Ministers are neglecting their sacred trust

A week ago an angry environment minister, Sussan Ley, was telling anyone listening that the federal government had been “blindsided” by the proposal of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger”.

Ley said the government had previously been assured that no such proposal would be put to the July meeting of the World Heritage Committee, suggesting darkly that the meeting, to be held in China (the current WHC chair), had been subjected to political pressure.

“This sends a poor signal to those nations who are not making the investments in reef protection that we are making,” said Ley, adding that the Coalition’s “internationally renowned Reef 2050 plan … continues to set the benchmark in Reef management.”

But “the benchmark in Reef management” has failed to prevent three recent mass bleaching events which killed half the Reef’s corals. Scientists advise that it cannot survive if ocean waters keep getting warmer. All the evidence says only one thing: the Reef is in danger.

“I agree that global climate change is the single biggest threat to the world’s reefs,” she said, “but it is wrong… to single out the best managed reef in the world for an ‘in danger’ listing.” As if all that mattered was the quality of management.

To an outsider this is confusing, to say the least. On the one hand, Ley says that climate change is “the single biggest threat to the world’s reefs” (which we have to assume includes our own, by far the world’s biggest reef system). She must therefore be deeply concerned about the damage a warming climate has already inflicted on the Reef. 

Yet last week, while failing to mention those recent bleaching events, she focused on what she described as the WHC’s failure to consult her properly about their draft report. She strongly suggested that the WHC should have ignored the impact of climate change, which she said was a matter for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. 

I find this troubling, and deeply disappointing. Sussan Ley’s assigned vocation is the state of our environment, and the main influence on that is global climate change. Yet she persists in putting climate in its own box, separate from “the environment” – all for the sake of the Coalition’s political messaging.

Another government MP taking issue with the World Heritage Committee last week was Tasmania’s parks minister, Jacquie Petrusma, who said the WHC’s draft decision to oppose tourism proposals in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area wrongly implied inadequate assessment of the impact of these proposals.

“The concerns expressed about the [state government’s] Tourism Master Plan… relate to previous drafts of the TMP and are not warranted,” she said. “The government believes that the TMP addresses the concerns of the WHC.”

The WHC decision, she argued, added an unnecessary layer of approvals for developments which could include public facilities and safety measures. “We [already] have an approved management plan in place and a robust assessment process at both state and commonwealth level.”

No-one needs more pointless paperwork, but that’s of secondary concern. The WHC sees a trend among administrations everywhere to relax controls over development in natural areas, paying lip service to agreed limits or openly flouting them. A global increase in natural area degradation tells us this concern is justified.

Both ministers’ complaints stem from the WHC’s refusal to bend in putting protection of natural values ahead of all else. But UNESCO is legally obliged to do just that, and ministers of state charged with the same responsibilities should expect, and demand, no less.

Both Ley and Petrusma seem to regard natural values as no more than one of many competing interests in their suite of responsibilities. Ley seems less concerned about the Reef’s natural values than a perceived breach of protocol by the WHC; Petrusma’s response suggests that her government is inclined to prioritise tourism over natural values. 

National and subnational governments constantly have to deal with pressures to allow activities that may clash with certain principles. Attorneys-general, for instance, have a duty to stand up against such pressures to preserve the rule of law.

So it is with ministers representing the environment. Whether it is the Reef or the Tasmanian Wilderness, the first concern of both ministers should be the health of the life systems that underpin everything humans are and do. 

Walking both sides of the street is not an option for them. Natural values are their sacred trust, and they should always resist any move to compromise them.

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