Turnbull, #Reefgate lies and UNESCO

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @mdavidcartoons)

The Turnbull Government has been lying about – and to – UNESCO about the Great Barrier Reef. Managing editor Dave Donovan investigates.


SINCE #REEFGATE hit the news about ten days ago, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg – and others in the Government – have made the following assertion scores of times:

“Under Labor, the Great Barrier Reef was put on the UNESCO Watch List.”

The problem with this claim is that, while UNESCO has a "World Heritage" list, a "Tentative" list, and an "In Danger" list, there is no such thing as a UNESCO "Watch List”. Moreover, the Great Barrier Reef has never been on the UNESCO “In Danger” list ever in its history — under either Labor or the Coalition. So Turnbull and Frydenberg are categorically lying — not that anyone in the mainstream media has called them out on it so far, even with Opposition environment spokesperson Tony Burke repeatedly alerting them to the truth.

The Government is telling lies in order to defend their scandalous “investment” in the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. An investment of almost half-a-billion dollars of public money, made without a tender, with a shambolic post-dated application process and paid in one lump sum. Money that, since June, has been sitting, collecting interest, in term deposit accounts with big Australian banks — who are also all financial members of the Foundation. The whole affair stinks to high heaven of conflicts of interest, cronyism and the vast potential for corruption.


Like most good lies, however, the Government’s UNESCO claims do contain a grain of truth.

In truth, the Reef has indeed been perilously close to being placed on the UNESCO “In Danger” list — under the administration of the Coalition. It has only been through very questionable conduct by the Abbott and Turnbull Governments that it has managed to remain off this list.

It all began in June 2015, during the Abbott Government, when UNESCO was reportedly close to putting the Reef on the World Heritage “In Danger” list, but gave Australia a last-minute reprieve.

Then Environment Minister Greg Hunt crowed about this triumph at the time, saying:

“… in terms of the international response, this is an overwhelming endorsement.”

But that was another lie.

In fact, in the lead up to its decision, the Liberal Government had frantically lobbied UNESCO to stop it blacklisting the Reef. Indeed, Australian ministers and diplomats spent more than $400,000 of taxpayers’ money in 2015, visiting no less than 19 UNESCO committee member nations to console, urge and bribe them Australia's way.

And why was the Government so anxious the Reef wasn’t listed?

According to The Guardian (15 May 2015), it was all about coal mining:

‘An “in danger” listing for the huge marine ecosystem, the world’s largest living entity, would prove highly problematic to mining companies attempting to open a massive fossil fuel frontier in Queensland’s Galilee basin, an area of underground coal the size of Britain.’

Another example of the Liberal Government being "open for business".


Almost exactly a year after this near miss, news emerged that the Turnbull Government had somehow persuaded UNESCO to censor their own global climate change report, by removing any mention of the Great Barrier Reef.

From Michael Slezak’s Guardian story, ‘Australia scrubbed from UN climate change report after government intervention’, of 27 May 2016:

All mentions of Australia were removed from the final version of a UNESCO report on climate change and world heritage sites after the Australian government objected on the grounds it could impact on tourism…

… the report “World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate”, which UNESCO jointly published with the United Nations environment program and the Union of Concerned Scientists on Friday, initially had a key chapter on the Great Barrier Reef, as well as small sections on Kakadu and the Tasmanian forests.

No sections about any other country were removed from the report. The removals left Australia as the only inhabited continent on the planet with no mentions.

This time, Slezak wrote, the Government claimed it was all about tourism:

Every reference to Australia was scrubbed from the final version of a major UN report on climate change after the Australian government intervened, objecting that the information could harm tourism.

… Will Steffen, one of the scientific reviewers of the axed section on the reef, said Australia’s move was reminiscent of “the old Soviet Union”.

Explaining the decision to object to the report, a spokesperson for the environment department told Guardian Australia: “Recent experience in Australia had shown that negative commentary about the status of world heritage properties impacted on tourism.”

Tourism was used as the excuse, presumably, because UNESCO may have been less impressed by Australia's coal mining line.


