Great Barrier Reef fantasies: Morrison’s electoral ploy

February 10, 2022
The Great Barrier Reef is under threat from climate change. Photo: Pixabay

There are some things that strain credulity: the resolute flat earth theorists and denialists of the moon landing, for instance. We can add to this the environmental stance of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his ministers.

With the government in a spot of bother, expect some rather extravagant public spending promises in this phoney electoral war. The Great Barrier Reef, one of the single most remarkable natural structures on Earth, home to 400 types of coral, 1500 species of fish and 4000 types of mollusc, is not one that has been spared.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley has denied that its health is failing, citing the country’s superior reef management skills. Late last month, the PM promised his government would “invest an additional $1 billion in protecting the Great Barrier Reef, while supporting 64,000 Queenslanders and their jobs which drive the Reef economy”.

Morrison’s coupling of expenditure and “Reef economy” illustrates his narrow, ballot-driven focus. Environmental considerations are subsidiary; what matters are the electoral thrust and spin. “We are backing the health of the reef and the economic future of tourism operators, hospitality providers and Queensland communities that are at the heart of the reef economy,” he said.

The new funds, stretching over nine years, will cover water quality (remediate erosion, reduce nutrient and pesticide runoff); aid reef management and conservation; fund further research into the use of reef resilience; and provide modest funding for community and Traditional Owner projects.

The government is also mindful, in a fashion, of wanting to remain in UNESCO’s good books. UNESCO had recommended last June to place the Reef on the list of world heritage sites “in danger”. It said that targets for the improvement of water had not been met.

“The recommendation from UNESCO,” Richard Leck, Head of Oceans from the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia stated then, “is clear and unequivocal that the Australian government is not doing enough to protect our greatest natural asset, especially on climate change.”

Ley was indignant. Why, she insisted, was Australia being singled out, given that there “are 83 natural World Heritage properties facing climate change threats”? China, as the chair of the World Heritage Committee, was looked upon as being a deciding, prejudicial factor. Ley warned that this process risked “damaging [the] integrity of the World Heritage System”.

Due and proper process are not strong points for the Morrison government. But politicising procedure certainly is.

Ley proceeded to lobby against the move, leaving behind a hefty carbon footprint to convince countries that Australia had been wronged. At the general assembly of the UN’s World Heritage Convention, Australia’s representatives claimed that any such decision might not be reversible.

The central concern here was a lack of clarity on how any change could be possible given the need for a more global approach. “What, in particular,” asked Australian government representative James Larsen of the general assembly, “is the route off the ‘in danger’ list for a single property if the dangers concerned are global developments that require global solutions?”

The Australian effort was successful enough to convince 12 of the 21 voting members to refrain from changing the status of the Reef. Environmental vandalism had won.

Such funding promises, as that of the Morrison government, are decidedly narrow. These are almost always doomed to failure. Throw money at the problem in isolation, tinker with that deficiency and ignore the more calamitous, expansive picture.

John C Day and Scott F Heron, both of James Cook University, summarise the point: “While the new funding is meant to address other threats to the natural wonder and may improve its resilience, failing to address the climate threat is both disappointing and nonsensical.”

The picture painted by Day and Heron is bleak. Last December, ocean temperatures on the Reef proved to be the warmest on record. The risk of a fourth mass bleaching event in this decade was a serious proposition.

Both the federal and Queensland governments have also shown an appetite for approving new coal and gas projects, which bring with them a greater expansion of ports and more shipping.

This is despite warnings stretching back years, including a 2013 declaration by concerned scientists about industrial development of the Great Barrier Reef coast. “As scientists, we therefore are concerned about the additional pressures that will be exerted by expansion of coastal ports and industrial development accompanied by a projected near-doubling in shipping, major coastal reclamation works, large-scale seabed dredging and dredge soil disposal.”

To date, compliance with restrictions, such as fertiliser runoff that finds its way into the Reef system, and attempts to limit agricultural and clearing activities in Reef catchment areas, has been uneven. Improving water quality, Day and Heron write, is not merely a matter of disbursing more funds, but more effective spending.

But a de-facto election campaign is underway, and climate change and coral bleaching can wait — so the voters are being told.

[Dr Binoy Kampmark teaches at RMIT University.]

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