If you grew up in Brisbane in the 1970s and 1980s, Praise, the debut novel by Andrew McGahan, was to the city’s literature what the Saints’ (I’m) Stranded was to music. Appearing in 1992, when it won the Vogel award for best unpublished manuscript, it captured the town’s torpor and the ambivalence of its inhabitants better than any book since David Malouf’s Johnno.
But whereas Malouf luxuriated in detailed poetic descriptions and may have been the first writer to describe Brisbane as a “big country town” (and Johnno moved at about the same pace), Praise was full of pent-up energy. A classic of Australian dirty realism, it’s a novel in which not a lot happens – but like Brisbane itself, all the action is happening beneath the banal facade, fuelled by frustration and repressed rage.
“Look at this city,” complains one of its minor characters, on holiday from a bigger, brighter world. “There’s nothing happening. There’s no one on the streets. How can you stand it?” Gordon (whose very name is used as a metaphor for the town’s plainness) replies that things are happening: “You just have to look a little harder. At least no one bothers you. There’s worse places than Brisbane.”
“There’s better,” comes the reply.
Malouf would have agreed. “Brisbane is so sleepy, so slatternly, so sprawlingly unlovely!” he wrote. “I have taken to wandering about after school looking for one simple object in it that might be romantic, or appalling even, but there is nothing. It is simply the most ordinary place in the world.”
Johnno was set in the Brisbane of the 1940s and 50s; Praise, though, is set in the aftermath of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Moonlight State and the Fitzgerald Inquiry, as Queensland emerged, blinking, into the late 20th century. It’s not a political book – Gordon’s main traits are his aimlessness, his sexual neuroses and dysfunction – but the atmosphere of the era, and of Brisbane, is embedded in every one of its bullet-tipped sentences.
Praise was followed by a prequel, 1988. It’s regarded in some quarters as even better than its predecessor, but left open the question of whether McGahan could move past semi-autobiography.
That question was answered with Last Drinks, a superb mash-up of historical fiction, crime and murder mystery inspired by the police brutality and corruption of pre-Fitzgerald Queensland that contained this description of its parliament:
“Queenslanders were always wary of the more sophisticated types – they liked their representatives to be awkward and stumbling. They mistook it for honesty. So much so that the Queensland parliament sometimes bordered on a sideshow collection of the ugly, the misshapen and the incoherent.”
If that sounds like a cruel or inaccurate representation now – with the Fitzgerald Inquiry casting what is now the LNP into purgatory for well over a generation, and the state governed by a female leader and deputy – cast an eye over certain Queensland representatives in the federal Senate. Published in late 2000, Last Drinks won the Ned Kelly award for crime writing; personally, it was a direct inspiration for my book Pig City. I owe McGahan a lot.
He was born in Dalby on the Darling Downs, the setting for his next book, The White Earth, which won a swag of awards including the Miles Franklin in 2005. Compared to Patrick White’s Voss, it was a move away from dirty realism and into a new kind of (deep) northern Gothic, set against the Mabo judgment, native title legislation and the spectre of Hansonism and white supremacy. Some sections that read as far-fetched at the time seem prescient now.
That goes double for Underground, an unashamed stab at popular fiction that eschewed the subtlety of its predecessor entirely. Published in 2006, it was a paranoid dystopia with a back-jacket blurb that now seems even more eerily prophetic: describing an Australia “transformed by the never-ending war on terror [where] suspect minorities have been locked away into ghettos. And worse – no one wants to play cricket with us anymore.”
From there, he moved into young adult fiction, with five further novels including the four-part Ship Kings series, with the final instalment published in 2016. A final manuscript, a thriller set in Tasmania titled The Rich Man’s House, was completed before his death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 52. He is survived by his partner, Liesje.
This is an open letter to the Premier of Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk, the health minister, Steven Miles, and MP for Maiwar Michael Berkman (mylocal member). The letter was written last Monday; I am posting a slightly edited version here. The original letter was also sent to the state opposition leader Deb Frecklington and shadow health minister Ros Bates.
I’m writing to you in relation to the issue of assisted dying/voluntary euthanasia in Queensland.
