Crispin Hull / Reef

barrier reef bleaching

English needs a new word to describe the feeling for the first time you surface from diving on an extensively bleached part of the Great Barrier Reef.

It is like a wine writer grappling to describe a tasting experience, except all the comparisons are awful: despair; anger verging on blind fury; helplessness; blame; resignation; sorrow; hurt; grief; and despondency.

That was early 2016 after seeing what had been, just the year before, a field of glorious blue staghorn coral changed to a mix of bright white sticks in some parts; sticks covered in brown slime in other parts and grey-green rubble in the rest.

It was followed by another bleaching in 2017.

Then this week, Environment Minister Susan Ley said she was “stunned” that a draft UNESCO report could recommend that the World Heritage rated reef be listed as “in danger”.

Journalists should not insult Ministers of the Crown, so I will not write what I thought on hearing this, except, “Of course, the reef is in danger, you . . . . . “

It is as if the Coalition politicians are part of a greedy international fossil-fuel gang smashing a beloved pet or a noble wild animal with a rock, inflicting gross injury but denying the creature is in danger.

We are going from politicians, in the face of overwhelming evidence, finally accepting the climate changing but now denying the effects of that change.

What is “stunning” here is that the Coalition is putting the interests of its fossil-fuel donors ahead of the broad interests of Australians, particularly the interests of the tourism industry.

Emotion aside, tourism provides 10 times the jobs (750,000 pre-pandemic) than coal mining (60,000) and oil and gas (17,000) combined.

But the tourism industry is made up of numerous small operators who cannot muster the political donations of Big Fossil.

Tourism, pre-pandemic, was already a drain on the trade balance. Pre-pandemic Australia could expect about nine million tourists a year spending about $45 billion. But this was more than offset by 11 million Australian tourist visits overseas with a spend of $65 billion.

The reef is a prime attraction for overseas visitors. We need it to be in the best condition possible to ensure this balance does not blow out.

International tourism is worth almost twice as much as the exports of thermal (electricity-producing) coal ($23 billion).

Moreover, coal and gas producers pay almost no tax and a very large percentage of their profits go to overseas shareholders, unlike the tourism industry. Remember the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Government had to back off a reasonable measure to make miners pay a resource tax when the mining industry threw (what for them was a trivial) $20 million at an advertising campaign. The voters were duped and the government spooked.

Those who know the reef; regularly visit it; and read the science, know the sad truth. The reef is worse than “in danger” it is probably doomed. Since 2017 there was one modest bleaching in 2020, but since 2017 we have been in a La Nina (cool) cycle in the Pacific and the wet seasons have provided good cooling cloud cover.

But come the next inevitable El Nino (Pacific warm) the successive bleachings will return. The reef is not like the bush which can return, and is indeed designed to return, after fire.

The reef is 10,000 years old and the evidence suggests there have been no previous bleachings on this scale. Its regeneration is desperately slow. The symbiotic relationships between coral, algae, fish and other creatures are fragile and near impossible to restore.

You cannot have both continued fossil-fuel burning and a vibrant, living reef.

Australians should be stunned that, in the face of the obvious evidence, their Government is not leading the international charge to act against global heating and the danger it poses to all life, not just the reef.

Australia has more to lose than most through global heating and more to gain than most through actions to reduce it.

And yet, the cause of the reef was made even worse when in the same week that Ley was “stunned”, the delusional denier Barnaby Joyce returned to National Party leadership and Deputy Prime Ministership.

Joyce has form on putting the interests of big mining and big agriculture ahead of small farmers, who understand the cruel effects of global heating and who understand the benefits to rural Australia of investment in renewable energy.

His supporters say he is “authentic” and “tells it how it is”. No, he’s not. No, he doesn’t. In the days leading up to his toppling of Michael McCormack he said that the charisma-free McCormack was doing a great job and there was “no chance of a spill” and that the leadership issue had been settled when he lost a challenge in 2020.

So he was either oblivious to the currents in his own party or was being deliberately misleading. Either way it is not flattering.

Similarly, Ley does not tell it how it is. She argued that the UN world heritage committee should not consider the existential threat that global heating places on the reef when determining whether the reef should be put on the “in danger” list.

Even if someone took the members of the Coalition Ministry in masks and snorkels out on to a bleached reef, they would still deny the danger.

They are more scared of the perception than the reality. They desperately do not want an “in danger” listing of the iconic reef – a signal to even the most yobbo voter that something is amiss here that no amount of Bolt-Credlin-Jones-Hadley bluster can neutralise.

Remember that in April 2018 the Coalition gave a $444 million grant to the small hopelessly ill-equipped private Great Barrier Reef Foundation to lead the Australia’s efforts to preserve the reef. It was later found by the Australian National Audit Office to be nothing more than an elaborate attempt not to save the reef but to ensure that it did not get a UNESCO “in danger” rating.

Perhaps we need another expression for this sort of conduct:

“Political bleaching” – An exercise in which a politician reduces a healthy, complex, interdependent, long-term reality into a glib, pathological, self-serving, short-lifespan lie”.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 26 June 2021.

Crispin Hull BA, LLB (Hons) | Property Convenor  |  ANU School of Legal Practice Lawyer of the Supreme Court of the ACT, on the Register of Practitioners kept by the High Court of Australia