Alex McKin­non on fur­ther Bar­rier Reef busi­ness links

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - By Alex McKin­non. Asher Wolf con­trib­uted re­search to this story.

“It’s only when we’re united as Cit­i­zens that our in­di­vid­ual ac­tions can come to­gether to make a real, phys­i­cal im­pact on the Great Bar­rier Reef.”

That’s the tagline of Cit­i­zens of the Great Bar­rier Reef, a Queens­land­based non-profit that calls it­self “the world’s first col­lab­o­ra­tive move­ment for the Reef ”. A self-de­scribed “new kind of or­gan­i­sa­tion”, Cit­i­zens of the Great Bar­rier Reef makes the bold claim on its web­site that “we are the first gen­er­a­tion in his­tory that has the abil­ity to con­nect be­hind a com­mon pur­pose”.

When it was launched, in Oc­to­ber 2016, the Cit­i­zens of the Great Bar­rier Reef web­site listed some am­bi­tious goals. It aimed to “reach 100,000,000 peo­ple across four con­ti­nents”, al­though didn’t de­fine what “reach­ing” meant. More tan­gi­bly, it aimed to re­cruit five mil­lion “Cit­i­zens” and raise $5 mil­lion in do­na­tions. Those goals have since been re­moved from the site.

For an or­gan­i­sa­tion with such lofty am­bi­tions, the “real ac­tion” it urges peo­ple to take is modest. Be­com­ing a “Cit­i­zen” of the Reef in­volves putting down your name and city and picking a colour that is then named af­ter you. “On the Reef mil­lions of colour­ful crea­tures unite as one. It’s time we did the same,” the web­site ex­plains. In a pro­mo­tional video, ac­tor Teresa Palmer urges wouldbe Cit­i­zens to “claim your colour and own a part of the Reef ’s fu­ture”.

The Cit­i­zens of the Great Bar­rier Reef web­site also lists six “ac­tions” for in­di­vid­u­als to help save the reef, in­clud­ing buy­ing re­us­able cof­fee cups and wa­ter bot­tles, pledg­ing to give up sin­gleuse straws and plas­tic bags, and re­duc­ing food waste by us­ing left­overs and buy­ing “ugly” fruits and veg­eta­bles. About 5000 peo­ple have pledged to join the var­i­ous cam­paigns. The Queens­land gov­ern­ment banned sin­gle-use plas­tic bags in July.

By its own fig­ures, the “ac­tions” of the foun­da­tion’s Cit­i­zens have saved just over 328 tonnes of car­bon diox­ide – about the equiv­a­lent of tak­ing 71 cars off the road in a year. Be­sides that, its big­gest tan­gi­ble achieve­ment has been rais­ing $2550 since Novem­ber 2017 to­wards train­ing In­dige­nous divers to com­bat crown-of-thorns starfish out­breaks. Its site es­ti­mates that train­ing one diver costs $33,000. At that rate, Cit­i­zens of the Great Bar­rier Reef will have trained its first diver by 2027.

Astro­turf­ing, es­pe­cially around en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, has be­come a sen­si­tive sub­ject since the fed­eral gov­ern­ment gave nearly $444 mil­lion to the Great Bar­rier Reef Foun­da­tion. The spot­light thrown on the largely un­known foun­da­tion re­vealed a seem­ingly wellinten­tioned char­i­ta­ble or­gan­i­sa­tion, dom­i­nated by fos­sil fuel ex­ec­u­tives and busi­ness heavy­weights, that fo­cused its en­er­gies more on tin­ker­ing with a few prob­lems af­flict­ing the reef than the dif­fi­cult work of trying to change gov­ern­ment pol­icy.

Cit­i­zens of the Great Bar­rier Reef shares many of the same is­sues. It has deep con­nec­tions with var­i­ous north Queens­land tourism and busi­ness en­ti­ties. De­spite its rel­a­tively small size, it has been the ben­e­fi­ciary of a num­ber of lu­cra­tive fed­eral grants for reef-re­lated projects that promised more than they de­liv­ered.

The foun­da­tion lists Tourism Trop­i­cal North Queens­land and the As­so­ci­a­tion of Marine Park Tourism Op­er­a­tors as “part­ners” on its web­site. That de­scrip­tion un­der­states the na­ture of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the char­ity and the lo­cal tourism in­dus­try, which has his­tor­i­cally been re­luc­tant to talk about the reef ’s de­cline for fear of driv­ing away over­seas vis­i­tors.

Be­tween Au­gust 2015 and Septem­ber 2017, Tourism Trop­i­cal North Queens­land reg­is­tered five busi­ness names – all vari­a­tions of “Cit­i­zens of the Great Bar­rier Reef” – un­der its ABN. While Cit­i­zens of the Great Bar­rier

Reef Foun­da­tion Limited is a reg­is­tered char­ity with its own ABN, it shares a Cairns street ad­dress with Tourism Trop­i­cal North Queens­land, Far North Queens­land Pro­mo­tion and con­ven­tion plan­ner Busi­ness Events Cairns & Great Bar­rier Reef, all within a coun­cil-owned build­ing pri­mar­ily de­voted to the Cairns visi­tor in­for­ma­tion cen­tre.

