beach.

Tower Holdings paid $16.5 million for the famous resort in 2006, before shuttering it in 2008 as the Global Financial Crisis began. When that threw 120 people out of work, initial anger was concentrated at Tower CEO Terry Agnew.

Terry Agnew, CEO of Tower Holdings

Terry Agnew, CEO of Tower Holdings

“Those people were all part of a community,” says Gerry Christie, who runs the island's pizzeria and is also deputy fire officer. “All of a sudden, for them to be gone… everyone was really pissed off at the guy.”

But alliances began forming as locals fell into pro- and anti-Tower camps. Most accept the need for some rebuilding, but the argument is over the scale. Christie now supports Tower, praising Agnew's embrace of solar technology – he plans an "eco-luxury resort" – as does retired miner Roger Penrose, who performs maintenance work for Tower on the island.

“The anger disappeared and it's liveable now,” says Penrose. “From where I sit, there's no ‘us and them’ anymore. You've got your ideas and we've got ours, but we still get on.”

“The anger disappeared and it's liveable now,” says Penrose. “From where I sit, there's no ‘us and them’ anymore. You've got your ideas and we've got ours, but we still get on.”

An uneasy peace has settled on the island, as Tower's plans stall for lack of funding. Penrose and others cite the search for a 20-year-old tourist, lost on forested hills several days earlier, as evidence that community spirit endures. Most locals joined in.

“Islands are difficult,” says Brett Lorroway, a barrel of a man with a broad, honest face, who lives with his family on an arc of squeaky white sand where the ferry moors.

He's talking about infrastructure challenges – what happens if you need a spare part, for example, and the nearest hardware store is on the mainland? But he might as well be discussing the fractured friendships of Great Keppel Island (or GKI).

“You need to be very careful politically,” says Carl Svendsen, a lifelong island resident and the chief fire officer. “It's very strained.” People watch what they say. But another resident claims tensions are overstated and really no different from other isolated communities.

Svendsen calls Great Keppel Island a “can of worms falling over”, referring to unsuccessful attempts through the island's history to launch grand schemes. He runs an eco-sensitive accommodation retreat at Svendsen’s beach, named for his father, with partner Lyndie Malan.

Malan says she was banned from the island's then sole ferry operator Freedom Fast Cats, as do Brett Lorroway and John and Suzy Watson, who run local news magazine Spectator. (Ferry co-owner Max Allen Sr says only Lorroway and John Watson were barred.)

Lorroway claims he was threatened by two men who told him: “Shut your mouth, or your boy won't have a dad.”

In a separate incident, Lorroway claims he was threatened by two men after an altercation involving a stolen anti-marina sign. He alleges they jumped him in a corner on soft sand and told him: “Shut your mouth, or your boy won't have a dad.”

It didn't work, he notes, sitting at the GKI Hideaway resort as the sun sets spectacularly over a satin sea. He also sees divisions on the mainland: “it happens at footy fields, down the street, there are a lot of arguments”. He was almost sued for an online comment he made.

Tower supporters Margaret Gearin and partner Robert Zerner own the Shell House, a sprawling 1961 building crammed with an extraordinary variety of shells.

“I get really pissed off about the rumours on GKI, either be it small-island mentality or anger because of a different point of view in relation to the development,” Gearin says.

Of the police visit over the marijuana allegations, she recalls: “They basically told everyone that we needed to be civil and try to get along.”

Great Keppel was once a little island community where everyone gets on really well.

Tower’s plans to refurbish the resort were initially welcomed, says Malan, an impish presence and vocal opponent. She claims Great Keppel was once a “little island community where everyone gets on really well”.

Tower opened a bakery and revamped staff accommodation. But in 2008, the resort was closed weeks away from a major refurbishment and Tower came back with a different, much bigger plan. The opening gambit called for 2700 houses, three resorts, an airstrip across the island and two golf courses.

Malan was appalled and said so, pouring money and time into studying the environmental impact on the island's rare species, which include the sooty oystercatcher and the planigale, a small, carnivorous marsupial.

“In one week, I was reported to 11 different government agencies. Nobody can live with that level of scrutiny.”

Malan's payback has seen her fill a timber briefcase with correspondence justifying how their accommodation business is run. “In one week, I was reported to 11 different government agencies for allegedly breaking rules [linked to their retreat],” she says. “Nobody can live with that level of scrutiny.”

