News

Nothing fishy with Reefworld Aquarium deal

IN THE room ready to sign off on the deal were Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and the scandalous Queensland MP Russ Hinze.

Former New South Wales MP for Blacktown turned Hervey Bay concrete king Alfred "Alf" Dennis was there too. He requested the meeting and he swears hand-on-heart nothing in brown paper bags was offered to get Urangan's Reefworld Aquarium across the line.

"Never a cent. Never a cent. People might say I took advantage of politics and political friends to achieve things, but in those days politicians wanted to cut red tape, they wanted to get things done," Dennis says.

"That's why (Joh and Russ) said, 'Well, put in $10,000 to the marine and harbours department and if it's not a success in two years we'll use that $10,000 to knock it down.

"So there was no corruption. There was no bribery. It was just that they stated, 'If you do it officially and put it in the paper the greenies and the controversy which would come up would mean it would never get done - it would never be achieved'."

Dennis says the $10,000 cheque was returned two years later when an accountant and two engineers came up from Brisbane and declared Reefworld Aquarium (called Neptunes Coral Cave back then) a success.

The deal Dennis made with Sir Joh and Russ Hinze was they'd support him building the aquarium for so long as he kept his mouth shut about their involvement.

He says Sir Joh's message was simple: "Just go ahead and build it". Never mind telling the council or the rest of Hervey Bay, they'd find out once the machinery and men were on the beach building.

"Everything was honest. There was no corruption, no bribery, no jobs for the boys. Just because when Gough Whitlam heard about it he said, 'I wish you all the best' and gave me a reference letter, it didn't mean a thing because it was legal," he says.

"The reaction was something I could never live through again, and I'd never advise anyone to do it - and I carry that stigma even today, that Alf Dennis does things that aren't quite right."

How does a Hervey Bay businessman arrange a meeting with two of the state's most powerful identities so some pie-in-the-sky aquarium can get off the ground?

Easy. He calls up his pal from NSW, its premier at the time. He tells him he wants a meeting with Sir Joh about a pioneering tourism venture. And once he's got the ear of the Queensland premier, he goes ahead and builds it. Easy. Never mind he had no formal approval; he had Sir Joh behind him. Never mind it was on Crown land, or that the council threatened a court injunction; he had Sir Joh behind him.

"I had a 24-hour guard on the place," he says. "And letters would appear in the paper asking, 'How much did that cost you Dennis?' And there were rude remarks made to the mayor and councillors asking, 'Did you get a kickback out of the aquarium?'"

The backlash was severe. Dennis says greenies were breaking into the site of a night to trash things. They were painting questions on the walls asking: How much did you pay them Dennis?

"When I moved in with my men it was the first the council knew about it," he says. "The mayor, who I considered my friend, knew nothing of it; and the town clerk, who was known as a very efficient man at the time, was very rude to me about it.

"They came down one day and said "Alf, if you don't stop work immediately we will take out a high court order against you'."

A 6am call to Russ Hinze the following morning Dennis credits with stopping that court action.

A few hours later, he says, he signed approval documents with the council. Next a public relations message was fed to the media about a solution being reached. He doesn't know what made the council change its tune, but he suspects it was his call to Russ.

Deputy Hervey Bay City Council town clerk of 1978, Ray Becker, remembers the furore the aquarium caused: "Alf was the villain in the piece. And Russ Hinze was the minister for local government back then, and (Dennis) also had Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen's ear.

"It was Crown land, under the control of harbours marine, I think, and he just went ahead and built the bloody thing. "We tried to block him, but trying to block him was trying to block a rampaging bull."

The aquarium was built below the high tide mark at Dayman point, allowing Dennis to bypass - to an extent - the council. Living coral, tropical marine life, in a tank: it was a pioneering venture in Australia.

Alf Dennis, now 89, greying and finally ready to tell his story, says there'd be no way such a proposal would get off the ground today. Even back then the engineers wouldn't touch it. He's just lucky, he says, by chance, he owned a concrete company, was resourceful, and had the political muscle to pull it off.

Topics:  editors picks reefworld sir joh bjelke-petersen



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