On Sunday I visited my mother Sue in her aged care facility. Sue is 70, and is in the final stage of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, which initially forced her to take stress leave (and eventually, her resignation) from her position at Queensland Health in 2002, 15 years ago. She was formally diagnosed with her illness in late 2011, nine years after developing discernable symptoms, though they were not recognised for what they were at the time.
Sue had considerable expertise in the field of dementia beyond her own lived experience. She spent over a decade in the senior levels of the department, writing and administering aged care policy, and many years before that working with elderly people in the community in the employ of Blue Care.
Last Sunday I sat with her for an hour. She is now bedridden and unable to move independently; her muscles are so rigid she is being administered morphine, as moving is painful for her. She was not cognisant of my presence in the room. She grinds her teeth involuntarily, her face is contorted, she has no control of her bodily functions (in the time I was with her she soiled herself twice in 20 minutes), and though she retains some power of speech, she is unable to communicate effectively.
I can tell you with absolute certainty that this indignity and pain is not what my mother wanted. This incredibly bright, capable, compassionate, outgoing woman, who remains much loved and did so much to improve health outcomes for elderly Queenslanders in particular, has seen her worst nightmare – as she often described it to us before her illness – visited upon her.
I have long since lost count of the number of times my mother has expressed her wish to die, at a time when she was fully aware of the horrors that awaited her, and which she is now enduring, as we all are with her. I can also tell you that she has previously asked both myself and my brother to help her to achieve her wish.
Allow me to express that as frankly as my mother intended: she was asking us to kill her. While that is not a request she would have made while in full command of her faculties, I ask you to imagine the terrible distress she was in to have made it, and the anguish that it caused for us.
Of course, we have no legislation providing for assisted dying/voluntary euthanasia in Queensland, as has recently been passed in Victoria.
My brother and I were lucky to have secured power of attorney to make financial and legal decisions on behalf of Sue, and also an advance health directive. However, even if we lived in Victoria, Sue’s legal lack of capacity to make decisions after her diagnosis, despite the fact she retained insight into her condition until very late in the piece, would have meant she did not qualify for assistance under that legislation.
That limiting eligibility to a prognosis of days or weeks remaining prohibits people with progressively deteriorating cognitive impairment from accessing voluntary assisted dying.
That a decline in quality of life or function is a better indicator of eligibility for people with a degenerative illness.
That psychological suffering be recognised in the legislation in addition to physical suffering.
That the term ‘mental illness’ should be clearly defined as distinct from cognitive impairment.
That people with degenerative disorders should have the right to make enduring requests for voluntary assisted dying in an advance care plan.
That family members are included in assisted dying decision-making, with the person’s consent and with proper protections for the person.
That the person with dementia’s right to be fully informed is upheld and that medical practitioners are appropriately trained in dementia care.
I naturally appreciate this is a difficult and sensitive issue. However, it’s a conversation that Australians need to have – and it isn’t going to go away. Dementia is now the leading cause of death for women in Australia and the second leading cause of death overall with more than 425,000 sufferers nationwide.
The estimated cost of dementia-related illness in 2018 is $15 billion. The toll it exacts on families and communities – including the knock-on health effects – is perhaps less measurable, but I can tell you the impact on myself and our family has been profound. I do not say this is to classify anyone with a terminal illness as a burden, but to consider the escalating financial and mostly hidden emotional cost of prolonging unnecessary suffering, often artificially, and against the will of individuals and their families.
I am therefore calling on your government to consider opening formal discussions regarding the potential development of assisted dying legislation in Queensland. The establishment of a parliamentary committee of inquiry, taking submissions from the community, would be an obvious first step. It could then make recommendations which could lead to the possible introduction of legislation in the next term of parliament.
I also request that due consideration be given to provision being made for the hundreds of thousands of sufferers of this terrible and terminal illness, and to their families, who suffer with them, in the event of such legislation being introduced.
On Friday, 3 November, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk dropped what sounded like a bombshell. Palaszczuk, at the tail of the first week of a desperate re-election campaign, said she would veto a $1 billion loan to Adani from the federal government’s Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) after it emerged that her partner, Shaun Drabsch, had assisted the Indian conglomerate’s application for the loan in his role as a director for PwC.
Palaszczuk said she was acting to remove any perception of conflict of interest over the loan, intended to fund the construction of a rail line from Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine to its terminal at Abbot Point, north of Bowen. The response was immediate. The next day’s Courier-Mail went with a screaming headline: “Mine shaft”. Queensland’s only statewide newspaper claimed thousands of jobs were at risk.
In the interim, there’s nothing to prevent the NAIF from issuing the loan, enabling Palaszczuk to say her government gave it no active assistance. When Liberal National Party leader Nicholls described the premier’s threat as a “stunt”, he wasn’t wrong. Since her government’s unexpected ascension to power, Palaszczuk’s minority government has been walking a tightrope between its urban base and regional Queensland over the mine.
On the same day as Palaszczuk’s unexpected announcement, news broke that should have sent a real chill through the muggy climes of north Queensland. The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecast the possibility of a third consecutive bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef this summer. Its modelling predicted the southern section of the reef, which had hitherto escaped relatively unscathed, was at greatest risk.
The NOAA was careful to note that its forecast was early, and therefore at the limit of its technical capacity. Nonetheless, the potential gravity of the situation can’t be underestimated. Last summer, the worst-hit section of the marine park was in the tourist-clogged area between Cairns and Townsville. It resulted in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority engaging in talks with the tourism industry to help it redirect visitors to relatively unaffected areas.
The Barrier Reef is the elephant in the room of the state election. It was certainly a bigger issue in 2015, when the then Labor opposition pledged that no taxpayer funds would be used to fund Adani’s mine. “The reef was much more prominent in discussions at the last Queensland election, but it’s in a much more dire situation now, so the need for action’s even greater,” says the World Wild Fund for Nature’s Sean Hoobin.
The second, released on the eve of the election being called, had the government belatedly following through on its 2015 commitment to ban the loading of coal ships at sea in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The government also has a target of 50 percent renewable power generation by 2030. Earlier this year, it held a carbon farming summit, with the intention of providing a road map for the growth of the nascent carbon offset industry.
But the government has struggled to gain any clear air to spruik its environmental credentials in the shadow of the Carmichael project, with the premier’s campaign itself being shadowed by anti-Adani protesters. Support for the mine within the government’s ranks is soft, and Adani’s brand is positively toxic in urban electorates of Brisbane, but with Labor ruling out any possible deal with One Nation, it is desperate not to alienate regional support.
The LNP, for its part, has given its unqualified backing for not only the Carmichael mine but the construction of another coal mine in far north Queensland. At the same time, shadow environment minister Dr Christian Rowan said an LNP government would maintain all currently allocated state funding for reef protection, and that when last in government it had invested $35 million a year to help farmers reduce sediment runoff into reef catchments.
But the focus on water quality ignores the other elephant in the room. The northern section of the park, which was so ravaged by bleaching in the summer of 2015-16 that up to 67 percent of the coral died, was previously regarded as the most pristine and undisturbed section of the reef – that is, the least affected by soil runoff, the proliferation of crown-of-thorns starfish and other factors affecting the reef’s overall health.
The cause of the catastrophe was simple: the coral was cooked by above-average water temperatures due to a combination of climate change and an accompanying El Niño. The bleaching was repeated the following year, even after El Niño’s abatement. The combined impact left a full 1500 kilometres of the reef badly affected.
“There’s a kind of cognitive dissonance that we have now where political leaders are signing on to the [Adani] mine while at the same time talking about wanting to deal with climate change and save the Barrier Reef,” says Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, deputy director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. “You can’t have both.
“You think about the idea that this ecosystem that has been with us for thousands of years and is so much loved, and we’re contemplating its disappearance … We are in extremely worrying times, because these things are coming faster, much faster than we thought. My predictions in 1998 were that we’d see this sort of thing happening in 2030, 2040. It’s happening now.”
Pushed for detail, Rowan said: “Protecting the reef is too important to leave to one organisation or local group. The LNP’s Great Barrier Reef Alliance will work closely with the federal government, [an] independent expert panel and Reef 2050 advisory committee and other key stakeholders to deliver real, independently measurable outcomes.” He also said, “We need to get the balance right on clean energy targets, as highlighted in the Finkel review.”
In the meantime, neither party seems to regard investing in new coal-fired power generation as in any way incompatible with the future of the Barrier Reef – or is willing to admit it. As for One Nation, Pauline Hanson and then-senator Malcolm Roberts famously made a trip to the decidedly unbleached Great Keppel Island off Yeppoon in November 2016, held aloft a piece of coral, and declared that everything was fine. Roberts is now running for the state seat of Ipswich.
