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We need a grassroots revival to save the reef



'On coming to office in 1983 we had immediately stopped the proposed building of the Gordon-below Franklin dam in Tasmania. At that time another of Australia's heritage treasures, the magnificent Great Barrier Reef was mostly unprotected — only 14.5 per cent of the reef region was incorporated in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Franklin dam protest'By 1987, thanks to the diligent work of Barry Cohen, my first environment minister, the total reef area was protected in the park.'

That's Bob Hawke, writing in The Hawke Memoirs. The passage doesn't really convey the extent to which the Franklin dam dominated Hawke's first electoral win.

In that poll, Labor enjoyed a massive swing all across the mainland, where saving the Franklin had become a priority for many voters. In Tasmania, by contrast, the ALP didn't take a seat — a result indicative of the polarisation the dam generated.

But Hawke's reference to the Great Barrier Reef also draws attention to a strange contrast with politics today. For the reef is dying — and yet its fate barely seems to register in the current election.

In August, scientists revealed that over 90 per cent of the reef had been affected by coral bleaching. 'I showed the results of aerial surveys of bleaching to my students,' tweeted Professor Terry Hughes, head of the bleach task force. 'And then we wept.'

Paul Marshall from the University of Queensland expressed a similar despair. 'There are corals that were here when Captain Cook sailed by,' he told Fairfax, 'and they're dying under our watch and they're not coming back in anyone's lifetime.'

More recently, in a piece for the Conversation, Jon Brodie, from the Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research at James Cook University, and Richard Pearson, from the College of Marine and Environmental Sciences, drew out the implications of the latest research:


"Back in 1982, the Australian named Bob Brown its 'Australian of the Year'. Today, that paper regards Brown's old party, the Greens, with loathing and contempt."


'Apart from bleaching, the reef is in serious trouble thanks to a variety of threats. Many species and ecosystems of the Great Barrier Reef are in serious decline. It is now overwhelmingly clear that we need to fix these problems to give the reef the best chance in a warming world. In fact, the upcoming election is arguably our last chance to put in place a plan that will save the reef.' 

The Great Barrier Reef is a world heritage site of unparalleled beauty. The Queensland National Trust describes it as a state icon of Queensland. According to one study, it contributes $5.7 billion to the national economy. But as Andrew Stafford has documented, Queensland's biggest newspaper, the Courier Mail, has shown a remarkable indifference to the reef's condition — and an active hostility to those trying to save it. He notes that the paper's campaigning strongly in support of the Carmichael coalmine, which was greenlighted by the Queensland Labor government this April. 'In Queensland, there is an eerie silence,' Stafford says. 'In politics and in the state's most-read newspaper, no one wants to talk about what is happening in front of them.'

We've been here before. Until the late '60s, the Great Barrier Reef was seen primarily as a site for resource extraction. In 1967, the Queensland government leased over 20 million hectares of it for oil exploration. Back then, Rhodes Airbridge, a professor of geology from Columbia University told the Royal Society of Queensland that the reef should be exploited 'immediately and to the hilt'.

It was only saved by campaigning by the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland, a group led by people like the poet Judith Wright and the artist John Busst. As Drew Hutton and Libby Connors explain in their history of the Australian environment movement, Ampol was dissuaded from drilling in the reef after a prolonged boycott campaign. In 1970, a public inquiry into the reef was upgraded into a royal commission — and then the Whitlam government established the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

That history helps explain why the Franklin became an election issue in 1983 — and why the reef's being ignored today. 

The Franklin dam was put onto the agenda by activists. At a rally of 14,000 people in Melbourne in 1982, Bob Brown announced a blockade at the Franklin construction site, urging people to use their bodies to prevent the dam going ahead. Over the next year, some 14,000 people were arrested at the site — and more than 500 jailed. Brown himself spent almost three weeks in Hobart's Risdon Prison, emerging on the day he became a member of Tasmania's parliament.


"For the Liberals, opposition to meaningful climate action has become an almost talismanic stance for party activists — and as a result the Turnbull administration will say almost nothing about the environment."


