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The Great Barrier Reef is currently experiencing a second wave of bleaching. AAP Image/WWF AUSTRALIA, BIOPIXEL

The Great Barrier Reef’s safety net is becoming more complex but less effective

The Great Barrier Reef is under serious threat, as the coral-bleaching crisis continues to unfold. These problems are caused by global climate change, but our ability to react to them – or prevent more harm – is clouded by a tangled web of bureaucracy.

Published this week, my latest research shows the increasingly complex systems for governing the Reef are becoming less effective.

Earlier this month, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the National Coral Reef Taskforce confirmed that a second wave of mass bleaching is now unfolding on the Reef. The same week, the Australian government quietly announced an unexpected review of the governance of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

This most recent coral bleaching crisis brings the governance of the reef into stark relief.

How did we get here?

Yet this problem didn’t always exist. In 2011, a state-of-the-art system governed the complete range of marine, terrestrial, and global threats to the reef. The management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was (and still is) the responsibility of the Australian government, primarily through the statutory Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

A highly collaborative working relationship, dating back to 1979, existed with the State of Queensland. Complementary marine, land, water, and coastal arrangements were established over four decades. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) provided important international oversight as a consequence of the 1981 World Heritage listing.

By 2011, the management of the reef had received international acclaim, with the 2004 rezoning process (which divides the reef into eight zones for different activities) receiving 19 international, national, and local awards.

Yet despite the attention of federal lawmakers and considerable acclaim, in 2014 UNESCO was considering the Great Barrier Reef for an “In Danger” listing. Appearing on this list is a strong signal to the international community that a World Heritage area is threatened and corrective action needs to be taken.

Lizard Island in 2016, after the worst climate change-induced coral bleaching event ever recorded. AAP Image/XL Catlin Seaview Survey

What went wrong?

So what went wrong? My study examined the structure and context of the systems for protecting the reef, which offers insight into how well they’re working.

It’s worth noting that complex systems aren’t inherently bad. A polycentric approach – which literally means “multiple centres”, instead of a single governing body – can be both stable and effective. But I found that in the case of the Great Barrier Reef, it masks serious problems.

A number of stresses, like climate change, economic crises, resource industry pressure and local political backlashes against conservation, have all combined to impact effective management of the reef.

Furthermore, successive governments keep making new announcements (new laws, programs, funds, and plans) while at the same time chipping away at the pre-existing laws, departments and funding.

Low-visibility examples include the introduction of a policy that encourages developers who want to build on or near the reef to make an offset payment into the Reef Trust, which funds activity to improve water quality. However, many stakeholders believe that this has also made getting consent for development easier.

This is because, while there is no evidence of actual corruption, there is no mechanism to minimise the potential for undue industry influence under this policy. The Department of Environment grants approval for developments, and also oversees the offset fund into which the developers pay. Many stakeholders regard this as a conflict of interest. Indeed, the 2016 Audit of the Reef Trust by the Australian National Audit Office concluded that the Department should have “considered more fully the risks and costs associated with alternative program delivery models to underpin its advice to government on the design of the Reef Trust”.

More visible examples include the dismantling of complementary policies and institutions, including the repeals of Queensland coasts and catchments legislation in 2013, and Australian climate law and policy in 2014.

A 2015 study of OECD countries singled out the Australian Department of Environment for unusually frequent changes of both name and composition. The same study also showed that Australia has one of the sharpest declines in staff at national environment authorities since the 1990s, relative to other OECD countries.

Between 2005 and 2015, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority itself saw its resources plateau, and an increasing politicisation of decisions. Its independence was also reduced through a series of small, incremental actions. Since 2005, there has been at least ten “regime changes”, ranging from small tweaks to large restructurings.

Core funding across all relevant agencies has failed to keep pace with costs, at the same time as demands on them rose in response to the Queensland resources and population boom, not to mention global climate change. In recognition of the increasing local pressures on the regime, a A$124 million funding boost to the Authority over 10 years was announced in December 2016.

Schematic of major changes to regime structure, context, and effectiveness over time. Different types of change influence the structure and effectiveness of the regime in different ways. PNAS

However, reef stakeholders must increasingly focus their attention on how all of this fits together as a streamlined system or as a network, rather than how to actually make it effective.

If we are to save the Great Barrier Reef from climate change, then we need to fix its governance.

What needs to come next

In 2015, after the government released their Reef 2050 Plan, UNESCO decided not to list the Reef as in danger, pending a 2016 assessment of progress. UNESCO is yet to make a recommendation, although the fact that the plan has very little mention of human-induced climate change may prove to be an issue.

Despite scientific outcry, the Australian government successfully lobbied UNESCO to remove the Great Barrier Reef and other Australian sites from its draft report on World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate in 2016.

In response to public concern, the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies held a policy consultation workshop with stakeholders and experts from all levels of government, industry representatives, environmental NGOs and peak scientific bodies like the Australian Institute of Marine Science. Participants made various recommendations for reform, including:

  • meeting the national climate mitigation challenge that Australia supported at COP21 in Paris (first and foremost)

  • strengthening independent oversight of environmental decision-making (for example, reinstating the formal joint ministerial council)

  • reinstating the independence and diversity of the Great Barrier Reef Management Authority, by improving the role and composition of the board and executive management

  • properly costing and funding the protection of the Great Barrier Reef.

Yes, the Great Barrier Reef is in crisis, but the coral-bleaching problem is also a governance disaster. Regressive change, both large and small, has been masked by the complexity of the governance regime. Clear analysis of the minor and major transformations required to update the regime will be critical. If there’s no real reform, a UNESCO “in danger” listing seems inevitable.

This article was amended on April 16, 2016, to clarify two points. Environmental offsets for planning applications are voluntary, rather than mandatory as was originally stated. The original article also stated that funding for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has plateaued; this was the case from 2005-15 but in December 2016 it was awarded an extra A$124 million in funding over 10 years.

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