Earlier this year, a Deloitte Access Economics review valued the reef at $56 billion. An earlier Jacobs review – co-written by a partnership between the Queensland Farmers’ Federation, the Queensland Tourism Industry Council, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators – concluded that if the reef was treated as a piece of infrastructure of similar value, it would receive up to $830 million a year in funding.
All of this, to say nothing of the estimated 65,000 people whose livelihoods depend on the Great Barrier Reef, suggests its ongoing health is far from just an environmental or moral challenge. But in this election campaign, with everything filtered through the muddy waters of Adani and a resurgent One Nation, it’s a challenge that neither of the major parties is game to face.
Postscript to this story: With the narrow re-election of the state Labor government, Premier Annasticia Palaszczuk has followed through on her promise to veto the NAIF loan to Adani. One Nation won only one seat in the poll, with Malcolm Roberts, after being disqualified by the Senate by the High Court, failing to win the seat of Ipswich. The LNP’s Andrew Cripps also lost his seat of Hinchinbrook.
For Queenslanders of a certain age, there is so much about the rise of Donald Trump that seems eerily familiar. For 19 years, his prehistoric ancestor ruled the swamps of Australia’s deep north – a hillbilly dictator who beat up protesters and confounded the media with complete gibberish while a dark web of corruption flourished behind him. Thankfully, Joh Bjelke-Petersen didn’t have the codes, or a Twitter account.
At the time, the sheer lunacy of Bjelke-Petersen seemed beyond the reach of satirists, despite there being numerous comedic imitators of Joh’s folksy, stammering idiosyncrasies. These days, it’s getting harder to convince people who weren’t there that certain things actually happened, such as police being sent to university campuses on pre-dawn raids to rip condom-vending machines from toilet walls in 1987.
When he was eventually rolled by his own party, Joh locked himself in his parliamentary annex for days, phoning Buckingham Palace seeking Her Majesty’s intervention. If that’s not enough, imagine the corpulent figure of Russ Hinze – the minister for everything – bent at the waist, peering through the keyhole with tears streaming down his cheeks, beseeching his master: “Joh! Maaaate! It’s over!”
For many of those who lived through it, though, Bjelke-Petersen’s iron-fisted rule was no laughing matter. Apologists for his regime occasionally wave away the vast and vicious corruption uncovered by the Fitzgerald Inquiry that ignominiously ended his career as a victimless crime. Those people need to read Matt Condon’s extraordinary Three Crooked Kings trilogy and count the bodies.
The truly nasty, brutish side of Joh’s regime is mostly sidestepped in Joh For PM (yes, that really happened too), a musical comedy by playwright Stephen Carleton and composer Paul Hodge. What’s striking about it, 30 years after his downfall, is how prescient it is, as though this utterly reactionary figure was some kind of seer. References and parallels to the present day are deliberate, frequent and often uncanny.
Southern journalists, for example, are described thus: “They come up here and write fake news. We need someone to build a wall between us and them!” There’s also his press secretary Allen Callaghan (a show-stealing turn by Kurt Phelan), who describes himself to his boss as “Henry Higgins to your Eliza Doolittle”. Callaghan teaches him to “feed the chooks”, telling him “It’s good TV to try to keep them confused.”
It’s as if the satire has somehow had time to catch up. Some of these songs seem to have written themselves – The White Shoe Shuffle, for example, which skewers the so-called white shoe brigade of Gold Coast developers, and which cleverly riffs on the jitterbug of Wham!’s contemporary hit Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. Don’t You Worry About That, similarly, nods to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive.
It’s campy, glorious fun, and if it has a weakness, it makes Joh, who’s well played by Colin Lane, look dumber than he was. As one song points out, much of his rise, from local member to minister to deputy to premier – thanks to his predecessor Jack Pizzey dropping dead of a heart attack – seemed accidental, if not divine intervention. But you don’t stay premier for 19 years without ruthlessness and rat cunning.
Joh had both in spades. Like Trump, it’s easy to make him look like a bumptious fool, but it’s perfectly possible to be a bumptious fool and a dangerous megalomaniac at the same time. To suggest that Joh was largely directed by those around him – his wife Flo (Barb Lowing, whose song Pumpkin Scone Diplomacy is a highlight); Callaghan; his pilot Beryl – is a mistake.
