At a Senate reef inquiry, we saw politicians flaunt arrogance and ignorance | Ian Chubb, Geoff Garrett and Ove Hoegh-Gulberg

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We were recently invited to attend a Senate inquiry into the impact of water quality on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR).

The inquiry was established in September 2019 to report in October 2020, and was tasked with inquiring into regulation of farming practices that impact on water quality outcomes in the GBR. It follows moves by the Queensland state government to clamp down on the amount of nutrient, sediment and pesticide runoff flowing into the reef.

Conservationists raised concerns the inquiry was “politically driven” from the outset, but Senator Mathias Corman assured us of the government’s commitment to the GBR and described the inquiry as “an opportunity to do even better protecting the Great Barrier Reef into the future.” Senator Rex Patrick declared “the outcome of the inquiry will fall according to the evidence.”

We can live in hope, but then you hear a different Senator, musing about what he sees to be a distortion of the reef-related science, go on to describe the science as “anti-human” during the course of the inquiry (neither Rex Patrick nor Mathias Corman was involved in these hearings).

Observing the conduct of the inquiry, it more resembled Senate estimates, in language, tone, and adversarial politics, than it did an ‘inquiry’ aimed at providing Senators with the opportunity to learn from experts about complex subjects. We saw witnesses talked over and have their longstanding commitment to their scientific field transparently treated with contempt. All because their evidence didn’t fit the apparently pre-conceived and intransigent views of some of the Senators participating in this inquiry.

Thus, even though poll after poll reveals that many Australians do not trust or respect politicians, it is regrettable that regard for the genuine hardworking politicians seeking the best for our country is tarnished by the behaviour of a few. The performance of a small subset of other Senators in this inquiry amply demonstrates the point.

We understand differences of opinions and ideas in and about science, but we argue that they should be based on expertise, and reflect on the evidence that has been, in some cases, accumulated over decades and has stood the intense scrutiny that is the natural outcome for work in a complex area. It is beyond regrettable when evidence is ignored or its weight diminished because it doesn’t fit the apparently predetermined view of a couple of Senators.

We will be asked, with a shrug, what do you expect? Simple really, we expect better. We believe that Australians should demand better and use their influence to show clearly that it is not acceptable for some publicly elected and handsomely rewarded officials to flaunt arrogance and ignorance at a cost to Australia.

The quality of water in Great Barrier Reef and threats to the Reef’s long-term existence is a case in point. The first report on declining water quality and the need for urgent action was published in 2001; up to 2018 there have been 25 more – mapping progress and urging action. And still we talk.

The GBR is iconic, huge and complex. It covers an area roughly the size of Italy (350, 000 sq km). It is not one big reef: there 3000 coral reefs that are themselves made up of 1,200 species of hard and soft corals. Coral comprises 7% of the total GBR. The GBR ecosystem includes 1625 species of bony fish, 15 species of seagrasses that are the primary food source of dugongs and turtles and the lagoon floor ecosystem accounts for approximately 61% of the world heritage area; it supports a total of more than 5000 species. There are 70 bioregions supporting those thousands of species.

To reduce this complexity, with all its connectedness, to a discussion about coral and which of it can be sacrificed is to misrepresent how a complex ecosystem works. The inshore GBR, for example – where water quality is the most problematic, is not a small patch of a larger asset that can be jettisoned, it is an essential, distinct yet integrated part of a complex system. In the face of relentless global (and ocean) warming, the specific question is straightforward: how do we maximise the chances of the ecosystem surviving by controlling what we in Australia can control – the quality of the water in the GBR lagoon?

The conclusion we draw is that some Senators aren’t interested in an answer based on evidence; that this is not about inquiry, or learning. It is not evidence against evidence. It is cherry-picking writ large: pick a data point that suits, misrepresent answers, harass witnesses, verbal some, set traps and no matter how much evidence to the contrary is presented, don’t shift from the views you held at the start.

Questions are a totally legitimate part of an inquiry. But so too, surely, is changing your position when well-founded and rigorously developed evidence is presented.

We do not, and never have, argued that science cannot be challenged. Indeed, we argue that the scientific process is based on challenge and scepticism – especially by experts using evidence that can stand the scrutiny that is part of the process of science, not hunches, nor half-truths.

It is a shameless misuse of the parliamentary process by elected public officials paid by us to exercise their responsibility to us and to the laws of Australia. The 1975 Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act includes “…that lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing a measure to prevent degradation of the environment where there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage.” And still we talk; and still it is political. And still we get distracted. In this case, there is little room to doubt that poor water quality does not support GBR resilience, especially the inner reef which, while it might be little more than 3% of the coral, is critical habitat for so much more.

It won’t get better unless we collectively demand that it gets better, by using our vote and our influence to support talent and courage in the political class. Then we have hope.

  • Em Professor Ian Chubb AC FAA FTSE was chief scientist, and chairs the Independent Expert Panel within Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan

  • Dr Geoff Garrett, AO FTSE was chief executive of CSIRO and chief scientist for Queensland where, inter alia, he led an 18-month taskforce on GBR water science

  • Professor Ove Hoegh-Gulberg FAA was head of the Global Change Institute at University of Queensland, a member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and member of the Independent Expert Panel and the Queensland Government’s GBR Water Science Taskforce

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