meescalating responsibility has become a recurring theme in the Morrison administration. Whether it’s the glacial progress of the vaccine launch, dealing with the mega fires two summers ago, or the sorry state of the Great Barrier Reef, there is always someone else to blame.
When Unesco made its recommendation to the World Heritage Committee in June to place the Great Barrier Reef on the “endangered” list, the federal government’s first reaction was to blame China.
China is the chairman of this year’s committee meeting and given its position in the international arena, “how nice” it was that the government used Chinese influence like a straw man. Planting a conspiracy theory with a willing media accomplice is too easy, and indeed the Australian broke the story with a headline that screamed “China-led ‘ambush’ on the health of the Great Barrier Reef.”
This baseless claim of Chinese conspiracy, and Unesco’s response that no country was involved in the recommendations to the World Heritage Committee, was quickly followed by allegations of procedural injustice. Later, the government claimed that Unesco’s decision “took it by surprise” and “surprised” it. Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the Unesco trials “gruesome.” Unesco also repudiated these criticisms.
The UN body followed the proper process used for many years. It never shares recommendations to the committee with any country. Imagine if it did? Lobbying behind the scenes, outside of any public scrutiny to weaken the draft decisions, would be intense. In particular, Australia never complains about this process when it agrees with a recommendation.
Then government specialists shifted the narrative to the more volatile climate terrain, and Environment Minister Sussan Ley claimed that the reef is being used as political football and that it needed global action on climate change to ensure their protection. Coming from a government that has politicized climate change for over a decade and was recently ranked at the bottom of the scale for action on the climate crisis, this was as ridiculous as it was damaging to our international credentials.
Blaming international organizations is often the last card played by governments unhappy with the evaluation of their peers and desperate to deflect scrutiny from national politics. Australia’s attempt to use the climate as a talking point to cover its policy deficit was clumsy and collided with commitments from our key allies and trading partners to reduce emissions that are far greater than ours.
For most of its 44 years of existence, the committee has accepted sound technical advice from Unesco and its natural heritage advisory body, IUCN. But it is the case that in recent years the committee, a group of 21 countries, sometimes avoided making difficult decisions that prioritized conservation and protection. At times, draft decisions have been weakened and action has been delayed.
When Australia joined the World Heritage Committee , the head of our delegation said that the tendency to neglect good technical advice was undermining the credibility of the world heritage convention and that “as custodians of the convention, the committee can and should do better”. He promised that Australia “will be an advocate for upholding the technical integrity of the committee. We will give great weight to the analysis and advice of the advisory bodies ”.
Australia was right then, but how hollow these words sound now when one of our own sites is being considered for the “in danger” list and the Coalition is furiously rushing to weaken the recommendation. In this case the government has a form.
In 2014, Greg Hunt, then Minister of the Environment, launched a successful diplomatic lobbying effort to try to convince committee members not to include the Great Barrier Reef on the “in danger” list. Australia managed to avoid reef hazard list three times from 2012 to 2014, as accumulated evidence of the deterioration of one of the world’s greatest natural wonders. Each time, the committee gave the Australian government one more chance.
In 2015, a long-term sustainability plan to ensure the reef’s survival was unveiled and the committee finally welcomed Australia’s efforts to protect our global icon.
Now, in 2021, after three severe coral bleaching events fueled by global warming and very slow progress in meeting the water quality targets promised to the committee, another diplomatic assault is in full swing. This is the most egregious aspect of the current controversy, aside from the growing risk to the reef.
During the period of Japan’s alleged “scientific” whaling in Antarctica, which Australia strongly opposed, I appreciated how concentrated diplomatic effort can make a significant difference in international campaigns. But these are exceptional exercises that must be done with genuine national and international interest at their core.
With the reef, to divert the insufficiency of our domestic policies, we will spend substantial financial resources to salvage the government’s reputation, with Ley setting off on a week-long trip abroad and high-level bureaucrats diverted from serious work.
It will not have gone unnoticed that, by rejecting Unesco’s advice, the Morrison government is conveniently ignoring that much of it is based on technical and scientific reports produced by the Australian government, and the Greater Marine Park Authority. Barrier Reef downgraded the outlook for the reef from “poor” to “very poor” in 2019. This advice has been coming for a decade.
Listing the site as “endangered” is an opportunity for the Australian government to join with the rest of the world to fight climate change and protect the reef’s outstanding universal value.
Instead, the government is fighting Unesco. Surely we can and must do better.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism