ASSOC. PROF. TIFFANY MORRISON, PHD
Research Leader, Social Science, Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
Most people don’t know the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) region is the same size as Italy or Japan. However, they probably do know that earlier this year, a second wave of mass bleaching occurred on the Reef. These problems are caused by global climate change, but recent research also shows the increasingly complex systems for governing the GBR have become less effective.
This problem did not 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, exists with the State of Queensland. Complementary marine, land, water, and coastal arrangements have been established over four decades. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) provides important international oversight because of the 1981 World Heritage listing. The management of the reef has 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, in 2014 UNESCO was considering the GBR 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. 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 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”.
Between 2005 and 2015, the GBRMPA itself saw its resources plateau, and an increasing politicisation of decisions. Its independence was also reduced through a series of small, incremental actions. Core funding across all relevant agencies failed to keep pace with costs, at the same time as demands on them rose in response to the Queensland resources and population boom and global climate change. Indeed, a 2015 study of OECD countries singled out the Australian Department of Environment for unusually frequent changes of both name and composition, and one of the sharpest declines in staff at national environment authorities since the 1990s, relative to other OECD countries.
Examples that are more visible 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. Where are some signs of improvement, it is the national climate mitigation challenge that continues to plague the management, governance and politics of the GBR.