By the time Tower submitted its third proposal, she was expecting it to be approved – and it was, albeit with 96 conditions imposed by Tony Burke, a few months before an election which it was clear the federal ALP would lose. The development would cover 972.5ha of the 1308ha island, with 575ha of that designated an environmental precinct.

Queensland’s Campbell Newman government boosted Tower's plans in 2014, changing the lease status in Lot 21, which covers 60 per cent of the island, from recreational to tourism and residential, allowing for villas to be constructed.

The gift of a 99-year lease horrified some locals, but left others like Penrose less concerned: “The golf course? That's over the hill. Who goes over the hill? This front beach isn't going to change.”

In her Yeppoon constituency office, state MP Brittany Lauga tells SBS: “One of the most sad things about this is that the project and the developer have divided our community. I know people on the island who used to spend Christmas together and now don't speak to each other anymore.

“That's why I think the sooner they start work on something, the sooner everyone can move on with their lives. It's a topic which divides families, business. People won't shop at certain stores.

“The social impact, in terms of this project which hasn't even started, has been enormous.”

“Those people were part of a community. All of a sudden, for them to be gone, everyone was really pissed off.”

Tower's inability to close the deal and begin work has seen a grassroots campaign rise against the development, led by Michael Powell, an intense 61-year-old retired nurse who runs an antique shop in Rockhampton.

Since he became involved last June, Powell has provided both structural rigour and dogged research skills. He helped launch a Facebook group called Don't Destroy Great Keppel Island – motto “build it or bugger off” - which jousts with OKOF (known to some as FOKOF).

Powell was a founding member of protest group Ya Nga, which means “mob” in the language of the island's traditional owners, the Woppaburra. The 11 members, including a Woppaburra representative, communicate and plan via a private Facebook page. Powell attended a Don't Destroy Great Keppel Island group meeting, to which residents John and Suzy Watson were invited as owners of a yellow-trimmed beachfront house surrounded by coconut palms.

Resort staff lining up for a barge to leave their home was “the saddest thing you'll ever see in your life”.

John, 70, calls the resort staff lining up for a barge to leave their home “the saddest thing you'll ever see in your life”. One, nicknamed Duck, died 12 months later (“basically of a broken heart”).

Resort staff leaving the island for the last time

Resort staff leaving the island for the last time

The couple, who have owned their property since 1994, walked through the resort grounds just after it had closed. “It was really strange and eerie,” says Suzy, 68. “There was nothing there. It was in such bloody awful condition, we looked at each other and said, ‘no wonder he doesn't want to keep this place going.’”

The boats stopped. Many tourists thought the island had closed for business.

The boats stopped. Many tourists thought the island – an iconic party destination in the 1980s with the slogan “get wrecked!” – had closed for business. But two resorts, the Holiday Village and Hideaway, remain open, with some beach houses available for rent. There is a dive shop, pizza hut, souvenir shop and 17 exquisite, isolated beaches.

Visitors can still see the flagship resort's public toilet block, behind an ugly metal fence with signs warning “private property” and – ironically – “construction site”. On the complex's southern border, dew is being burned off the tall grass as the scent of lemon eucalyptus rises with the sun.

The abandoned buildings stretch on, with broken windows and missing or open doors where guests once shook sand from their feet. It's as if aliens beamed away all the people. Filmmakers approached Tower to shoot a disaster movie there in 2013, with the working title Last Resort.

In an attempt to secure Asian backing, Tower applied for a casino license in 2014, a request denied by the LNP government. OKOF was formed after the ALP government also denied a bid for a smaller, “boutique” gaming licence (or BGL) to service 35 tables for high-rolling guests.

“We can't understand why [Tower] doesn't put in for a brothel,” says Powell, with withering sarcasm. “It goes with an eco-resort just as well as a casino does, and it certainly goes with a casino. It'd be a niche market, it'd employ our daughters – let's face it, they're all so lazy they could do work on their backs. In all seriousness, it's that laughable.”

Signs promoting pro-Tower lobby group, Our Keppel Our Future (OKOF), which is pushing for a BGL for the development, are a visible sight in Yeppoon businesses – and a reminder of continuing differences of opinion.

