Back to the future for author's reef warnings

Does Australia deserve the responsibilities of managing the Great Barrier Reef? Photo Achim Wetz
Does Australia deserve the responsibilities of managing the Great Barrier Reef? Photo Achim Wetz Contributed

THE year was 1963, and the most diverse marine ecosystem in the world was under attack by oil drillers and limestone mining corporations.

The future of the Great Barrier Reef was of grave concern for anyone with an environmental conscience.

One woman, Judith Wright, a crusader for conservation and natural environments, put pen to paper to expose the apathy of governments towards the Great Barrier Reef: "It seemed that the responsibility of looking after the reef, if there was such a responsibility, lay with the Queensland State Government, and that the Commonwealth Government was not particularly interested in what happened to it".

WRIGHT STUFF: Judith Wright had an affintiy with Boreen Point and preserving the local landscape.
WRIGHT STUFF: Judith Wright had an affintiy with Boreen Point and preserving the local landscape. Courtesy of Judith Wright Comtem

Fast forward almost half a century and the same apathetic perspective could be said to echo from the halls of parliament at all levels of Australian government.

One notable difference in legislative power, however, was that in the 1960s, science was deemed important enough to have ministerial representation in Federal Government.

In fact, the value of scientific research was so intrinsically linked to the environment, from 1978 the ministerial cabinet was called Science and Environment.

Fifty years later, the Liberal National Federal Government, led by Tony Abbott, has determined that Australia does not require a minister for science in cabinet.

Wright's groundbreaking non-fiction novel, The Coral Battleground, was so instrumental in the paradigm shift in societal perception towards the Great Barrier Reef it was re-launched on July 3.

Not only did The Coral Battleground influence a change in perception 40 years ago, the transcendent nature of her work has been determined to be more relevant now, 14 years after her death, than on the original day of publication.

With a resounding lack of governmental support, it is apparent the fight for the reef has just begun.

Germaine Greer, prominent author, feminist and activist, makes an eerily accurate observation so true to the mark that it is featured on the book's front cover.

"It will come as a surprise to most people that so many of the issues confronted in the 1960s by the doughty campaigners against drilling for oil on the barrier reef are still alive," she said.

"We will have to be as determined and as persistent as they if we are to protect what is now a World Heritage site from pollution, dredging, dumping, coral bleaching and pest species."

For Gladstone, in particular, history seems to be repeating itself.

In 1967, Swain Reef, not far from Heron Island, was being drilled under a prospecting permit granted by the Queensland Government.

Wright states in her book: "As for us of the Wildlife Preservation Society, we went further, we simply did not believe that oil-drilling on the reef was permissible at all, in the light of the reef's importance as a world possession, and of its ecological unity."

Then the Federal Labor Party declared itself. Dr Rex Patterson, its spokesman for North Queensland, went on record to oppose drilling.

The decision to go on with drilling on the reef, he said, was "the height of folly and an incredible act of irresponsibility".

Such irresponsibility has served as the legacy echoing through the decades, with Gladstone now regarded in conservation circles as an environmental disaster.

In the years 2011-13, 20 million cubic metres of spoil was dredged from Gladstone Harbour to make way for the lucrative liquefied gas industry to set up shop on Curtis Island.

Reef off Heron Island - courtesy of GAPDL
Reef off Heron Island - courtesy of GAPDL Paul Giggle

The largest ever dredging operation to have taken place along the coastline that, ironically, uses the tagline "Gateway to the Southern Great Barrier Reef" in tourism campaigns.

The LNG projects, worth $70 billion, were deemed too lucrative by the Federal Government to bother informing the World Heritage Committee.

The same World Heritage Committee that has warned Australia that if affirmative action is not implemented within 12 months, the Great Barrier Reef will be internationally labelled as "in danger".

The question remains, if the World Heritage Committee had known of the plans to eradicate seagrass beds and threaten the health of the reef, would it have administered action to see that it never occurred?

Could the habitat of the endangered snub-fin dolphin have been saved?

Would local marine ecosystems have been protected, if only control had been taken away from Australia?

And would future plans for industrialisation along the reef occur - in Port Alma, Hay Point and Abbot Point - if power was handed to an international body?

Is it time for Australia to admit negligence in its management of the Great Barrier Reef?

Some say that Gladstone, in the time since, has served as a case study for what not to do when walking the metaphorical tightrope between industry and environment.

And that once again, state and federal governments have displayed a lack of interest in the environment, namely, in preserving the Great Barrier Reef.

Strikingly, in 1969, while Australian governments were not fiercely protecting the reef, they were fiercely backing themselves as the rightful governors.

Minister for Trade and Industry at the time, John McEwen, is quoted by Wright in The Coral Battleground as having said: "The question had been raised overseas of the rights of countries to exploit areas of the sea beyond their territorial limits."

"If Australia's barrier reef were to come under control of the United Nations, we will fight tooth and nail to retain the reef, and so will the Commonwealth Government."

In a letter written to the editor of The Australian in 1969, Judith Wright, also the pioneer of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland, stated: "We may not, in international law, own the Great Barrier Reef, but at least we are far and away the likeliest people to make a really fine job of wrecking it."

A premonition of the most unsettling truth was spoken by Wright 40 years ago, and continues to stand as a frighteningly accurate warning today.

Copies of Judith Wright's The Coral Battleground are available online and at all good retailers.


The Coral Battleground, penned by Judith Wright.
The Coral Battleground, penned by Judith Wright. Ebony Battersby

Topics:  environment federal government great barrier reef lng

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