Opinion

The Reef: history repeats itself first time as tragedy, the second time as farce

This is not the first time our reef has been threatened, but as history repeats itself is this struggle set to have a darker ending?

Image sourced: University of Denver

On January 30th 2014 the die was cast and the fate of the Great Barrier Reef decided. The final hurdle was overcome when the Marine Park Authority echoed federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s approval and green-lighted the dumping of 3 million cubic metres of spoil in the Reef’s world heritage waters. The Australian Institute of Marine Science tells us that fifty percent of the Reef’s coral cover is already severely degraded and the latest article in The Age illustrated how endangered species on the reef are in jeopardy.

Few of us remember that the declaration of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) and its subsequent World Heritage status was born out of a twelve-year popular struggle to prevent the most wondrous coral reef in the world from being destroyed by uncontrolled mining. A cane farmer’s attempt in 1967 to mine a supposedly ‘dead’ coral clump called Ellison Reef for cheap limestone fertilizer triggered a national resistance led by the unlikely trio of a poet, an artist and a forester — Judith Wright, John Busst and Len Webb.  With the help of some student divers, these three leaders of the newly-formed Queensland Wildlife Protection Society were able to demonstrate that Ellison was, like most reefs, a mosaic of dead and living corals and a hub of marine bio-diversity. They also persuaded the Innisfail Mining Warden that mining silt could not be confined to specific local areas: it would be carried by waves and currents to smother the life out of living corals situated at far off and unpredictable distances from the dredging.

The larger concern of the trio was that Ellison would serve as a precedent for the unrestrained mining ambitions of the Queensland National Party Government.  The conservationists were wrong only in thinking that Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen worried about precedents. He instructed his Mining Minister to zone eighty percent of the 3, 200 kilometre Barrier Reef for oil and gas mining. Forced to affect an objective assessment of potential environmental impact, the Premier gave the task to an American geologist with extensive mining experience, who managed, in the company of Government officials, to survey an area of reef the size of Japan in less than a month.  Predictably, he reported that oil-mining prospects looked good and that dead reefs could be used for cement manufacture. Judith Wright compared this last suggestion to bashing down the Taj Mahal for road gravel, not dissimilar to the recent comments of Greenpeace who compared Minister Hunt’s move to be like dumping rubbish in the Grand Canyon.

Revelations that the Premier and his Ministers had also invested heavily in the oil companies whose licenses they were supposed to be assessing didn’t exactly enhance the government’s credibility. Alleged foul play is not uncommon in our contemporary tale either, with the current GBRMP board members  linked to mining in an investigation that is still underway.

In the end it was a combination of intensive popular campaigning, news of environmentally catastrophic marine oil spills overseas, threats of Trade Union black bans, and bipartisan legislative action by the Federal Liberal and Labor Governments that in June 1975 produced the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. This enacted a spectacular marine reserve for nature lovers that would at the same time permit controlled economic and recreational use and see the park gain World Heritage listing.

Now our reef is in trouble once more.

Campaigns have begun to spring up, with activist group Get Up attempting to crowd fund a legal fight and the Australian Marine Conservation Society, WWF-Australia and Greenpeace strengthening their respective campaigns. Whether this will match the resistance of the past remains to be seen. What is certain is that we will we need to draw strength from predecessors, such as Wright, Busst and Webb, and step up to protect the greatest and most beautiful marine environment that this planet has known.


Iain McCalman, a Research Professor of History at the University of Sydney, and Co-Director of the Sydney Environment Institute, has established a national and international reputation as an 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. In addition to his considerable achievements as an undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate teacher he has published fourteen scholarly books with leading academic and trade presses, and dozens of peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. 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.