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Great Barrier Reef fearmongering creates profits for dishonest scientists

The Great Barrier Reef is not dying. The only thing that is dying is integrity in our scientific institutions.

Back in 2019, at my first ever Senate Inquiry I asked the Australian Institute for Marine Science if they had kept a centralised database of health KPIs based on regular measurements across the length of Reef that demonstrated a trend that demonstrated that the reef was dying.

Of course the answer of was no.

It beggars belief that billions have been spent on “saving” the reef yet the government and the rent seeking scientists who profit from the reef haven’t actually got any evidence to prove their claims.

But that’s not all. Numerous studies claiming the reef is dying have been debunked.

In another Senate inquiry, one scientist claimed there was coal dust all over the reef when in fact the study was flawed.

Was this scientist locked up for misleading the Senate. Of course not.

Senate on 21/03/2024
MOTIONS – Great Barrier Reef

Senator RENNICK (Queensland) (17:04): I too rise to speak against this motion. For too long, there has been way too much fearmongering about the Great Barrier Reef, especially in regard to bleaching, which I’ll touch on in a minute. But I want to refer to the Great Barrier Reef inquiry. It was the first inquiry I ever participated in, and my first question in that inquiry was to the head of AIMS, the Australian Institute of Marine Science. The question I asked was a very simple one. I said, ‘Do you have a centralised database of all the health KPIs relating to the Great Barrier Reef since the early 1980s’—because that’s when scientists started looking at the reef in detail—’that demonstrates that the health of the reef is dying?’ It took about five or six minutes of the usual bureaucratic obfuscation. All I wanted was a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Eventually, we got out of the head of the Australian Institute of Marine Science a ‘no’. Here’s the thing: the fact of the matter is that there’s a lot of alarmism going on with the reef. There’s a lot of money being wasted on scientific research that isn’t being properly collated by the reef. There is no data at all that demonstrates that the health of the reef has been dying over the last four decades, dating back to the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Coral cover is being measured. It’s only measured about every five years, and the latest update on coral cover, last year, showed that the coral cover on the reef was at record highs. That’s got nothing to do with climate change or anything like that, because one of the most toxic impacts on coral is actually fresh water, believe it or not. Anyone who’s got an aquarium at home knows you have either a saltwater tank or a freshwater tank. If it’s a saltwater tank, you’ve got to keep it just right or the fish will die, as well as the coral. So the reason why the Great Barrier Reef is at record cover is that there have been very few cyclones—touch wood—up in North Queensland over the last decade. We’ve had a relatively stable last decade. In the period just before that we had Cyclone Yasi and another big cyclone that really wiped out the reef, Cyclone Larry. What you get with those big cyclones are two things: you obviously get the cyclone itself, which rips up the reef, and then you get enormous dumps of fresh water. They go down those massive North Queensland rivers that we love so much, and that fresh water flows out onto the reef and then kills the coral even more. So that’s got nothing to do with climate change or anything like that; that is just how the world works. It demonstrates the lack of evidence and systemic record keeping that is so typical of government bureaucracy. It’s all fearmongering and very little facts and figures.

Later that afternoon, we had the Queensland natural resource department come in, and I asked them another question. I asked them, ‘What is your margin of error in regard to your measuring equipment when you actually measure concentrations of’—I forget what it was—’nitrogen and other potential contaminants on the reef?’ Their margin of error was between 60 and 90 per cent. Not only that—they measured this water below where the farmland was, but they didn’t have another gauge above the farmland up in the high areas up on the Great Dividing Range, where you get a lot of dissolved nitrogen leaching out of the soil and all the leaf structure that’s on our Great Dividing Range. Of course, I’m thinking here of Eungella and Chalumbin and all of these beautiful areas up on our Great Dividing Range that are soon to get levelled in the name of climate change. We’re going to destroy the environment to protect the environment. If anyone wants to make sense of that, good luck with that.

I think it’s worth pointing out the amount of misinformation that’s going on based on no evidence whatsoever, but we really can’t have a discussion about the misinformation on the Great Barrier Reef without talking about Professor Terry Hughes. This guy has been seeding such misinformation that it deserves to be called out. I’m glad that Senator Whish-Wilson has given me an opportunity to speak about this, because I’d forgotten to raise it in the chamber. It needs to be put on record that Professor Hughes, Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, told a Senate inquiry in 2014 about the rapid decline of the Great Barrier Reef. He told the inquiry:

… coal dust has already spread hundreds of kilometres from coal ports and … it has now accumulated everywhere on the Great Barrier Reef and not just the dredging sites or near the ports themselves. It is exceeding toxic levels in nearshore locations.

…   …   …

I think this new evidence is sufficient that recently issued permits to undertake dredging should be revoked.

These statements were based upon a study that was proven to be wrong. A very well qualified CSIRO scientist Dr Simon Apte went back and examined the study Professor Terry Hughes relied on and demonstrated that the coal dust concentrations on the Great Barrier Reef were exaggerated by 1,000 per cent. Professor Terry Hughes is considered a so-called expert and yet has been one of the chief alarmists in spreading misinformation about the reef. It has got to stop because, as a result of all of this alarmism, the Queensland government has now mandated that farmers who live in the Great Barrier Reef basin have to implement a Great Barrier Reef plan, in order to prove that their farms aren’t allowing sediment to run off onto the Great Barrier Reef. It needs to be said, as I know my good friend Professor Peter Ridd has said many times, that the amount of sediment that comes out of the rivers is nothing compared to the amount of sediment that gets washed up through the oceanic currents.

