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The Great Barrier Reef Wars

To float over such an aqueous body is to find a majestic creature unparalleled in beauty and expanse, stretching at 2,300km. There are other stunning formations on the planet, but the Great Barrier Reef has such dimension, form and cocksure brilliance as to make others shrink, not so much because of beauty as due to sheer scale and ecological variety.

But the Reef’s health record has been patchy. Each year brings a series of negative assessments about the patient. Its ticker is having palpitations; its central mineral supports in the form of coral life is being bleached. Water quality is being affected. The crown-of-thorns starfish, richly stimulated by nutrients from runoffs, has grown in number to savage the unmoving coral with relish.

With such activity, it was little wonder that the World Heritage Committee, under the umbrella of UNESCO, has suggested placing the Reef on the endangered list. While taking note of “many positive achievements by the State Party [Australia], progress has been insufficient in meeting key targets of the Reef 2050 Plan. The Plan requires stronger and clearer commitments, in particular towards urgently countering the effects of climate change, but also towards accelerating water quality improvement and land management measures.”

Despite the money committed by the Commonwealth government to protect the Reef, along with cross-institutional collaboration, “the long-term outlook of the ecosystem of the property has deteriorated from poor to very poor, and that the deterioration has been more rapid and widespread than was evident during the period 2009-2014.” Bleaching events from 2016, 2017 and 2020 “as a result of global warming,” are also noted in the agenda.

Given such considerations, the World Heritage Centre and the International Union for Conservation of Nature recommended “that the property is facing ascertained danger” and should be placed upon “the List of World Heritage in Danger.” Australia would be invited to collaborate with the World Heritage/IUCN Reactive Monitoring mission “to develop a set of corrective measures” to enable the Reef to be removed from the list of world heritage in danger.

Richard Leck, Head of Oceans for the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia summed it up thus: “The recommendation from UNESCO is clear and unequivocal that the Australian government is not doing enough to protect our greatest natural asset, especially on climate change.” Imogen Zethoven, consultant for the Australian Marine Conservation Society, saw the UNESCO recommendation as a chance to draw attention to Australia’s lethargic climate change policies. “Australia’s climate record is more consistent with a 2.5 to 3 Celsius rise in global average temperature – a level that would destroy the Great Barrier Reef and all the world’s coral reefs.”

Members of Scott Morrison’s government violently disagreed. Ministers claim, in outrage, that such moves to deem the sacred reef endangered is a profanity and in the spirit of diplomatic duplicity. This is all the more tickling for the fact that Australia has one of the weaker environmental portfolios: Environment Ministers usually find themselves as fossil fuel cross dressers and apologists for mining. “Australia believes,” claimed the startled Environment Minister Sussan Ley, “it is wrong to single out the best managed reef in the world for this potential ‘in danger’ listing.” Ley also claimed to have been “blindsided by a sudden late decision.” It was “unheard of for a site to be added to an endangered list, or recommended … without the necessary consultation leading up to it.”

In a press release, Ley claimed that “UN officials” had assured Australia that no such recommendation would be made prior to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting to be hosted by China in July. The draft decision had been a mere “desk top review with insufficient first-hand appreciation of the outstanding science-based strategies being funded by the Commonwealth and Queensland Governments.”

For a government that has politicised everything from renewable energy to the granting of mining permits, such anger was mildly amusing. In Ley’s barely credible words, “When procedures are not followed, when the process is turned on its head five minutes before the draft decision is due to be published, when the assurances my officials received and indeed I did have been upended. What else can you conclude but that it is politics?”

The allusion lurking in such views was that the decision had been massaged. In what is fast becoming a boring tic, Australian government sources pointed the eager finger at China. One, who remained unnamed, told the South China Morning Post that Australia would “appeal but China is in control.”

