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We need a grassroots revival to save the reef

  • 27 May 2016


'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.

'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