Unlike previous campaigns, today’s concern for the Great Barrier Reef is stuck at neutral | Rohan Lloyd

AAs part of the coverage of the first Labor budget, the ABC provided an analysis of the country’s winners and losers. In this document, the Great Barrier Reef was listed as “neutral”. The Reef has not received any additional funding beyond the pledges Labor made during the election campaign.

It is striking that an ecosystem – a more than human place – can be listed alongside major economic and social concerns such as families, the Pacific, the NBN and the ABC itself. It speaks to the importance of the reef to our national identity, but also how dire things have become for this environment over the past four decades.

The condition of the reef is a major concern. Almost every year, Unesco asks our governments to “do better” in order to prevent the reef from being classified as “endangered”. Coral reefs are globally threatened, but coral decline on the Great Barrier Reef is of particular concern given its tight management.

Of course, the reef has faced perils before. A well-known story from the reef’s past is the Save the Reef campaign of 1967-1975. This campaign erupted in response to proposals to mine Ellison Reef (near Mission Beach) for lime and to develop the wider Great Barrier Reef for oil. This involved grassroots campaigning, constitutional law issues, a black union ban, a royal commission, the establishment of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and ultimately the protection of the reef from oil and mining.

In my research, I have argued that this campaign is remembered as a “David and Goliath” battle because characterizing it as such makes it a source of hope for contemporary activists, but also because it is consistent to our public memory of the anti-Green government and anti-intellectual Bjelke-Petersen.

However, while I accept that the activists felt they were fighting an unwinnable battle, the historical record, including the records of conservationists from the time, shows that they benefited from considerable support from the Australian media, the labor movement, the Commonwealth government and the general public.

The eventual royal commission on oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef made it clear that while many people were comfortable with exploiting the reef for fishing, tourism and port development, the prospect of a oil drilling was too important.

The biblical metaphors of David and Goliath are useful scaffolding for remembering past successes, but for me it is equally powerful to recognize that the reef was saved because people overwhelmingly supported its protection.


Today, however, the circumstances are significantly different.

Unlike the campaign of the past, there is much more rejection of environmental concerns for the reef, especially within the media. Likewise, unions are unlikely to initiate black bans on potential mines to support reef-saving initiatives.

More confusingly, our governments have been slow, even obstructionist, to create meaningful policy change in the face of climate change (which is the greatest threat to the reef) while providing significant funding to reef research organizations such as the Australian Institute of Marine Science, CSIRO, the Marine Park Authority and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. Science has benefited from this investment, while governments have benefited from research when the health and prospects of the reef have been called into question, protecting themselves from increased international pressure to act on climate change.

But of course, things are also more complex than that. The enormous amount of research on the reef since the establishment of the Marine Park Authority has laid bare the interdependence between the reef ecosystem and the people and industries that exist within its catchment area. Additionally, the pressures of climate change have also made the reef a national and international problem. We have all become connected to the health of the reef to varying degrees.

Although they are collectively entangled in this crisis, there seems to be little agreement on what saving the reef means and how to achieve it. It feels like a goliath.

Save the Reef conservationists succeeded because they tapped into love, curiosity and admiration for the reef. They helped establish a chorus of concern for a future reef ruined by oil and mining, which led to the royal commission which eventually recommended the establishment of a marine park authority. These achievements seem beyond our capabilities at this stage.

A sincere approach to saving the reef could start by building on our current and historical connection with it to address climate change. At this point, however, it appears that our Commonwealth government would prefer to remain neutral.

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