Monday, 18 August 2014


Spinifex, 2014, 203 pages, $29.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

From the days when Captain Cook’s Endeavour tangled with the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, humans had learnt to fear the Reef with its “treacherous waters and weather” but  now the Reef “should fear us more”, writes Judith Wright in The Coral Battleground, a reprint of her 1977 account of the campaign to save the largest and most spectacular marine coral ecosystem in the world from oil drilling.  “We were opposing wealthy interests, entrenched government policies, and political forces that seemed immovable”, she writes, yet the environmentalists won.

One of Australia’s pre-eminent poets, Wright (who passed away in 2000) was a founder of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland (WPSQ) in 1962 and became its influential public voice.  ‘Progress’ and ‘development’ – “we learned”, she writes, “to dislike the sound of those two words” which came freely from the mouths of  the Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and the rest of his Cabinet, most of whom held substantial shares in oil and mining companies.

With 80% of the Reef leased by the government for oil and mineral exploration, the WPSQ, buoyed by their recent win to halt limestone mining in the Reef, erected the barricades against the offshore oil industry’s environmental threat (oil-well blow-outs, tanker accidents and ‘normal’ operational spills, detergent treatments and mud discharge).

The government rang familiar alarms about how saving coral polyps would spook a ‘flight of capital from the state’, threaten investment, jobs and government revenue, and drive up the price of petrol.  They appointed a dodgy expert (a geologist with no biological qualifications) who would give the required verdict in favour of ‘controlled exploitation’.  The state conservatives’ federal government colleagues called a Royal Commission with terms of reference loaded towards where and how the Reef could be drilled and not whether it should be drilled.   

This delaying and defusing tactic, however, also allowed time for the election of a federal Labor Government, which responding to the popular environmental momentum and sniffing the “political capital’ to be made from banning oil-drilling, declared the Reef in 1975 a Marine National Park off-limits to oil-drilling.

Before this legislative end-game, however, came the crucial turning point in 1968 when Queensland’s’ trade unions placed a black-ban on oil-drilling in the Reef.  The conservationists had won the scientific argument, the aesthetic argument and the popular argument but now they had the winning muscle – the ‘Green Ban’ “held the key to stopping drilling”, says an elated Wright.

A “small, voluntary, spare-time organisation” had turned popular feeling into a stunning victory against economic and political forces, casting off the weighty anchor of the moderate environmentalists in the Australian Conservation Foundation whose silence and foot-dragging had been bought by government subsidy and corporate membership fees.

As the book’s new publishers note, however, whilst oil drilling has been banned, the threat from the use of the fossil fuel, and its climate change cousin, coal, continues - coral reef ecosystems can not survive higher water temperatures and sea levels, increased extreme weather variability and ocean acidification.  Government inaction and apathy also waves through other mining dangers (nitrogen-laden waste-water from Clive Palmer’s nickel mine, and the recently-approved dumping of three million cubic metres of seabed sludge from expanded shipping terminals as part of Australia’s new, and largest, coal port at Gladstone).  Pesticide and fertiliser pollution from banana and sugarcane farming, and coastal industry, urbanisation and tourism, round out a dire threat assessment which has the United Nations pondering declaring the World Heritage Area to be in danger.

The historic triumph over oil drilling, however, shows how to win against corporate and political environmental vandalism.  Wright’s re-issued book, a self-confessed “unadorned, bare chronological account”, whose prose is often more plodding than poetic, is perfectly timed.

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