Cindy Wockner: With an election looming, Morrison & Co suddenly discover the Reef is in trouble

The Reef has been there for eons. The PM's devotion to its health is far more recent.

The Reef has been there for eons. The PM's devotion to its health is far more recent. Image: TND

Almost five years ago, when now-Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was the federal environment minister, the Coalition solemnly promised to protect the iconic Great Barrier Reef.

Back then, one renowned expert on the Reef, water quality researcher Jon Brodie, said that overdue pledge was “too little, too late”.

Fast forward, from April 2017 to now, and the same government has unveiled a plan to spend an extra $1 billion on the Reef.

And, as Mr Brodie said back then, it’s still a case of too little and too late.

The Reef’s perilous plight has long been known. Countless studies, by world experts on coral reefs, have told us the precious jewel in North Queensland’s tourism crown is at risk.

One of the reasons for Friday’s cash splash is obvious.

UNESCO, in 2021, pushed for the Reef to be listed as “in danger”. The government is due to go back to UNESCO in February – just a few days from now – to explain what is being done to protect the World Heritage-listed Reef.

The $1 billion will be injected over the next nine years to protect the treasure, with the government hoping this will stave off the listing.

As Queensland’s Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk wryly pointed out on Friday, after Scott Morrison’s announcement in Cairns, the Coalition would need to be elected at each of the next three elections to fulfil the promise.

Nakedly cynical politics

Which brings us to the next and more cynical motive doing the rounds – the looming federal election.

There is no date yet and, officially, the campaign hasn’t started. But doubt not that Morrison has one eye firmly on the latest polls, which are  suggesting Labor could wrest some Queensland seats from the government and seize power.

The government holds four seats in the regions bordering the Reef. A hefty cash splash in those electorates can’t hurt the Coalition’s prospects.

“The Reef is one of the great natural wonders, not only of Australia but the world,” Mr Morrison told 4BC Radio on Friday, “but it’s also an important livelihood for everybody up in far north Queensland.”

According to the government’s website, the Great Barrier Reef is an “economic powerhouse” contributing more than $6.4 billion per year to the economy and responsible for 64,000 full-time jobs.

Convenient timing

Mr Morrison’s funding pledge comes only a matter of weeks after the Opposition unveiled its own funding plans for the Reef: $163 million over four years.

Back in November 2021, a study by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, found that in the past three decades only two per cent of the Great Barrier Reef had escaped coral bleaching. This was since the first bleaching event, in 1998, which at the time was the world’s hottest year on record.

Marine heatwaves, caused by global warming, cause coral to bleach and die.

The study found that for the first time, in 2020, there was severe bleaching across the whole length of the Great Barrier Reef.

That study was published just as world leaders met in Glasgow for the COP26, UN Climate Change Conference. That meeting wasn’t our PM’s finest hour. At one stage he wasn’t even planning to go.

The new $1 billion package includes more than $500 million to increase water quality, remediate erosion and reduce the run off from pesticide spraying. Another $250 million will be used to tackle the devastating crown-of-thorns starfish and prevent illegal fishing.

It’s hard not to be cynical about the timing of all this. The Great Barrier Reef has been there forever, and we have known for a long time it is hurting.

So why, given this, hasn’t more been done, and earlier, to save this magical place? Why does it take a threat of an endangerment listing and a looming federal election for the government to do something?

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