But Joh For PM also gets one thing right: his progeny are all around us. Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter (who described the aforementioned condom-vending machines as “despicable things that would do nothing to help prevent the spread of AIDS, but would encourage the community to have sex with gay abandon”), Jacqui Lambie, Clive Palmer, and even Kevin Rudd have all taken a lead from Joh’s dinosaur footprints.
The show was greeted with a standing ovation at The Powerhouse. Among them was Mike Ahern, who briefly replaced Bjelke-Petersen as National Party premier and whom Queenslanders can thank, along with the late police minister Bill Gunn, for having the political and moral courage to institute the Fitzgerald Inquiry that resulted in their party being cast into the wilderness for decades.
Famously, Ahern promised to implement Fitzgerald’s recommendations “lock, stock and barrel”. He didn’t survive long enough as premier to fulfil his pledge, and is an almost forgotten figure today. Described as a “sneaky Roman Catholic” by his devout Lutheran adversary – a line that had him visibly shaking with laughter – he had every right to feel vindicated, both by history and by this highly enjoyable play.
The ABC news radio announcer’s incredulous tone said it all. “An unknown band from Brisbane, by the name of the Saints, has earned rave reviews in England for a record it made itself,” he said. It was September 1976, and the words, complete with the plummy delivery, were loaded with cultural cringe – all the more so for the fact that the band hailed from the backwoods of Brisbane.
That record, (I’m) Stranded – dubbed “Single of this and every week” in a hyperventilating review in the UK’s Sounds magazine – turns 40 years old this month, and it is no exaggeration to say that it changed Brisbane forever, both from within, and in terms of its external perception. And it was true: outside of a small clique, the band was all but unknown in its hometown at the time of the song’s release.
The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster once wrote that punk hit Brisbane like no other city in Australia, for two reasons: we had Joh-Bjelke Petersen, “the kind of crypto-fascist, bird-brained conservative that every punk lead singer in the world could only dream of railing against”; and we had the Saints, the “musical revolutionaries in the city’s evil heart” that gave a city that usually chased music history its own place in it.
Australia didn’t even have its own national anthem in 1976. (I’m) Stranded was more like an anti-anthem, with its central theme of alienation. The singer, Chris Bailey, with the gritty sneer of a young Van Morrison, is marooned “far from home”. The literal meaning was actually more prosaic, the song’s music coming to guitarist Ed Kuepper on a midnight train home to the Brisbane’s far-flung suburbs.
Then there was the video, which begins with the unintended metaphor of drummer Ivor Hay kicking open a door. The band are playing in an abandoned building on inner-city Petrie Terrace, Bailey singing in front of a fireplace with the words “(I’m) Stranded” daubed above in red letters, which would form the backdrop for the cover of the Saints’ debut album of the same name, released in February 1977.
The cover is as much a harbinger of the Blank Generation as the first Ramones album. But there are no uniforms in sight, much less leather jackets. The band stares sullenly back at the camera, a large hole in the floorboards beneath their feet in front of them. In the ensuing years, countless bands and fans – including Brad Shepherd (then of the Fun Things, later the Hoodoo Gurus) and Mark Callaghan (the Riptides, later Gang Gajang) – had their own photographs taken in front of that fireplace until the building’s eventual redevelopment.
The Saints were seers. They’d formed in mid 1973, the same year as the release of the first New York Dolls album and Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power, and while they hadn’t beaten the Ramones onto record (the New Yorkers had released their first album four months earlier), they were ahead of all the UK punks (the Damned’s New Rose was released a month later, in October 1976) and Sydney’s Radio Birdman.
But arguably more important than chronology and the Saints’ place in the bigger scheme of things was their determined independence. There were no venues to play in Brisbane, so the band hired out suburban halls. No local record company was interested in what they were doing, so they hired out a local studio, paid for the recording themselves, and put out the song on their own label, Fatal Records.
This fact was noted in Jonh (John) Ingham’s review in Sounds: “This Queensland combo had to record and release on their own label; for some reason Australian record companies think the band lack commercial potential. What a bunch of idiots.” EMI in London – partially in an attempt to claw back lost credibility after sacking the Sex Pistols – duly instructed its baffled representatives in Sydney to sign the band.