Rupert Murdoch’s press outlets, showing how quickly they can change from ingratiating themselves with Chinese Communist officials to condemning them (the mogul’s failed dream to penetrate the Chinese market continues to rankle), is running the Yellow Devil story. China, raged Sky News host Chris Kenny, was being aggressive towards Australia “under the guise of climate activism.” The UN was being used as a vehicle for “environmental emotional blackmail.” Sky News Political Editor Andrew Clennell was most pleased to reveal that the environment minister had “specifically mentioned China in the Coalition party room with the hint being this was another example of the coercion tactics that China has been using against Australia.”

The view from the other side was rather different. Dr Fanny Douvere of the World Heritage Centre attempted to correct the record. “We don’t share [decisions] before they are finalised,” she told Guardian Australia. “That’s the simple truth.” Nor was it credible to assume that China had been a factor. “There is absolutely zero influence. This is simply not the truth. There is no interference at all.” Beijing was not even aware of the recommendations being made.

Some of Ley’s angst may well be due to the return of the deputy prime minister, who hails from the junior partner, the National Party. Barnaby Joyce remains wedded to the idea of nuclear energy and snorts at investing in renewables. “What this insane lemming-like desire to go to renewables going to do to our economy?” he asked in 2013. Having languished in backbench exile for alleged sexual harassment, exiting a long marriage and scooting off with his mistress, he has stormed back to the front of the Morrison cabinet, decapitating (politically speaking) the now former leader, Michael McCormack. In doing so, he resumes a position he left in disgrace three years ago. More to the point, the fossil fuel fanatics are now breathing more furiously than ever, being the types who think that the Great Barrier Reef is the sort of thing you see in specimen drawers and Madame Tussauds.

South Australia’s Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young saw the problem closer to home and rather damning. “You weren’t ‘blindsided’,” she scornfully tweeted about Ley, “you had your eyes closed [and] ignored the science and kept taking donations from the fossil fuel industry.” The Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, had her own barb with the federal government, telling a press gathering on June 23 that the greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef was none other than the National Party.



The one true victim in this international brawl is the Reef itself. Bureaucrats will be haggling and disagreeing over data, labels and outcomes as the degradation continues. And Australia, for its incessant resort to that fiction called the “rules-based international order” will seedily attack international institutions if it serves to placate domestic interests.


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  1. guest

    Australia has been warned before that the Great Barrier Reef could be rated ‘in danger’, but the government at the time begged UNESCO not to do it. There have been conflicting claims from various institutions. There have been claims that run-off of agricultural chemicals is not affecting the Reef, that dredging in harbours has nothing to do with fatal diseases among fish or silt on the coral. Coral, it was said, is highly resilient. Passage through the Reef, it is claimed, is quite safe for large coal ships. Meanwhile, many ocean scientists have expressed dismay at the damage done to the Reef which looks unsaveable, especially after three bleaching events in the last five years. Scientists have been working with a university in Hawaii to seek coral which might be used to create survival against the warming effects of Climate Change. Money has been spent on the Reef because it is so important for tourism – nearly half a billion dollars in one case to an address on Kangaroo Island, with what result?

  2. Jack sprat

    It’s never the Tories fault but that damn red under the bed.Classic (blame transfer101) schoolyard defense .

  3. Brad Black

    The following figures demonstrate the crookedness of our voting system and hence decisions being made based on a dangerously backward ideology. Nationals – 21 MPs and Senators representing 4.61% of the national population
    Greens – 9 Senators and 1 MP for 10.23% of the population. (AEC 2019)

  4. Pete Petrass

    Surprised the government has not bragged about the $444 million they gave the GBRF some years ago to allegedly look after the reef. But then that money seems to have just disappeared, a mere fraction of the money they were supposed to raise from donations has been collected and it seems the only money spent has been for gratification of GBRF staff.

  5. Canguro

    Despite the obviousity of there being no kangaroos in any Spanish speaking country, I feel some attachment to my screen name, bestowed benevolently by a Colombian gal many years ago in recognition of my biological roots. I’ve omitted the qualifying prefix for brevity, but the fuller version was canguro flaco, the skinny kangaroo.

