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Issue #1687      June 3, 2015

The real threat to the Great Barrier Reef

After intense international lobbying by the Abbott government, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has decided not to place the magnificent Great Barrier Reef on the endangered list, although the decision will be reviewed in 18 months.

The government claims that an “endangered” listing would severely damage the Queensland tourist industry, but its primary objective is to protect the coal industry, not Queensland tourism, nor indeed the Reef itself.

The Reef has suffered damage from sediment and nutrient run-off from coastal development and agriculture for years. Federal Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, promised UNESCO the government would bring these pollutants and the devastating crown of thorns starfish under control.

The promise is highly welcome, and undoubtedly influenced UNESCO’s favourable decision. However, neither the state nor the federal government is likely to take adequate measures to deal with these problems, which surfaced decades ago.

The Reef will almost certainly be labelled “endangered” soon, because scientific evidence suggests that 50 percent of it has died over the last 30 years, and because the government would never dump its unconditional support for the coal industry, whose activities now pose the biggest threat to the Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef spin

The Abbott government has responsibility for protecting the Reef, because of Australia’s commitment to conservation of places on the World Heritage List.

But the government supports highly dangerous plans for development of major new coal-loading ports and use of the Reef as a route for coal-carrying cargo vessels.

The government also disregards or downplays the major threat posed by rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification as a result of climate change, which is stimulated in large part by carbon emissions from coal-fired power stations.

Mitigating climate change would necessitate phasing out the mining, use and export of coal, but the government is implacably opposed to any such measure.

When international journalists inspected the Reef prior to the UNESCO decision they were briefed by government and coal industry representatives, but not by marine scientists or organisations concerned about the Reef’s condition.

During briefing sessions the government cited a 2012 study that blamed storms for 48 percent of damage to the reef, starfish for 42 percent and bleaching for 10 percent. Dredging and the dumping of silt for construction of new ports didn’t get a mention.

The government overlooked the fact that the study concerned the mid to outer coral areas, which unlike the inner reef have so far suffered little damage from dredging or the dumping of silt. Nor did they mention that the study did not in fact examine water quality or the effects of dredging at all.

Enter the lobbyists

More than 270 firms are now registered as parliamentary lobbyists The struggle to save the Barrier Reef has demonstrated an astonishingly close interaction between the fossil fuel industries and their lobbyists on one hand, and government ministers and their departments on the other.

According to the Fairfax Press, former deputy Coalition Prime Minister John Anderson has acted until recently as chairman of Eastern Star Gas, and former deputy Coalition Prime Minister Mark Vaile now chairs Whitehaven Coal.

Former Labor Trade Minister Craig Emerson and former Labor Minister for Climate Change Greg Combet are both consultants for AGL Energy and mining giant Santos. Former Labor Minister for Resources, Martin Ferguson, now chairs the Advisory Council for the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association.

Former Coalition Minister Helen Coonan and former Labor minister John Dawkins co-chair GRA Cosway, which lobbies for AGL and other mining corporations. John Olsen, former SA Liberal Premier, and Nick Bolkus, former Labor Senator, now work for lobby firm Bespoke Approach.

Fourteen former Coalition and Labor staff members or advisers now work for coal, gas or other fossil fuel industry companies, while nine work for Citadel, Bespoke Approach, Kreab Gavin Anderson and GRA Cosway, all of which lobby for those industries.

The personnel trade runs in both directions.

Fairfax journalist Anne Davies observed: “The current head of [AGL] government relations is Lisa Harrington, who was until 2013 a senior advisor to [NSW Premier] Baird. She replaced Sarah MacNamara at AGL, who went back to work in the Prime Minister’s office with her old colleague Peta Credilin, whom she knew from her days in former communications minister Helen Coonan’s office. Macnamara was Abbott’s policy advisor on resources for a year and is now chief of staff for federal Minister for Industry and Science Ian MacFarlane”.

As noted above, Coonan now co-chairs GRA Cosway which lobbies for AGL and other coal seam gas (CSG) mining companies. Ms Davies adds: “Shaughn Morgan, AGL’s manager of government and external affairs … was an advisor to NSW Labor Attorney-General Jeff Shaw in the 1990s and worked with Adam Searle, now Labor’s NSW resources spokesman. Morgan [was] also chief executive of the NSW Farmers’ Federation for four years.”

The Coalition will never act against the interests of the fossil fuel industries unless it is subjected to massive public pressure. Some National Party members now want their party to oppose coal seam gas mining (CSG) – but only in the NSW northern rivers seats of Ballina, Tweed and Lismore, where the party’s support for CSG resulted in its virtual annihilation at the recent state elections.

Following the elections the Baird government hastily cancelled gas explorer Metgasco’s licence to develop its Bentley mine, which is bitterly opposed by northern rivers residents.

Metgasco won a court appeal against the suspension and now wants compensation for damages, as well as police protection from protestors when it resumes drilling, or else extra compensation. The Baird government’s contractual obligations would probably force it to pay massive compensation.

Some energy corporations may be considering winding down their involvement in the mining and export of coal and gas. But this should not be taken for granted.

The public will have to force present state or federal governments to suspend the rampant march of the coal and gas miners, and in particular to save our wonderful natural treasure, the Great Barrier Reef. And politically we must look elsewhere to left and progressive parties working with community forces for long-term solutions to the terrible problems of environmental pollution.

Next article – Budget Hit List

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