The Great Barrier Reef is a wonder of the natural world, a place of unsurpassed beauty and international significance. It is also a vital economic asset for Australia. It provides more than 63 000 jobs and contributes $6 billion each year to the Australian economy. Aside from this direct contribution, the Reef provides many other 'ecosystem services' such as protecting the Queensland coastline from dangerous tropical storms.
But the Reef has experienced three major bleaching events since 2016 and remains at risk from twin threats: the climate emergency and poor water quality in its catchments. In recent years, assessments have found that the ecological health of the Reef has deteriorated from 'poor' to 'very poor'. The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) has observed that the impacts of degraded water quality directly impacts the Reef, and severely limits its ability to recover from other pressures.
When it was first established, the government funded Reef Water Quality Program had the goal of ensuring that, by 2020, the quality of water entering the Great Barrier Reef from catchment areas has no detrimental impact on the health and resilience of the Reef. Not enough has been done to achieve that goal.
Without strong and sustained action to address these threats, the World Heritage Committee may list the Reef as 'in danger'. Such a decision, and the environmental decline that it reflects, would be devastating for reef-dependent communities and tourism operators who are already under pressure.
Thankfully, Australia has some of the most trusted science and research institutions monitoring Reef health and providing a robust evidence base for decisions regarding management of the Reef.
It is this evidence base that supports actions by the Queensland and Australian governments to address water quality impacts in Reef catchments, including implementation of the Environmental Protection (Great Barrier Reef Protection Measures) and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2019. The science is clear, and it must be acted on.
The Australian Greens opposed this inquiry from the outset on the grounds that it was an unwarranted attack on the science, and the scientists, underpinning this work. It was an unnecessary diversion of time and resources to continue this government’s war on science, at the expense of the environment and the communities that depend upon it.
Unfortunately, our concerns were borne out in the public hearings, with some members of the Committee dismissing or misrepresenting the expert views of witnesses and ignoring, cherry-picking or wilfully misunderstanding the evidence.
AIMS were forced not once, but twice, to write to the Committee to raise concerns that its evidence was being misinterpreted. Its second correspondence noted:
Despite our previous supplementary submission to this enquiry, which corrects numerous misrepresentations of AIMS’ testimony… we now find that such misrepresentations have continued in subsequent sessions.
Emeritus Professor Ian Chubb AC FAA FTSE, Chair of the Independent Expert Panel to the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, Dr Geoff Garrett AO FTSE, former chief scientist for Queensland, and Professor Ove Hoegh‑Gulberg FAA, a member of the Independent Expert Panel and the Queensland Government’s GBR Water Science Taskforce, collectively have decades of experience in reef science. They described their experience appearing before this Committee as follows:
We saw witnesses talked over and have their longstanding commitment to their scientific field transparently treated with contempt. All because their evidence didn’t fit the apparently pre-conceived and intransigent views of some of the Senators participating in this inquiry…
We understand differences of opinions and ideas in and about science, but we argue that they should be based on expertise, and reflect on the evidence that has been, in some cases, accumulated over decades and has stood the intense scrutiny that is the natural outcome for work in a complex area. It is beyond regrettable when evidence is ignored or its weight diminished because it doesn’t fit the apparently predetermined view of a couple of Senators.
Despite the actions of some Committee members, the inquiry gave the Committee the opportunity to hear from a wide range of experts who expressed their absolute confidence in the comprehensive, high quality science underpinning Reef management policies.
We welcome the Committee’s findings that the evidence shows strong linkages between agricultural practices and declining water quality, and the Committee’s confidence in the rigour and the quality of research.
We share the Committee’s concern regarding unsubstantiated claims made by some submitters regarding the adequacy of the peer review process. Australia’s science institutions are world class. The commitment of those working on the Consensus Statement, and the robust review process adopted in the data synthesis, is to be commended.
Emeritus Professor Chubb, Dr Garrett and Professor Hoegh-Gulberg said of the need for governments to start acting on the science:
The quality of water in Great Barrier Reef and threats to the Reef’s long‑term existence is a case in point. The first report on declining water quality and the need for urgent action was published in 2001; up to 2018 there have been 25 more - mapping progress and urging action. And still we talk.
Australia has stewardship responsibility for the iconic, world heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef.
We support findings of the Committee that there is more to be done to engage with agricultural stakeholders to improve understanding of the science underpinning decisions about how this responsible stewardship is undertaken. We acknowledge that partnerships with primary producers lead to stronger and enduring environmental outcomes. We acknowledge the progress that has been made by many environmentally-aware farmers in reef catchments, and believe that they deserve support.
The Greens recognise that swift action is required to improve water quality outcomes and supports robust, evidence-based regulatory approaches to hasten the uptake of best practice management by those undertaking activities in Reef catchments.
We acknowledge and express our thanks to the scientists, farmers, extension and government officers working tirelessly to achieve that goal.
Senator Larissa Waters