    I expect that with the recent rainshed across the land that the skippies aren’t short of a good feed, but their current circumstances aren’t the issue here.

    This government’s abject dereliction of their duty of care for the environment is shocking and arguably criminal, given the short, medium & long-term costs that to a large extent may have been avoidable or at least manageable in the sense of intelligent minimisation of the effects of GW on landscapes and aquatic environs.

    To allow the GBR, a world heritage site for the last forty years, to be so mismanaged is disgraceful; and the UNESCO criticism entirely warranted despite the pathetic protestations of Sussan Ley.

    But let’s not begin & end with the GBR.

    Kakadu National Park?

    The estimated two to six million feral cats… do the math… how many individual birds and ground-dwelling critters die each day? Greg Hunt made a mild media splash several years ago when he was pretending to be the Environment minister, and suggested that we were on the cusp of an eradicable outcome for this feline pox on our landscape. Ain’t heard a whisper since. Millions of native fauna have died since his announcement. Does he give a rat’s? I doubt it.

    Australia’s inland river systems? The perennial struggle for allocation of freshwater resources towards … mining, cotton & rice, almonds (gotta maintain the source for the almond milk for the non-dairy market) vs. maintenance of sufficient riparian resources for the countless plant and animal communities whose ecological fit is intrinsically linked to these river systems. Whose winning the battle? Ask a tortoise or a catfish or Murray Cod.

    And speaking of water, more licences allocated to access more water from deep aquifers. This won’t end well.

    Aside from moggies, we have feral goats, maybe approaching three million; utterly destructive creatures. Feral pigs… a stunning twenty-four million estimate. Close to half a million feral horses, five million feral donkeys.

    Zero federal policies to wind these numbers back to zero, which is the only appropriate target.

    If that’s not criminally negligent from a political party charged with the maintenance of this wide brown land I don’t know what is.

    And sucking the dicks of the fossil-fuel industry execs while turning a blind eye toward the environmental damage along with the criminal and illegal destruction of indigenous heritage sites.. another LNP pastime.

    Little people feel the rage and their relative impotency against the difficulty of turning the tide against this juggernaut of destruction. So sad.

  6. Consume Less

    Just more fluckwittery from Morrison & co.

  7. Florence Howarth

    I truly believe this government is going to be blindsided many more times in the next few months, as their climate change & many other chickens come home to roost.

  8. Keith

    Being “blindsided” is another way of expressing the view that the Environment Minister and her colleagues are not in touch with science. Through pushing gas and exporting huge quantities of coal the LNP are amplifying climate change. The climate is changing currently, that might be a surprise to the LNP.

    Whatever the LNP say cannot be trusted.

  9. calculus witherspoon.

    They have been clever to split climate change off from the huge web of intertwined environmental problems the world faces.

    People have forgotten about deforestation, the water policy travesty and allied salination and desertification and the global extinction of species which must finally break a natural balance.

    There is a connection between enviro and economics and that will become clearer as time passes with the monies used for amelioration.

    If the drought and the bushfires WERE connected with climate change, what was the cumulative cost as to these two events alone?

  10. Williambtm

    The people of Australia need to understand that the most despicable enemy against Australia’s environmental wonderments that we as Aust’s people deem to be our jewels, is the present rudderless Scomo leadership party.
    Running a very close second, are the environment devouring, destroying, profit-pumping corporations registered in Australia. Oh, and 3rd is Australia’s mainstream media, this pack of desperadoes are each culpable thereto so, therefore, should be charged with their complicity, or be it their culpability.

  11. wam

    A $110m cash each, even at less than 1% interest, is a million a year. What is the hurry it is not another race, is it?
    good one brad a load of disingenuous loonie claptrap democracy is rule by the majority and the national usually get 10 times the green vote. But nowadays the loonies are pragmatic and a cash receipt from $6m to $9m is significant

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