THE UNESCO report into the Great Barrier Reef has become the latest pawn in the environmental movement's push for Cape York world heritage listing.
With the demise of the Queensland Labor government, green groups have become increasingly desperate as they realise their political influence will evaporate with the likely loss of the Gillard government at the next federal election.
World heritage listing for Cape York has been the environmental movement's holy grail. Green groups have waged a well-structured campaign to achieve this, in concert with the former Labor state government.
First, there was the Wild Rivers legislation, which was supported by every environmental group. The real battle of the Wild Rivers was fought in the March state election on the streets of Ashgrove in Brisbane. Labor and the green movement campaigned hard for the legislation, with street signs, bus shelter advertising and a human figure of a platypus. Some Aborigines flew down from Cape York to fight against it. They ran ads and stood outside the local Woolworths telling people how the law would prevent them from making a living from their land and condemn them to a life of passive welfare.
The Aboriginal effort ultimately showed up in Liberal National Party polling. In the greatest Labor wipeout in political history, Campbell Newman won Ashgrove and became the Queensland Premier. He is committed to overturning the Wild Rivers laws. And the LNP government will oppose blanket world heritage listing of Cape York, as will most of indigenous Australia. Without Aboriginal or state government support for the world heritage move, environmental groups should realise the listing will never happen.
But the groups have not stopped campaigning. They have called for emergency heritage listing to stop mining development. They have targeted the South of Embley bauxite mine, citing the threat to the bare-rumped sheathtail bat and a new species of freshwater crab. The Wilderness Society stopped the project with a flimsy one-page submission inaccurately claiming 700 ships would pass through the Great Barrier Reef. Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke was told there would be only 30 additional ships, but he placed the $1.5 billion project on hold, despite Rio Tinto needing the additional bauxite for its new Yarwun refinery.
The Wongai project has become another avenue of attack for the Wilderness Society. Gavan McFadzean has demanded the proposed underground mine, which would not have a port or dredging and would leave only a small footprint, be dropped.
This is despite an environmental impact statement from a commonwealth-state process being on foot.
In 2005, the Wilderness Society endorsed an agreement where Aboriginal freehold land was set aside for the mine to provide economic benefits to traditional owners and create 200 indigenous jobs. The traditional owners agreed to surrender 200,000ha for a national park and nature reserve to protect Cape York flora and fauna. The Wilderness Society said not only would this be good for the environment and the traditional owners, it also recognised the special connection indigenous people had to their land. Now it wants to renege on the agreement.
The wilderness and conservation societies claim the more ships that sail through the Great Barrier Reef, the more chance there is of a catastrophic accident. Their solution is to ban shipping. They forget that from the day Australia exported its first bale of wool it has been a trading nation, dependent on getting products to market. When Cyclone Yasi smashed the reef and caused extensive damage, commercial fishermen told me it was almost impossible to catch reef fish. No doubt the reef has been damaged many times by cyclones. It has always healed itself and always will.
The UNESCO report on the reef and the recent Alpha coalmine debacle have offered green groups new hope. The Wilderness Society, Australian Conservation Foundation and Pew Environment Group are trying to close jobs in bauxite and coal. They want to close fishing to amateurs and professionals, and shut down the lucrative charter fishing industry.
Any day now, Burke will make the final maps of the marine bioregions available. He will declare the marine bioregions 60 days later. This will affect 240 fishing boats, ban all trawling in all marine bioregions and exclude five million amateur fishers from the green zones. Longline fishers will be shut out of the one million square kilometre Coral Sea, while a centimetre across the boundary 750,000 tonnes of pelagic fish will be caught by foreign boats licensed by Papua New Guinea.
While environmental groups and the Greens support the closures encompassing Australia, the sophisticated campaign has been funded largely by the US Pew Environment Group.
Of the 487,435 submissions that supported the closures, there were only about 1000 genuine submissions. The remaining 486,000 were computer-generated from environmental websites, with most coming from outside Australia.
Where is the science that tells us what we are trying to protect in the pristine Coral Sea? Increasing numbers of Australian and overseas marine biologists say closing down large areas of ocean will not protect the fish stocks, and will only increase the fishing effort in the areas that are not closed.
The Australian fishing industry is one of the best managed in the world. There is no species that is under threat, other than the professional fishers.
Greens leader Christine Milne has called for a slowdown of the Australian mining industry.
The Greens' plans to fight the expansion of the mining industry through the court process, together with conservation groups calling for the protection of marine bio-regions right around Australia and demanding world heritage listing for Cape York, all fits into a co-ordinated attack on Australia's wealth.
While raising some concerns about the barrier reef, the UNESCO report says it "does not currently meet the requirements for inscription on the list of world heritage in danger".
Newman and the federal government have agreed to undertake a strategic assessment of the number of coastal developments, but the green groups are still using the report as a stalking horse. The delay of the South of Embley project, and Burke's recent stoush with Newman over the Alpha coalmine, bring into question whether good policy has become the victim of Labor's electoral desperation.
This article was featured in The Australian on 08 June 2012.