OKOF’s pro-development ads, along with support for a BGL from both the LNP and Tower, could hurt the ALP's chances of winning Capricornia, a federal target seat.

The solidly pro-Tower local paper, the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, ran a poll showing 64 per cent of residents wanted a new resort with a casino, almost triple the 24 per cent who didn't want one.

Powell admits, with disarming frankness, that he doesn't care whether Tower succeeds and may well visit its resort if it's built, but intends to fight as fiercely as he can.

Ya Nga is hoping to exhaust Tower's patience. “The best way we can get him [Agnew] off the island is by enforcing the lease conditions,” notes Powell. “He has approval to build this thing and you're pissing in the wind if you want to revisit that, because it's done and dusted.”

Brett Lorroway offers to drive from Fisherman’s Beach to Svendsen's Beach. The trip illustrates the island's absurd beauty and Ya Nga's strategy – at one point his quad bike passes through clouds of blue and green butterflies, which burst around us as if someone is reaching into a bag and scooping them into our path.

Lookout No.1 sits at the first crest, with a simple hut offering respite from the beating sun, looking east into a valley where Tower's villas are planned. The roads are steep and eroded, no longer passable by four-wheel drive. We pass the old homestead, now shuttered, where pink oleanders and hoop pines grow and dozens of feral goats graze in a nearby field.

Tower is responsible for, among other things, maintaining the Lookout hut, which no longer has a water tank for thirsty travellers, the roads, the homestead – which used to welcome visitors – and controlling the number of goats, which locals claim have dramatically increased.

Powell argues that Tower is shirking its responsibilities. Penrose disagrees, flicking through pictures on his smartphone of his work inside the homestead repairing wiring and roof tiles dislodged by possums.

“Every time the naysayers do something, it ends up in my lap,” he says.

Not all islanders agree the goats cause excessive harm. Lorroway says “they do less damage in a year than people do in a day”, while the Watsons printed a mocked-up picture of a goat in a firies' helmet in Spectator, arguing the animals mitigate fire risks by eating vegetation.

But goat control is a lease condition and Powell means to ensure Tower sticks to the letter of every one of the 140-odd federal and state mandates. He will hope for a repeat of Tower's late lease payment of $250,000, settled this April 1, which could have seen the leases cancelled outright.

Queensland’s Minister for State Development, Dr Anthony Lynham, tells SBS the government is working to ensure Tower “meet their other obligations under the lease conditions, including land and cultural heritage management requirements”.

'Get wrecked'? Scenes from Lot 21, formerly the main GKI resort.

Brittany Lauga, who at 30 is Queensland’s youngest state MP, must wonder how her nascent political career hangs on a casino licence – which, she has been told by Tower, it doesn't need before starting work.

The MP was once invited to OKOF meetings, but now speaks of a divided community.

“I've had an… [she pauses] interesting relationship with OKOF over time,” Lauga says. “A lot of them are members of the LNP and donors to the LNP as well.

“I often question what their purpose is – whether it's really about a boutique gaming licence, or to wedge me like a second arm of the LNP, under the guise of a community lobby group.”

Yeppoon businesswoman Karla McPhail is the extrovert head of OKOF who once paid $17,000 for a pair of Oprah's shoes at a charity auction, an action she's been lampooned for online.

“We can destroy Brittany if we want to,” McPhail says, sitting in a restaurant on the town's seafront, flicking through slogans for an OKOF campaign in the federal election.

She stresses that OKOF is apolitical and says she has no intention of running for local mayor.

The slogans are solidly pro-development and, by default, support the LNP: “Don't choose a political party, choose our region” and “Who's really working for us in our region?”

“It's much bigger than going for Brittany,” McPhail says. “She's really quite minor. She's just probably a bit out of her depth.”

In line with her party, Brittany Lauga voted against the LNP's April call for BGLs to be allowed on Queensland islands, despite supporting Tower's bid for Great Keppel alone (with conditions) during her 2015 election campaign.

“If Keppel goes ahead, it'll be unreal. It'll put Yeppoon back on the map.”

She could face strong opposition at the next hustings from OKOF, which has linked “1500 local jobs” to a BGL in a $40,000 campaign, and claims 75 per cent local support.

