Whitlam and The Reef

The richest and most extensive reef system in the world, the Great Barrier Reef should be protected, one would think, from any form of human intervention that causes damage, especially the introduction of massive coal facilities, shipping ports and laneways, dredging and dumping.

Yet our Abbott government, and the local Queensland government, brushed off any concern for the reef by claiming that there is ‘insufficient scientific evidence’ for industrial risk, making clear they prefer, above everything, financial gain.

As people have been remembering what Gough Whitlam achieved during his prime ministership, I am drawn to one particular reform.

Apart from recognising Aboriginal Land Rights and abolishing university fees, introducing a healthcare system everyone can access, and making Australia aware of multiculturalism, he implemented another very noble and just thing.

The Whitlam government introduced environmental protection legislation, firstly in 1973, with the ‘Seas and Submerged Lands Act’, which gave the Commonwealth authority in matters concerning the waters around Australia, and then, in 1975, the Whitlam government created the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, so as to properly manage the area and protect its biodiversity.

This came about because in the 1960’s the Bjelke-Petersen government of Queensland advocated oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef. Whitlam had the foresight to bring in strong legislation to block this, despite being challenged by Queensland and New South Wales parties, who lost in the High Court.

The Whitlam government passed the Environmental Protection Act 1974, to ensure the government undertook Impact assessments and managed ecosystems and species to protect them.

Since The Abbott leadership, The Australian Institute of Marine Science has had an 8 million dollar cut to its budget, making their capacity to work on this matter, very limited. The government has also cut 129 staff from the Environment Department, which enforces strict environmental rules on areas such as the Great Barrier Reef marine park. The Australian government has also cut 40 million from the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, a group that look at the quality of water entering the Great Barrier Reef from catchment areas.

Documents released under the freedom of information laws have uncovered that the funding cuts to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Parks Authority have put pressure on staff, making them redundant, and resulting in less scientific expertise.

Our future with the Tony Abbott government, is one that is prepared to cripple the reef and ignore not only scientists, but a growing amount of fishermen, tourist operators, communities of people, and even comments from politicians and celebrities around the globe and by the United Nations.


Harriet Jones

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