You may have heard this one, but the Great Barrier Reef is in trouble. A study that was concluded in 2012, and reiterated by conservationists ever since, found around half of the reef's coral cover disappeared since 1985. While this report won some hearts and minds, the environmentally lackadaisical Queensland Government spent the next three years cheering coal exports, coastal agriculture, and port infrastructure. That was until February 14 this year, when the Liberal National Party lost to Labor. And while both parties have a somewhat patchy history with marine conservation, one of Labor's flagship promises was to save the reef.
Steven Miles is the new Queensland Minister for Environment, under Annastacia Palaszczuk's government. And because they're now so reef-obsessed, Steve is also the Minister for the Great Barrier Reef. We had a chat about his new title, and what he's doing to fulfil some big promises.
VICE: Hi Steven, can you tell me about your new title?
Steven Miles : I think by adding 'Great Barrier Reef' to my title, we're adding focus on just how much this new government will be investing in the reef.
But what does that mean? Because it sounds a bit like a marketing ploy.
No I don't think it's a marketing ploy. I'm certainly very glad it's been included in my title because at a practical level it's given me the clout to work across agencies to improve the reef.
Can you give me some examples?
First up, we're banning dredge spoil dumping throughout world heritage area. We're in the process of putting together a task force that will deliver $100 million worth of initiatives to improve water quality running onto the reef. And because I'm now appointed to the reef and not just the environment, I can coordinate all the various levels of government that affect the reef — water resources, planning, ports, tourism, vegetation management.
Impressive, but it still sounds a bit like progress on a micro level. What's Queensland doing about climate change, which is the biggest threat to the reef?
Scientists are telling us that climate change is the big long-term threat, but water quality is the initial problem. Clearly the Queensland Government won't be the ones to solve climate change, but we can change water quality. And while renewable energy targets aren't in my portfolio, we are setting very ambitious targets for rooftop solar—a review that determines a fairer feed-in price—and a solar auction to support long term renewables.
I guess the other part of that question is coal mining. The expansion of Abbot Point was a political ordeal for the last government. What will happen now?
I can't say whether Abbot Point itself will go ahead, we're just looking at the options for the dredge spoil. We want a dumping solution that won't affect the reef or the quite valuable Caley Valley Wetlands.
Are industrial ports really tenable next to a world heritage area?
You're right, in recent decades we've seen a rise in the level of shipping and a decline in the quality of the reef. But the job for this government is to find a better balance.
But is that a winnable balance?
Maybe I'm more optimistic than you are. The northern section of the reef is in good shape and I'm confident we change the water quality flowing onto the reef in the southern section. The stakes are high. Something like $60 billion of our economy is reliant on the reef, something like 67,000 jobs. So we absolutely need to win.
How do you view the pervious government's conservation approach?
I'm pretty critical of what they were doing. I think they were rather cynically avoiding an in-danger listing from UNESCO and not really concerned about keeping the reef from danger. I don't think they made a real effort to address the concerns raised by UNESCO.
Before the Libs came into power, Labor governed the reef for 14 years. Will this time really be better?
I think Labor has been quite accepting that not everything that we did was perfect and we've subsequently changed direction.
Finally, sell it to me. Why do we need a reef?
I feel, as do a lot of Queenslanders and Australians, that we're the custodians of a real global treasure; something that is special in a lot of ways. It's aesthetically beautiful yes, but it's also home to a lot of unique organisms that we seek to protect in the same way as our rain forests. And even that ignores the economic argument such as the jobs and the tourists who come to see the reef.
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