“My nephew's a qualified electrician,” says Sue Munns, co-owner of Yeppoon clothing store SuBah, where an OKOF sign is displayed. “He can't get a job. If Keppel goes ahead, it'll be unreal. It'll put Yeppoon back on the map.”

McPhail admits that not all jobs will be local. “I don't know the exact details,” she says. “They definitely won't all be in this area.”

“We've got so many other islands around, untouched beauties, and if we develop one which gives access to everything else, and accommodation, and infrastructure – surely we're not that backwards?”

But she can't understand opposition to Tower's plans, saying no one else will develop Great Keppel.

It frustrates her: “We've got so many other islands around, untouched beauties, and if we develop one which gives access to everything else, and accommodation, and infrastructure – surely we're not that fucking backwards?”

Tower still advertises a “casino opportunity” online, despite having no licence and, as far as campaigners are aware, being without a suitable operator. Agnew has said $50m has been spent to date on the proposals.

McPhail doesn't think Tower has handled matters well. “They don't do themselves any favours,” she says. An early setback came when Tower tried to lease Woppaburra land.

Before being removed entirely from their country in 1902, the Indigenous owners suffered an all too familiar tale of abuse. Two metal bars, set into jagged black rocks a few hundred metres off Svendsens Beach, were used to chain up disobedient Woppaburra. They could take days to drown.

But in 2007, the Bligh government returned 171ha of prime real estate bordering several beaches to the Woppa Land Trust, following financial and logistical support from Tower, which then tried to lease it back for $11.5m.

Retired Aboriginal barrister George Villaflor, from the ACT, was involved in negotiations. “Was Tower's initial offer genuine?” he says. “I think it was. It was just Tower did not yet have the finances. I thought he [Agnew] was a decent bloke looking for a real deal with the local Aboriginals.”

“Black politics is just as bad as any sort of politics,” says Woppaburra elder Warinkil-Aunty Glenice. “As bad as whitefella – it can be worse.”

The deal fell through, amid rancorous political infighting between Woppa factions (more divisions linked to Tower) and the land remains undeveloped.

“Black politics is just as bad as any sort of politics,” says Woppaburra elder Warinkil-Aunty Glenice, who often signs off her messages with an emoji of footprints. “As bad as whitefella – it can be worse.”

She feels this might be the year that her people come back together, saying some Woppaburra are investigating the feasibility of an eco-resort, whether Tower builds or not. She's not aware of Tower consulting with any traditional owners – another lease condition – since the 2007 deal collapsed.

“Tower is encroaching on our land,” Warinkil-Aunty Glenice says, “where he wants to build his marina."

She adds: “We fight to save Woppaburra sacred songlines, of which Lot 21 has a sacred woman's business place. We have many sacred dreaming places that have been passed down by Woppaburra descendants who were removed in 1902.”

Of Agnew, she says: “I hope he just goes away.”

“Any potential investors will always be faced with this legal Aboriginal dragon."

A native title claim was filed in 2013 over 583km2 of Keppel Bay, including islands and surrounding sea. Villaflor argues that Mabo and other recent High Court native title case-law precedents means native title may not have been validly extinguished from the former recreation public reserve (Lot 21) and other island tenures.

“Any potential investors will always be faced with this legal Aboriginal dragon at some time,” he says.

Once formal legal advice is obtained, it may clearly show that the state government decision to grant this to the Tower development proposal may not also be valid. Villaflor says anyone could seek legal advice on whether this grant was valid.

In effect, the land might not be Tower's to build on.

Tower insists work will begin by the lease deadline of September 2017. The company declined to speak on the record, but McPhail, who has been in contact with Agnew and Tower’s development manager Anthony Aiossa, predicts a start by Christmas.

The stalemate could be broken just after the federal election. A recent OKOF meeting was told that $150m, presumably from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF), could be made available to Tower, according to an OKOF supporter. OKOF head Karla McPhail is a member of the NAIF board.

A Department of Industry spokesperson tells SBS that while Tower has indeed applied to the fund, no decision will be made until July 1.

Meanwhile, Ya Nga campaigner Michael Powell is trying to find an authority that will take responsibility for ordering the goats off the island. Rumours are swirling on the GKI grapevine that someone started removing goats by barge around the time of the June 2016 east coast storm, but locals are sceptical.

They'll believe it when they see it.

Photography by Mark White, John Watson and Suzy Watson.