'The Franklin River blockade of 1982–1983,' writes Amanda Lohrey, 'is one of the defining moments in Australian political history.' As she notes, before the Franklin protests, the domination of nature was often seen as central to leftwing politics. The blockade helped establish the environment as a progressive cause — and throughout the '80s, the ALP, on the urging of Graham Richardson, used it to wedge the conservatives.

Today, the political landscape's very different. Incredibly, back in 1982, the Australian named Bob Brown its 'Australian of the Year'. Today, that paper, along with the rest of the conservative press, regards Brown's old party, the Greens, with loathing and contempt.

For the Liberals, opposition to meaningful climate action has become an almost talismanic stance for party activists — and as a result the Turnbull administration will say almost nothing about the environment. As for Labor, the carbon tax debacle convinced party strategists that bold positions on climate change are tantamount to suicide.

But the biggest difference between 1983 and 2016 is the absence of the grass roots activism that spearheaded the Franklin campaign. Over the past years, many people have hoped that when global warming manifested itself as a concrete threat, rather than a scientific abstraction, politicians would be forced into action. Yet it's becoming horrifyingly clear that the political class is quite willing to let the Great Barrier Reef, one of the natural wonders of the world, slowly die.

If we want to save the reef — if we want to save the planet — we're going to have to do it ourselves. The Franklin blockade transformed the political climate and preserved an iconic river. We need to recapture that energy today.


Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.

Topic tags: Jeff Sparrow, Great Barrier Reef



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Existing comments

Thanks so much, Jeff. You're absolutely right. I utterly despair of the political class. But I also utterly despair of the leadership of the Australian Catholic church. They have Laudato si', Pope Francis' radical call to environmental commitment, but they do nothing. They are still besotted with an anthropocentrism that is utterly at odds with what the pope says in this revolutionary document. The tragedy is that the church could be such an effective mediating institution in getting the kind of community response and activism that you outline.

Paul Collins | 27 May 2016  

No wonder the world laughs at Australia. this Guardian story today says it all Australia scrubbed from UN climate change report after government intervention http://gu.com/p/4jtyt?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other. My son has just returned from 18 months in Canada and came home embarrassed to be an Aussie. the number of times he was challenged on issues from our treatment of refugees to our failure to act on climate change was staggering. and Paul, as for the church, well...my hope died many years ago that anything other than the current status quo would prevail from the Catholic Church on a whole range of issues not just climate change. As Jeff says, its really up to us now to make the difference...

Lawrence Wray | 27 May 2016  

Jeff Sparrow writes "the political class is quite willing to let the Great Barrier Reef, one of the natural wonders of the world, slowly die." Malcolm (FIZZA) Turnbull has abdicated his Climate Change beliefs to the Abbott Right who dominate Coalition Ministry. Meanwhile, Labor and the Greens need to cooperate to save the GBR by direct measures PLUS by better global Climate Change targets and by Australian government-sponsored global activism to reduce Climate Change.

John Cronin, Toowoomba | 27 May 2016  

The Franklin was an identifiable local issue .In part the Reef is local in regard to run-off or Port construction etc & from my observation there has been strong local & political attention to what is happening in those areas now.The main issue is global warming & in that regard we are small bit players in a larger International play.Recent documentation highlights how while the Southern parts of the Reef are doing quite well--warmer water flows from the North are impacting severely on the the Northern extrematies .The Reef is so important to Australia--I believe its issues are continuously on the desk of both local & national politicians.