The char­ity’s board of di­rec­tors in­cludes Tourism Trop­i­cal North Queens­land chair Wendy Mor­ris, former chair Camp­bell Charl­ton and former chief ex­ec­u­tive Alex de Waal, who founded the char­ity in Septem­ber 2016. The non-profit’s sec­re­tary, An­drea Fog­a­rty, is Tourism Trop­i­cal North Queens­land’s long-time cor­po­rate ser­vices di­rec­tor. None of this in­for­ma­tion is avail­able on the char­ity’s web­site.

The foun­da­tion was pub­licly rolled out in Oc­to­ber 2016. Syd­ney shock jock Alan Jones was on hand to launch the web­site, broad­cast­ing from Cairns over two days. He de­scribed the foun­da­tion as “a pos­i­tive ini­tia­tive to deny the Ar­maged­don­ists” – his term for those who as­sert man­made cli­mate change is the main cause of the reef ’s de­cline.

“The Bar­rier Reef’s fine,”

Jones de­clared af­ter fly­ing over it in a he­li­copter. “There are any num­ber of rep­utable en­ti­ties who will be look­ing af­ter it and making sure it con­tin­ues to be fine and looked af­ter.”

In Jan­uary 2017, Tourism Trop­i­cal North Queens­land was awarded two fed­eral grants worth $1.3 mil­lion. The first, worth $1 mil­lion, was for “the de­vel­op­ment of the Cit­i­zens of the Great Bar­rier Reef dig­i­tal por­tal and as­so­ci­ated col­lat­eral for the em­pow­er­ment of in­di­vid­u­als to be­come ‘cit­i­zens’ of the Great Bar­rier Reef ”. It funded the Cit­i­zens of the Great Bar­rier Reef web­site, a PR and fundrais­ing pro­gram and a “vi­ral dig­i­tal” so­cial me­dia cam­paign.

The sec­ond grant, worth $300,000, funded the construction of a pub­lic art­work on the Cairns es­planade. The “Cit­i­zens Gate­way to the Great Bar­rier Reef ”, which was in­stalled in Au­gust 2017, is a six-me­tre-high jum­ble of stylised sea crea­tures ar­ranged in an up­right ring, along with a large rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a stingray.

Cit­i­zens of the Great Bar­rier Reef shares sev­eral cur­rent and former board di­rec­tors with the Great Bar­rier Reef Foun­da­tion. Marine sci­en­tist John Gunn is on both boards, while Great Bar­rier Reef Foun­da­tion man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Anna Mars­den left Cit­i­zens of the Great Bar­rier Reef in late 2017. In July, Gunn and Mars­den agreed to give ev­i­dence be­fore a Sen­ate in­quiry into the Great Bar­rier Reef Foun­da­tion grant.

Like the Great Bar­rier Reef Foun­da­tion, Cit­i­zens of the Great Bar­rier Reef of­fi­cially ac­knowl­edges the threat cli­mate change poses to the reef. “Cli­mate change is the Great Bar­rier Reef ’s big­gest threat, caus­ing ris­ing sea tem­per­a­tures, ocean acid­i­fi­ca­tion and ex­treme weather events,” its web­site says. “The se­quen­tial


mass coral bleach­ing we are wit­ness­ing on the Great Bar­rier Reef is the lit­eral ef­fect of cli­mate change.”

The char­ity also states that “the tran­si­tion to re­new­able en­ergy for all and the rapid re­duc­tion in the waste­ful use of re­sources” is the only vi­able way to avoid the worst ef­fects of cli­mate change.

But – again, like the Great Bar­rier Reef Foun­da­tion – its deep con­nec­tions with busi­ness and tourism in­dus­try bod­ies raise questions about how far it can push that mes­sage. Its web­site con­tains no men­tion of the pro­posed Carmichael coalmine, which will pump an es­ti­mated 4.6 billion tonnes of car­bon diox­ide into the at­mos­phere over its life­span. Nor does it men­tion the ex­pan­sion of the Ab­bot Point coal ter­mi­nal, which will in­volve dredg­ing 1.1 mil­lion cu­bic me­tres of seabed ad­join­ing the Great Bar­rier Reef Marine Park.

The char­ity’s di­rec­tor, Earth Hour founder and former World Wide Fund for Na­ture head of com­mu­ni­ca­tions Andy Ri­d­ley, ac­knowl­edges that Cit­i­zens of the Great Bar­rier Reef has had to ne­go­ti­ate a febrile po­lit­i­cal cli­mate made even more tense by the Great Bar­rier Reef Foun­da­tion grant.

“In this po­lit­i­cal cli­mate, you just have to keep on push­ing”, Ri­d­ley told The Satur­day Pa­per. “If there was a de­sire to quit screw­ing around and hit the most am­bi­tious Paris tar­gets, we could save most of it, but we can’t give up. If you’re go­ing to give up on the world’s largest marine icon, what won’t you give up on?”

The chair of Tourism Trop­i­cal North Queens­land, Wendy Mor­ris, could not be reached for comment.

Cit­i­zens of the Great Bar­rier Reef di­rec­tor Andy Ri­d­ley (left) in front of the “Cit­i­zens Gate­way”.

ALEX McKIN­NON is Schwartz Me­dia’s morn­ing ed­i­tor, and a former ed­i­tor of Jun­kee.

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