Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

A murky Reef grant
It’s a $444 million mystery

Image of Great Barrier Reef Foundation


The Turnbull government has again demonstrated its unique ability to take what would otherwise be a positive announcement – in this case, half a billion dollars of extra funding in the federal budget to help rescue the Great Barrier Reef – and turn it into an ideological quagmire.

The story started at the end of April, with what appeared to be a typical pre-budget leak, with the prime minister in Cairns to announce a record half a billion in funding for the reef, “the planet’s greatest living wonder”. This included $444 million to be given to the not-for-profit Great Barrier Reef Foundation to “tackle crown-of-thorns starfish, reduce pollution and mitigate the impacts of climate change”.

The foundation has been chaired since 2004 by senior businessman John Schubert, a longtime reef advocate who a decade ago graced the front page of The Australian, standing in the middle of the reef in snorkel and mask, pleading for faster action to tackle global warming. His strong stand on climate change was thought to be one of the reasons he missed out on being appointed as chair of BHP Billiton. In 2011 he was awarded an AO by the Gillard government, and said of all the things that had given him pleasure in business, his work with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation would be at the top.

A month earlier, in March, the foundation had scored headlines around the world promoting a new “sunshield”, biodegradable and 50,000 times thinner than a human hair, meant to sit on the surface of the water to shade corals.

The $444 million funding announcement received favourable coverage, except, it seemed, from those who wanted real action on climate change. Fortune magazine’s story the next day was headlined “Australia Just Announced Its Biggest Ever Plan to Save the Great Barrier Reef. But Environmentalists Aren’t Impressed”, noting:

The Great Barrier Reef’s big problem is rising sea temperatures. Not only do warmer waters cause bleaching of the living coral polyps that make up the mass, by leading them to expel the algae that give them color, but they have also led to an explosion in the numbers of a creature called the crown-of-thorns starfish.

Never mind. It was after the budget that investigative reporter Michael West reported that the foundation had “climate-denial links” and that its “patrons make the largest donations to the ruling Liberal National Party coalition”. Coal group Peabody Energy is on its “Chairman’s Panel”, and there were several other links to fossil fuel operators, including Mitsubishi, Rio Tinto, BHP, Origin Energy, AGL and ConocoPhillips Australia.

Fast-forward to yesterday’s Senate budget estimates hearings, and under grilling from the Labor’s Kristina Keneally and the Greens’ Peter Whish-Wilson, environment officials were forced to admit that the government did not run a tender process or give other organisations, including its own marine science agency, an opportunity to apply. The government approached the foundation, which has only six full-time employees, a few weeks before it announced the $444 million grant, and without any plan as to how the money would be used. The grant is nearly eight times more than the total $58 million in revenue raked in by the charity over the last 10 years. It’s farcical, only serving to underline that the government cannot be trusted.

And the furore obscures the real, bigger picture. As world-renowned reef scientist Terry Hughes tweeted today, in response to a report that the cost of restoring the reef would be $US1.6 million per hectare: “It would cost trillions to restore the corals killed recently by global warming. We need to tackle the root cause – greenhouse gas emissions.” In the absence of any meaningful action on climate change, he says, Australia’s “commitment” to the Great Barrier Reef is “simply a smokescreen”.

since this morning

The most senior Catholic to be charged with concealing child sexual abuse – Adelaide’s Archbishop Philip Wilson – has been found guilty by a New South Wales court.

Another asylum seeker has died on Manus Island, reportedly after jumping from a moving vehicle. Advocates from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said that the Rohingya man was known to them, and had physical and mental health issues.

Fairfax Media reports that Labor has cleared more ground to accept the second phase of the Turnbull government’s income tax cuts ahead of an “all or nothing” vote in parliament.

Documents obtained by the ABC appear to show widespread and systemic underpayment of staff at the ENA Greek restaurant in Melbourne, owned by one of Australia’s most successful food entrepreneurs, George Pezaros.

The AFR’s Phillip Coorey writes [$] that although Pauline Hanson’s decision to withdraw her party’s crucial Senate support for company tax cuts is “at least the fourth different position she has taken since February”, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann has conceded the government may not “ever get there”. Coorey also notes that Labor is worried that if the government abandons the plan, Labor will lose its biggest point of difference and “an endless source of effective attack lines”.

in case you missed it

Fairfax Media’s Peter Hartcher writes that on Friday China landed heavy bombers on an island in the South China Sea, effectively abandoning the pretence of a non-militarised presence in the region.

In another major setback for the Victorian Greens, the influential Electrical Trades Union will pull its financial support for the federal MP for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, and formally rejoin the Labor Party.

The Daily Telegraph reports that the leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Penny Wong, took confidential budget papers from the official lockup in a major security breach, and then refused to come out of her office when the head of Treasury security arrived to retrieve the documents.

In Senate estimates hearings on Monday evening the Australian Public Service commissioner, John Lloyd, repeatedly refused to say whether he is under investigation for his relationship with the Institute of Public Affairs. Labor said he was unfit for office.

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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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