In July 2017, despite the Turnbull Government announcing no new spending on the Reef in that year’s Budget, UNESCO again decided to keep the Great Barrier Reef off the “In Danger” list.

New environment and Energy Minister Frydenberg called the decision

“… a big win for Australia and a big win for the Turnbull Government."

UNESCO relented, even after noting it had "serious concerns" about the Reef’s health and noting Australia was “not on track” to meet its targets.

Nevertheless, Frydenberg called the decision a "strong endorsement" of the Government’s approach:

“We've received a strong endorsement that our Reef 2050 plan which is a coordinated integrated effort with the Queensland Government to spend $2 billion on enhancing the resilience of the Reef is working.”

Which brings us all the way back to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

As Frydenberg said in December 2016, the updated Reef 2050 Plan obliged the Federal and Queensland governments, along with some other parties, to spend $2 billion on the Reef over the next five years. The Federal Government’s share of this was apportioned at $716.6 million.

Unfortunately for the Government, however, from July 2016 to May 2018, they had not spent a cent of extra money on the Reef. By the beginning of this year, with UNESCO meeting again in July, the Turnbull Government was running out of time to, once again, perform the miracle of keeping the Reef off the “In Danger” list.

And so it was that, in May 2018, the Government abruptly announced in the Budget a radical $443.8 million gift to a small, obscure, private Reef charity.

They had little choice but to announce something dramatic.

As the Australian Financial Review noted on Tuesday, by 2018, UNESCO was losing its patience with the Liberals:

The Turnbull government has yet to clarify how the $443 million figure was arrived at, but a spokesman for the Environment Minister says it was "part of the budgetary process".

There's no doubt the final figure - a record investment in the Great Barrier Reef - was intended to make a big splash. Some suggest there had been some private prodding from UNESCO about more of a funding effort to avoid the reef being put on the endangered list which would have been a major embarrassment for the Turnbull government and a threat to Australia's multibillion dollar tourism industry.

On 7 July this year, Frydenberg met with the UNESCO Director-General in Paris to discuss the Reef and climate change.

Speaking to the ABC, Frydenberg described the meeting as upbeat:

“It was a very positive meeting, where we discussed Australia's Reef 2050 plan and the recent $500 million commitment from the Turnbull Government to improve the water quality and the health and the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef.”

The gift to the GBRF was right at the top of the agenda, said Frydenberg:

“… the director-general of UNESCO was very positive about the efforts that Australia has undertaken to improve the health of the Great Barrier Reef. They understand that the $500 million commitment is the single largest-ever investment by an Australian government in reef management and preservation.”

What this all boils down to is that, forced by UNESCO to finally make a major financial commitment to the Reef, the Turnbull Government chose, at the very last moment, to give every cent to a small, private charity run by oil-men and bankers. A charity unlikely to make waves about climate change, or lobby against land-clearing or new coal-mines. A charity run by big business, and the friends and former colleagues of the Prime Minister and his wife. A charity that other bodies holding a genuine interest and capacity to protect the Reef – such as the CSIRO, the Marine Science Institute, the JCU ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Reef Trust – must now need to go to meekly, as supplicants, in order to obtain funding. A greenwashing and effective privatisation of the Great Barrier Reef clothed in some grand philanthropic gesture. All spin and no substance — or, in other words, a typical Turnbull proposal.


The blowback from this cynical, base politicking is yet to become apparent. It may still prove to be legal – although that remains to be seen − but it has surely fallen on its face in the court of public opinion.

In short, the Turnbull may have managed, by hook or by crook and by means mostly foul, to keep the Great Barrier Reef off the “In Danger” list, but the stench arising from this diabolical deal looks certain to have put this Government on the political "In Danger" list.

You can follow managing editor Dave Donovan on Twitter @davrosz. Follow Independent Australia on Twitter at @independentaus and on Facebook HERE.

This is only part of the story! The rest of this editorial, including a wrap of all the news over the last week, was originally published in our weekly subscriber only newsletter and may be read in the IA members only area HERE

Access the members only area by subscribing to Independent Australia HERE.

You can follow managing editor David Donovan on Twitter @davrosz. Follow Independent Australia on Twitter at @independentaus and on Facebook HERE.

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