The Great Barrier Reef basin is huge. It runs from Gympie, on the Mary River, down south all the way out to Emerald. Emerald is a long, long way inland. It’s a good three-hour drive from Rockhampton. If you’re a farmer on the north side of Emerald, the water will run into the Belyando River, which then runs into the Herbert River. For these farmers that are nowhere near the reef, the idea that someone running a few cattle up near Emerald will somehow cause run-off into the reef is just absurd. These guys are expected to go and get a Great Barrier Reef plan that proves that their run-off isn’t going to destroy the reef. This plan costs them thousands of dollars, and they’re liable to be fined up to $200,000 if they don’t meet the requirements of the Great Barrier Reef plan.

This is just another example of all the green tape that is put onto our farmers. I can tell you I’ve spoken with many farmers. I’ll mention one in particular, Mr Ramon Jayo, who has recently become Mayor of Hinchinbrook Shire Council. He’s a proud cane farmer. He is incredibly proud of his farm. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him on a number of inquiries—and I always stop in and see him, and we have lunch when I’m on my wombat trip. He is a top bloke and a great North Queensland character. He’s the sort of bloke that, if I hadn’t given up drinking when I became a senator, I would get on the turps with him. But I digress.

As Ramon has said on many occasions, he does not want any run-off on his property because he wants to keep the soil on his property. He doesn’t want erosion. They’ve got tanks there where they capture the run-off. He says they’ve got fish living in those ponds they have for their sediment run-off and they’re very healthy and vibrant. The thing that concerns him is that some of these mangrove swamps are now so cluttered, because of the World Heritage environmental laws that stop the clearing up of mangroves, that the water can’t get away in these floods and it’s causing severe flooding in his community. Yet again, all of this misinformation around the reef is having a massive impact on the hardworking farmers up in Queensland, and especially in the Great Barrier Reef basin.

I want to go back to the topic of bleaching, which we hear about all the time. Yet again, the theme is recordkeeping. I’ll say it again—and I’ll say it a hundred times while I’m still a senator—the recordkeeping and the quality assurance of our bureaucracy in Canberra are shocking. It is pathetic. I’ll explain the way bleaching is recorded on the Great Barrier Reef. There are trawlers that have nets about five metres wide on each side, and they run up about a 200 metre area—so, all up, an area of about 2,000 square metres. If they detect any bleaching whatsoever in that little run, then the whole area is deemed to be bleached. So, if you’ve got even one square metre out of the 2,000 square metres that might have a bit of coral bleaching, the entire area is recorded as being bleached. This is clearly overstating the amount of bleaching that occurs, and the scientists know it. The scientists at AIMS or wherever know this, but they won’t actually be honest about what’s going on, because, if they do that, the funding will dry up.

Over $1.2 billion has been given to people whose interest is in claiming that the Great Barrier Reef is dying because they then get more money to, supposedly, save the reef. I’ve got a friend who is a scientist—not on the Great Barrier Reef—who said something interesting. He said that, if he wanted to study the impact of butterflies in Ecuador, he wouldn’t be able to get any money for that. It would be very difficult to get funding if you wanted to study the impact of butterflies in Ecuador. But, as he said, if you wanted to study the impact of climate change on butterflies in Ecuador, you would have no problems getting money. That’s because that is how our scientific research is driven these days. It is driven by fearmongering rather than facts, and that has got to stop.

In regard to that original Great Barrier Reef inquiry, we spent two days in Brisbane, and then it was my first Friday morning inquiry here in Canberra. None other than Professor Ian Chubb turned up. He said in his opening statement that he wasn’t going to have accountants telling scientists what to do. Obviously he was referring to me and my colleague Senator Susan McDonald because we’re both accountants. He didn’t seem to think that we had any authority as senators, and he was having a go at accountants questioning scientists. Let me tell you something: all science is based on recordkeeping. Empirical science is just that: it is about going out and collecting evidence and proving that the theories about what you may think is occurring are repeatable. I was shocked because I had no idea who Professor Ian Chubb was, and I certainly didn’t expect him to lay into me in his opening statement, but it just goes to show the extent to which these people try to intimidate senators and people who want to call out this fearmongering. He got the shock of his life when he found out that I wasn’t going to be intimidated by any bureaucrat and that he had an obligation, even though he was a former chief scientist, to actually tell the truth.

I’ll mention one other research paper that’s been debunked over the years. Ten or 15 years ago, there was a study that claimed that a particular species—lionfish—was dying. The sample size of the study was only 45 lionfish. It was subsequently proven that the photos that were taken were duplicates. This scientist had actually gamed her own study. She was a scientist from the Northern Hemisphere who came over here. She got money for research funding and then basically put in a fraudulent claim about lionfish dying on the reef, using duplicate photos to increase the size of the sample to supposedly provide more evidence on what was proven to be a lie.

In conclusion, I reject this. I reject the impact it has on our farmers and, as Senator Canavan rightly points out, the impact it has on our tourism industry as we scare away foreigners who don’t want to come here and destroy the reef. I say we go back and we tell the truth about our environment for a change.

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