How reef threat was stopped last time

August 17, 2014

The Coral Battleground
Judith Wright
Spinifex, 2014
203 pages, $29.95 (pb)

From the days when Captain Cook’s Endeavour tangled with the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, humans had learned to fear the Reef with its “treacherous waters and weather”.

But now the reef “should fear us more”, writes Judith Wright in The Coral Battleground. It is a reprint of her 1977 account of the campaign to save the largest and most spectacular marine coral ecosystem in the world from oil drilling.

“We were opposing wealthy interests, entrenched government policies, and political forces that seemed immovable”, she writes, yet the environmentalists won.

One of Australia’s pre-eminent poets, Wright (who passed away in 2000) was a founder of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland (WPSQ) in 1962 and became its influential public voice.

On “progress” and “development”, she wrote, “we learned to dislike the sound of those two words”. They came freely from the mouths of then-premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen and the rest of his cabinet, most of whom held substantial shares in oil and mining companies.

With 80% of the reef leased by the government for oil and mineral exploration, the WPSQ, buoyed by their recent win to halt limestone mining in the reef, erected the barricades against the offshore oil industry’s environmental threats.

The threats included oil-well blow-outs, tanker accidents, “normal” operational spills, detergent treatments and mud discharge.

The government rang familiar alarms about how saving coral polyps would spook a “flight of capital from the state”. It would threaten investment, jobs and government revenue, and drive up the price of petrol.

They appointed a dodgy expert (a geologist with no biological qualifications) who would give the required verdict in favour of “controlled exploitation”.

The state conservatives’ federal government colleagues called a Royal Commission with terms of reference loaded towards where and how the reef could be drilled ― not whether it should be drilled at all.

This delaying and defusing tactic, however, also allowed time for the election of a federal Labor government. It responded to the popular environmental momentum and sniffed the “political capital” to be made from banning oil-drilling. Im 1975, it declared the reef a Marine National Park that was off-limits to oil-drilling.

Before this legislative end-game, however, came the crucial turning point in 1968 when Queensland’s’ trade unions placed a ban on oil-drilling in the reef.

The conservationists had won the scientific argument, the aesthetic argument and the popular argument, but now they had industrial muscle. The ban “held the key to stopping drilling”, said an elated Wright.

A “small, voluntary, spare-time organisation” had turned popular feeling into a stunning victory against economic and political forces. It cast off the weighty anchor of the moderate environmentalists in the Australian Conservation Foundation, whose silence and foot-dragging had been bought by government subsidy and corporate membership fees.

As the book’s new publishers note, however, while oil drilling has been banned, the threat from the use of the fossil fuel, and its climate change cousin, coal, continues. Coral reef ecosystems cannot survive higher water temperatures and sea levels, greater extreme weather variability and ocean acidification.

Government inaction and apathy also waves through other mining dangers. The reef is threatened by nitrogen-laden wastewater from Clive Palmer’s nickel mine and the recently-approved dumping of three million cubic metres of seabed sludge from expanded shipping terminals as part of Australia’s new, and largest, coal port at Gladstone.

Pesticide and fertiliser pollution from banana and sugarcane farming, coastal industry, urbanisation and tourism round out a dire threat assessment that has the United Nations pondering declaring the World Heritage Area to be in danger.

The historic triumph over oil drilling, however, shows how to win against corporate and political environmental vandalism.

Wright’s re-issued book, a self-confessed “unadorned, bare chronological account”, whose prose is often more plodding than poetic, is nonetheless perfectly timed.

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