The Return of the Repressed: The First Reef War and its significance today

SEI’S Iain McCalman, shares the story of how poet Judith Wright’s small community coalition helped win the First Reef War, and reflects on what lessons we can learn from that victory, for today’s fight for the Great Barrier Reef.

‘Aerial view of a Great Barrier Reef’ by Martin Maun. Sourced via Shutterstock, stock photo ID:300303536.

Between 1965 and 1975, the Australian poet Judith Wright led a successful popular political war to save the Great Barrier Reef from the Queensland State Government’s campaign to mine eighty percent of it for oil, gas, fertilizer, and cement, in conjunction with an associated drive to create a sugarcane industry by levelling adjacent Reef rainforests. Two decades later, Wright ended the anniversary edition of her famous book, Coral Battlefield, with a chapter called ‘Finale Without an Ending.’ She warned that politicians were fickle, and renewed attempts to mine the Reef region could resume any time.

Wright had fallen in love with the Great Barrier Reef in 1949, while holidaying on southernmost Lady Elliot Island. Shocked by the scars of guano mining, she was nevertheless stunned by the beauties of the island’s fringing coral reefs. From this time coral reefs became her metaphor to describe how fearless individuals could, just like tiny coral polyps, create bastions of moral resistance in the very teeth of oceanic political forces.

Only those coral insects live

that work and endure under

the breakers’ cold continual thunder.

They are the quick of the reef

that rots and crumbles in calmer water.

Only those men survive

who dare to hold their love against the world;

who dare to live and doubt what they are told.

They are the quick of life.1

Midway through 1965, Judith Wright, as president of a small community Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland received a plea for help from an artist, John Busst, who led a tiny local chapter of the Society at Mission Beach in the central section of the Reef. His region was experiencing rapid deforestation to enable sugar plantations, and a local sugarcane farmer had just made a formal application to the State Government to mine the supposedly ‘dead’ local Ellison Reef for cheap limestone fertilizer. John lodged an objection: he pointed out that Ellison, like all coral reefs, comprised living corals on top of limestone buttresses created from ‘dead’ coral skeletons. Unfortunately, the Mining Warden’s court has rejected these arguments because Busst lacked scientific qualifications.

Squeaking an adjournment, John sought help from scientists at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, but they proved unwilling to involve themselves in politics. The first full-time Barrier Reef researcher, Dr ‘Charlie’ Veron, was appointed only in 1972, however, prior to Veron, Australian scientists knew remarkably little about this massive ecosystem. On the occasion of this Ellison Reef crisis, however, Judith Wright, managed to find a handful of university zoology students to agree to undertake an underwater survey of Ellison Reef, provided John funded their travel.

The student divers reported having recorded 190 species of fish and 88 species of living coral on Ellison. This, combined with the testimony a scientist who’d worked there some years before, pushed the Warden into recommending against mining, though parts of it had already been removed. This small victory unleashed a full-scale war because it goaded the Queensland Government into public action. In 1967 a crafty Country Party populist and champion of unbridled development, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, became Premier and promptly zoned eighty percent of the Reef for oil and gas exploration. He and his ministers secretly also made large personal investments in six global oil companies. Bjelke-Peterson’s 1960s’ rhetorical style will sound all too familiar today. He liked to abuse Judith Wright’s conservationist followers as ‘flower-sniffing fools,’ ‘nitwits,’ ‘cranks,’ ‘rat-bags,’ and ‘commies’, intent on overthrowing the Australian way of life.

Judith Wright diversified her talents by writing influential popular articles, including a famous piece, ‘Conservation as a Concept,’ which hailed the emergence of ‘a hopeful new science’ of ecology in ‘the human as well as … biological fields [18].’ It promised, she said, to bridge Western civilization’s most tragic divide by providing ‘a point at which a new spark can … jump across the gap that at present separates the arts and the sciences—to the great detriment of each—and allow a new kind of cooperation and understanding to grow up.’

The publicity campaign resulted in a watershed moment for the Reef’s protection, and by the early 1970s, polls showed that a majority of Queenslanders now opposed mining of the Great Barrier Reef. At this point the war was effectively won. The election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972, the Royal Commission’s report, and the High Court’s decision in favour of Commonwealth sovereignty paved the way for a political settlement. Both sides of Federal parliament agreed in June 1975 to establish a multi-use Barrier Reef marine park under shared Federal and Queensland management. Six years later this area also gained World Heritage listing ‘as the most impressive marine area in the world.’

Of course, much has changed in the forty-three years since the early 1960s. For a start, there is not the same deficit of scientific expertise that hampered Judith’s advocacy. The Barrier Reef now boasts four specialized marine research stations led by world-renowned coral-reef scientists. Paradoxically, it is the very quality of this Reef science that inspires today’s campaigns of obfuscation and opposition. Vested commercial and political interests decry their scientific findings as ‘mere opinion’ based on bias and self-interest. Climate Change scepticism has become the banner of populist right-wing political and cultural movements in much of the West, including Australia. Right-wing radio ‘jocks’, Murdoch journalists, and coral-caressing conservative politicians endlessly chirp the virtues of ‘job-creating’ coal mining.

Scientific methodologies also exclude today’s professional marine scientists from deploying a range of powerful social, cultural, and economic arguments in defense of the Reef. Hopefully, we will not let them down. We need to collaborate actively with eco-tourism industries that depend on the beauty, health and wonder of Reef corals and who attract thousands of national and international visitors each year to enjoy the pleasures of recreational swimming, boating, fishing, and coral viewing. It is the beauties of the Reef not Adani’s coal that currently supports over 65, 000 jobs.

Like our predecessors, we too, should be prepared to forge cross-disciplinary collaborations of the arts and sciences in order to halt potentially lethal operations like those projected by the forthcoming Adani Carmichael coal mine. Stopping Adani could be both a symbolic equivalent of the Ellison Reef victory of 1965 and a potent means of reducing major local and global threats to the Reef’s survival.

With this new Reef war, the stakes are absolute, and Judith’s warning is relevant now more than ever. Thanks to man-made atmospheric CO2, mass coral bleaching and ocean acidification threaten the total annihilation of 2,300 kilometres of coral, one of the most beautiful natural sites on the globe and a crucial hub of Indo-Pacific Ocean bio-diversity. The full output of the Carmichael Mine will generate Greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale by releasing 120 million tonnes of CO2 per annum into the atmosphere, an amount greater than the annual emissions of over one hundred individual countries. Adani’s mine will emit more than 4.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide over its lifetime. It alone will use up one-tenth of the world’s total carbon budget and ensure that our planet exceeds the fatal additional warming level of two degrees Celsius.

If we are to combat a global conglomerate like Adani, we need to be prepared also to work with global Reef conservation organizations such as Future Earth, 350.org, Get Up, the Ocean Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace, Reef Ecologic, and the Pugh Foundation. At a time when Australian academics are being required by the Australian Research Council to demonstrate our engagement and impact beyond the university, there could be no better time for us to prove our worth by emulating the triumph of activists like Judith Wright.


1. Wright, Judith. (1994). Australia 1970. In Collected Poems, 1942–85. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, p.45.

Iain McCalman is currently a Research Professor of History at the University of Sydney and Co-Director of the Sydney Environment Institute. Over his long academic career, Iain has established a national and international reputation as a historian of science, culture and the environment whose work has influenced university scholars and students, government policy makers and broad general publics around the world. He is the author of The Reef — A Passionate History. The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change (2014). In 2007 Iain was awarded the Officer of the Order of Australia for Services to History and the Humanities. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, and the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Royal Society of  New South Wales.