In the wake of the band’s inevitable decampment to England in early 1977, a local scene began to take root in Brisbane. There were archetypal punk bands like the Leftovers and Razar, whose song Task Force was the first in a long line of singles to take aim at the local police state. Then there were the more cerebral Riptides, the Apartments and the Go-Betweens, soon to leave for England themselves.
All had been inspired by the Saints’ willingness to “seize the sea of possibilities” spoken of by another seer, Patti Smith, a couple of years earlier. Brisbane now has a Go Between Bridge, as well as Bee Gees Way on Redcliffe Peninsula, where the Gibb brothers began their performing career. But (I’m) Stranded was a foundation stone in Brisbane’s cultural history for which the Saints deserve similar recognition.
The images went around the world. The snapshots of the Great Barrier Reef, from Cairns to Torres Strait, looked more like a pile of bones than coral. Professor Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Townsville, was surveying the reef by plane and helicopter. It was, he wrote on 26 March, “the saddest trip of my life”.
From 22 March, Hughes criss-crossed 520 individual reefs in four days, covering 3200 kilometres by air. Just four showed no evidence of bleaching. The further north Hughes travelled, over what were once the most pristine waters of the reef, unspoiled by the runoff that pollutes the south, the worse the bleaching became. Fringing reefs in Torres Strait, he said, were “completely white”.
The Australian Institute of Marine Science currently has 300 researchers swarming over the reef, complementing the aerial surveys. Reefs are scored on a scale of zero, which indicates no bleaching, to four, which means more than 60 per cent is bleached. Their observations have replicated Hughes’. In the meantime, Hughes has continued southwards, trying to find a limit to the unfolding tragedy beneath him.
Like most scientists, Hughes prefers to talk in numbers. “I wouldn’t talk about the Barrier Reef dying or the killing of the reef or whatever. I think that’s overstating it,” he says. “I’ll say what number of reefs we’ve surveyed, how many are severely bleached and how many are not severely bleached – but then often the language gets changed, depending on the style of reporting by particular outlets.”
To clarify, bleached coral is not dead coral. It’s just very unhealthy. Varying combinations of heat stress, bright sunlight and poor water quality cause coral to expel the algae, or zooxanthellae, on which it feeds, and which also gives it its brilliant colour. This exposes the limestone skeleton beneath. Different types of coral are more susceptible to bleaching than others.
Hughes is clear, though: this is really, really serious. “There’s a window of opportunity to survey the corals when they’re severely bleached, because after a few weeks they start to die, and then the skeletons get covered in seaweed and you can’t see them from the air anymore,” he says. “We timed our northern surveys to coincide with the peak whiteness of the reefs, before there was significant mortality.”
North of Cooktown, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is now reporting up to 50 per cent mortality rates. The full extent of the damage, Hughes says, will take months to unfold. “Different corals linger for longer before they die – and also, of course, some of them won’t die, they will recover. I’d expect most of the corals from Cairns southwards to recover.”
When Hughes returned from his first sojourn north, his phone rang off the hook. In the week before 7 April, according to the media monitoring company Meltwater, the story was reported more than 1000 times in 70 countries. Video footage given to ABC TV’s 7.30 and later used by the World Wildlife Fund has been viewed more than four million times. “It’s fair to say it’s getting more coverage outside Australia than inside,” Hughes says.
By any objective measure, the bleaching of the reef is a massive story. It’s one of the seven natural wonders of the world – the only Australian environmental feature to be granted such status. It’s home to about 215 species of birds, 30 types of whales or dolphins, half a dozen kinds of sea turtle, and 10 per cent of the entire world’s species of fish.
Any potential danger to the reef is economic and diplomatic as much as environmental. According to a Deloitte study commissioned by the Australian government in 2013, its value to the national economy is about $5.7 billion annually. It attracts two million international visitors each year. It employs close to 70,000 people on a full-time basis.
There have been some efforts to inform people about the devastation under way on the reef in the media. News Corp’s The Cairns Post – with a local readership whose livelihoods are directly threatened – has reported the issue, as has Fairfax’s Brisbane Times. But in Queensland’s only statewide newspaper you wouldn’t have read about Hughes’ findings or their ramifications. Since his surveys began, The Courier-Mail hasn’t interviewed him, nor sent one of its journalists into the field to verify either his or his colleagues’ observations.
