Flat White

How crying wolf over the Reef wrecks North Queensland

11 March 2020

3:30 PM

11 March 2020

3:30 PM

As passengers come into land at the Brisbane airport, few realise they are flying over a reef that has more marine diversity than any single reef on the Great Barrier Reef. The Flinders Reef is just 30 kilometres from the mainland. 

More people live in Brisbane than in the catchment area of the entire Great Barrier Reef. Yet we are told that the human use of the Great Barrier Reef catchments — farming, mining and simply living — are causing untold destruction to one of the world’s greatest natural assets. How then could a reef of unparalleled diversity be thriving just near one of Australia’s busiest cities and ports?

The answer is succinctly put by Peter Ridd, a scientist with 30 years experience researching the Great Barrier Reef, and who has been sacked from the academy for his heterodox views. He points out that the “inshore reefs” near the coastline of North Queensland are adapted to high concentrations of sediment and mud. As Peter says “The coral species on the inshore reefs are often very different from the Great Barrier Reef as they have to be tolerant to lots of mud.” The Flinders Reef in Moreton Bay is of a similar kind so it has thrived despite being near a major city.

The inshore reefs make up about two per cent of the corals of the Great Barrier Reef (even though they don’t strictly make up part of the “barrier”). But it is these reefs that can be affected by agriculture. The reefs of the Great Barrier Reef are  50 kilometres or more from the shore and sediments, nitrogen or phosphorus from the land rarely reach them. As the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has said: “mid-shelf and offshore waters are typically less influenced by land-based run-off.”

The risk of these runoffs damaging the inshore reefs has led the Queensland Government to impose unprecedented regulations on North Queensland farmers. Governments have adopted a target of reducing fine sediment loads by 25 per cent by 2025, along with other targets. Because these targets are not on track to being met, the Queensland Government has passed new laws that will empower bureaucrats to tell farmers how to farm and make creating new jobs in North Queensland extremely difficult through the establishment of a “no net decline” test for new developments. 


It is hard to find strong evidence for these targets. There are reams of reports produced on the Great Barrier Reef but almost all of them take the 25 per cent reduction in fine sediments as gospel and report against that standard. There is very little explanation of why that target is important. (As an aside this once again demonstrates why we should be very wary of setting a net zero emissions target.)

It is unclear that the increase in sediment runoff since European settlement is as significant for the reef that is made out. The Queensland Government points to evidence that fine sediment loads delivered to the Great Barrier Reef lagoon have increased approximately 5-fold. This sounds like a lot until you realise that the Government has been very careful with its use of the word “delivered”. The sediment delivered from land-based run-off only makes up around 1 per cent of the sediment that impacts onshore reefs. The rest is from the natural churning of the seabed that kicks up mud. That means that the increase in sediment impacting these inshore reefs has increased by only around five per cent. not fivefold.

That is not to say that land-based runoff should not be reduced for other reasons. For one, soil, nitrogen and phosphorus are all valuable elements for farmers. Letting them just run away from their property is the same as throwing money on a cane fire. So farmers for a long time have been improving their practices and led the development of what are variously called Best Management Practice regimes. 

Last week I visited the farm of a sugar grower, Mario Quagliata. He is just about to become BMP accredited through a  voluntary process. Indeed, in Mario’s Tully area 70 per cent of growers have adopted best practice techniques. 

Why then has greater accreditation not led to substantial improvements in outcomes? This is probably because farmers like Mario are not silly. Even before best practice became formalised, farmers were building silt traps, laser levelling land and maintaining river banks so that valuable minerals stayed on their property. The formal accreditation process does normally help improve matters but because our farmers are already great environmentalists, the new techniques improve things incrementally not through a revolution. 

The passing of the strict Queensland laws led to an outcry in North Queensland last year and that led to the establishment of a Senate inquiry into what really is the science behind the targets and the new laws. At its heart is a clash between the views of government officials who think they know how to farm better than farmers. The Senate hearings start next week.

Last week I visited a natural resource management group in Cairns. They are good people but when I asked them to explain why we have these targets, they can’t say, they are just employed to try and meet them. This is the fundamental problem with setting arbitrary environmental targets. It creates an artificial industry. The jobs in that industry then become reliant on meeting arbitrary targets regardless of their real world outcome. In contrast, farming requires constantly producing something that customers want (like sugar) and doing so better than your competitors. 

The Great Barrier Reef is an amazing natural asset for those who live near it like me. Unfortunately, it has become a tool to stop the economic development of North Queensland. Perhaps the first recommendation of the Senate inquiry should be to extend the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park area down to Brisbane, to include the Flinders Reef. That way the people of Brisbane can too experience the wonderful joy of having an army of bureaucrats dictate their lives. 

Matt Canavan is an LNP Senator for Queensland and a former member of the Morrison and Turnbull cabinets.

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