BRIAN | 27 May 2016  

It's got a lot worse today as you know! Extract from Climate Council email today: Today it was confirmed that Australian government officials pressured a prestigious international body to silence the truth about the risks of climate change for the Great Barrier Reef. I was one of the scientists they tried to silence. ...last year I was asked to review an international scientific report on the impacts of climate change on World Heritage sites and tourism. I reviewed a case study on the Great Barrier Reef, focussing on the increasing risks to tourism from climate change. The report was authored by UNESCO [1] and the International Union of Concerned Scientists. It promised to alert the world to the escalating risks ..Overnight the report was released -- but mysteriously, the Great Barrier Reef had been cut completely. I was astonished, given we’ve just witnessed the worst coral bleaching event in the Reef’s history. Australian officials have now confirmed to The Guardian that they asked the report authors to remove any reference to the Great Barrier Reef, or any Australian world heritage site. No sections about any other country were removed. As a scientist, I’m angry. As an Australian, I’m disgusted. ..

Ariel | 27 May 2016  

Education, education, education! Helping people"see". Raising awarenesses. Is it not the role of Good leaders to "lead" us .? To lead us to recognize the state of our world, to rejoice in our gifts, to appreciate the wonders of creation , of the arts and good literature. To also see the needs of all our people , the injustice and the greed impeding true progress. Many of us are caught up with making ends meet and living the life on a diet of questionable tv values,and we are not even aware of the plight of others , let alone the coral of the reef .Paul Collins laments the leadership of the Australian Catholic Church, but we the everyday rank and file members also have a responsibility and commitment to do our bit. Maybe we can start with simple things like recycling , reducing waste and the wise use of resources.( On a short trip to another suburb recently I counted 50 people walking along the footpath in just over a couple of blocks holding paper cups of coffee. An everyday action for many, but with interesting consequences on reflection). Maybe education systems and schools do not need more funds just a focus on the type of world and the kind of citizens we consider sustainable and fair . Could it be that all of us need to just get back to the "basics. " ?

Celia | 27 May 2016  

Who has the leadership skills and the fire in the belly to put up their hand and get this off the ground?

Bernadette | 27 May 2016  

When I went to the Great Barrier Reef in the 1990s, I was shocked to see such a lot of dead,white coral.My friend and I told friends and family about this.Who would listen to a pair of working class people about the coming demise of the Reef?Until the elites of all persuasions are actually affected on a personal scale,nothing will be done.There has to be another grass roots campaign......we cannot trust the elites to save the Reef

anne ramsay | 27 May 2016  

The GBR is like the canary in the coal mine (please excuse the pun).We ignore this latest warning at our peril . As expressed by other respondents, I despair at the future of the Reef and indeed at the future world for my grandchildren. I am now retired (as from Tuesday) and will increase my time devoted to my statistical study of temperature records in the SE Australian region which I commenced some years ago. The results I have so far are deeply disturbing. The latest attempt to silence scientists in their report on the status of the GBR are alarming .The Tourism operators in Capricornia (Rockhampton) are horrified at the adverse publicity worldwide and so they should be!

Gavin | 28 May 2016  

As a start can we not get the "removed" parts of the UN Climate Change report and publish them wherever we can? Where can we find them? Maybe Eureka Street could publish the reference for us to follow up.

Michael D. Breen | 28 May 2016  

The Greens are the only party serious about mitigating climate change and saving the Great Barrier Reef. The Greens have a 90% Renewable Energy target by 2030, compared with Labor's 50% and the Coalition's 20%. Labor are still intent on opening up new coal mines such as those in Queensland's Galilee Basin, so we can't even take Labor seriously on the climate issue. We can vote 1 Green, 2 Labor and let the COALition feel the heat at the bottom of the pile, where they deserve to be. We also need to do what we can both individually and in our communities. Those who have installed solar panels and LED lights are being positive. Those who have worked with their Parish ministry teams and done the same with their Church buildings are doing good works. Pope Francis is a prophet and we need to follow his lead. He has warned about a culture of indifference, and sadly this culture pervades our consumerist society and our Churches to a large extent. The culture of indifference needs to be challenged by people like you. Over to you!

Grant Allen | 29 May 2016  

Thanks brother man.Politics is currently top heavy with voters tight lipped ,busy or distracted.There is also a communal train of thought amongst politicians,they support each other's ideas.Opposition no longer exists in Australia and definitely not in parliament.Theyre doing a Peter Garret.

Andrew Lang | 29 June 2017  

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