“It basically shows they’re either in denial about the science,” says Ian Lowe, emeritus professor in the School of Science at Griffith University, “or they’re colluding in obscuring the science so the community don’t understand the threats being posed to the reef, both by climate change and by the associated acidification of the oceans, both of which put real pressure on corals.”
On 25 March, the day Hughes completed his survey of the northern section of the reef, the newspaper ran a short piece on page three, lambasting Greenpeace for sharing an image of bleached coral taken in American Samoa that was incorrectly labelled as being from the Barrier Reef.
Last week, on 7 April, The Courier-Mail ran on its front page a story titled “David Attenborough’s verdict: Still the most magical place on Earth”, accompanied by a picture of the famed naturalist and filmmaker standing atop some coral at low tide. Inside was a double-page spread headlined “It takes your breath away”, with the sub-head “Reports of reef’s death greatly exaggerated: Attenborough”.
Well, at least that was what the sub-editor said. The lead quote came not from Attenborough, but from federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt, after he was granted a preview of the first part of Attenborough’s TV series on the reef that aired last Sunday. “The key point that I had from seeing the first of the three parts is that clearly, the world’s Great Barrier Reef is still the world’s Great Barrier Reef,” Hunt said.
Had Hunt seen the third part, or had the reader progressed to the end of the article, they would have noted Attenborough’s conclusion: “The Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger. The twin perils brought by climate change – an increase in the ocean temperature and in its acidity – threaten its very existence. If they continue to rise at the present rate, the reefs will be gone within decades.”
TheCourier-Mail’s relationship with environment organisations has been frosty since the departure of long-serving reporter Brian Williams. Williams says these issues have always waxed and waned. “Not long before I left The Courier-Mail I was doing stories on the prospect of this bleaching occurring, and I actually spoke to some friends in the conservation movement and suggested that the debate would swing back again.”
For now, though, the newspaper is running heavily in support of Adani’s massive Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin, which had been given the go-ahead by the Queensland state government on 3 April. “In the real world you need jobs,” began an editorial on the same day, which lamented “hashtag activism” and defended the regulations it claimed would protect the reef.
“The science on the health of the reef is plain,” the paper said. “This great natural wonder loved by all Queenslanders faces a range of stresses – as it has during the entire past century – from agricultural runoff to the current coral bleaching.”
No mention was made of climate change. The science on that is plain, too: according to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, bleaching is caused primarily by heat stress. The authority also notes that the reef has in fact been bleached only twice previously in the past century – and those events were in 1998 and 2002. This event is far worse. Hughes has said the reef is being “fried”. It’s perhaps more accurate to say it’s being boiled alive. Water temperatures are up to 35 degrees around Lizard Island, and about 2 degrees above normal summer averages generally.
Climate scientists say that in addition to 2015 being the hottest year since records began in 1880, water temperatures around Australia are at all-time highs. They point to more frequent El Niño events, and more intense cyclones. It’s not just the Barrier Reef that is suffering, either: corals are being bleached across the southern hemisphere, from the central and eastern Pacific across to the Caribbean.
Scientists usually fare poorly in the media for their struggle to speak in lay terms. Now, the government’s own experts are being dismissed as activists.
John Cook, a climate communication fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, says it’s a deliberate strategy. “It’s an attempt by people who oppose climate action to deliberately lump them together, and so when a scientist publishes empirical research about climate change, then they get labelled an activist.” Politicising science, he says, is a way of casting doubt on it.
“I remember having conversations with editors about how climate should be covered, and being told that it was a political story,” remembers Graham Readfearn, who launched his GreenBlog at The Courier-Mail in 2008, before resigning in 2010. “The politics are a distraction when the issue is quite literally staring you in the face, in the form of white coral.”
The newspaper’s website has since deleted all of Readfearn’s posts. Questions to The Courier-Mail’s editor, Lachlan Heywood, went unanswered.
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a professor of marine science at the University of Queensland with a special interest in the communication of science issues, notes that the premiere of Attenborough’s series on Sunday night was watched by 10.6 million people in Britain alone. But in Queensland, there is an eerie silence. In politics and in the state’s most-read newspaper, no one wants to talk about what is happening in front of them.