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Reef authority caught between the devil and the deep blue sea

Protesters are furious at recent decisions over the Great Barrier Reef, but how much power does its official guardian have? AAP Image/Supplied by Greenpeace

Seeing the fierce debate sparked by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority chairman’s recent article on The Conversation about the Abbot Point coal port expansion, I can sympathise with the dilemma the Authority finds itself in.

I was its chairman for five years between 1994 and 1999. In comparison to today, I faced far less pro- and anti-development pressures than my successors. Yet I still had some intense struggles with the fishing industry, as well as with reef tourism operators fighting against a sharp rise in the “visitor charge” imposed on tourists.

Now the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) seems to face one controversy after the other. It’s a thankless task for those who work for it: protecting the values of the reef, while dealing with more and more strident and conflicting pro- and anti-development demands – all with one hand tied behind their backs.

The fight over Abbot Point’s future

The present dispute over Abbot Point’s expansion as a coal export port makes for great media fodder, with passionate interest groups on all sides, all claiming to be in the right. That’s part of a bigger debate about whether the reef might be listed as a World Heritage site “in danger”.

Pro-development groups rely on demand from Asia for coal and minerals, while the Queensland and Australian governments are hungry for the extra revenue they provide. Industry has been largely successful in lobbying governments as their principal strategy to get their way on the reef.

In contrast, environment groups and politicians opposed to increasing mining and port activity along the reef coast tend to cite science, opinion and the elusive precautionary principle to justify a total opposition to any new port works or other industry expansion.

Stuck in the middle of those conflicting interests is the Marine Park Authority.

But as current chairman Russell Reichelt’s article and subsequent comments highlighted, GBRMPA’s powers to reject development applications are more limited than many people realise.

A giant responsibility, without much power

Even for those who have worked with it for years, the sheer size of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is awe-inspiring.

Proclaimed in 1975, it’s bigger than the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Holland combined, sprawling over 344,400 square kilometres. It includes around 3000 coral reefs, 600 continental islands, 300 coral cays and about 150 inshore mangrove islands.

But despite its enormous size, it’s not a sovereign state of Australia. In fact, it is considered no more than a statutory body under federal legislation.

Abbot Point’s location on Queensland’s coast, with the boundary of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park marked in red. GBRMPA

GBRMPA’s full-time chairman has nowhere near the power of a state premier or a federal or state minister. Instead, he or she is a statutory officer, which is below the status of a head of department, who is appointed by a federal minister.

How much political sway the Authority chairman has depends very much on the relationships they can build: not just with federal and state ministers and MPs whose electorates border the reef region, but also the many business and community interests operating in or around the marine park.

In other words, although the chairman’s role is a non-political one (and Russell Reichelt is well-qualified as a distinguished reef scientist), the position is intensely political in having to handle so many competing, often conflicting, interests. Unsought advice flows in from all sides.

If you think that sounds like the Authority’s role sounds difficult and constrained, you’re right – and there’s another layer of complexity on top of that.

Who controls which parts of the Great Barrier Reef?

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park as defined in federal legislation goes to the low water mark of Queensland. Under the Offshore Constitutional Settlement the waters of Queensland extend 3 miles to sea but Queensland yielded management to GBRMPA.

Under the Law of the Sea this excludes inland waters, such as Gladstone Harbour.

So GBRMPA can give approval for sea disposal of dredge spoil, but has no absolute powers within Gladstone Harbour, or Townsville and many others.

Superimposed on the Marine Park is the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area – once seen as a nice accolade, now an intense part of the political mix. Somewhat confusingly, the World Heritage Area has common boundaries with the GBR Marine Park but includes all of the harbours and so-called “waters of the state”.

But because it is the Commonwealth, not Queensland, that is the signatory to the World Heritage Convention, this leads to a complex jurisdictional mix, with Queensland asserting strenuously its right of access to the waters of the Marine Park.

The consequence for the Authority is endless negotiation, debate, and “agreed” outcomes. The debate over development is increasingly virulent and hostile, but the ambiguous power arrangements can leave the Authority carrying the can for unpopular decisions, when in reality it has played only a small part in the process.

Pro-development forces argue strenuously at the top government level for approvals, leveraging the fact that their aims coincide with the government’s need for revenue and jobs.

In contrast, anti-development forces lack serious government access, instead using science, often colourful rhetoric, and appeals to sustainability and the precautionary principle. They have also successfully lobbied the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to have the reef pre-listed as a potential World Heritage Site in Danger. Such a declaration would have no legal power but would do great damage to Australia’s reputation, including tourism to the reef.

In an increasingly politically charged atmosphere, the Authority very often finds itself in a no-win situation. Many people expect the GBRMPA to protect the reef at all costs, but its powers to do so are pretty limited.

So if you think the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is not doing a good enough job, by all means criticise it and its staff. But if you want them to do more, you should campaign to give them greater, less ambiguous powers to reject applications or insist on tougher conditions.

* Editor’s note: The sentence “The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park as defined in federal legislation goes…” was updated with a correction at 11am AEDT.

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