In 1898 Émile Zola was moved to such anger by the French Army’s contemptible (anti-Semitic) treatment of one Captain Dreyfus that he published his famous open letter to the French president, J’accuse, scarifying those responsible in terms deliberately libellous. Duly sued and convicted, he fled to Britain for refuge, but with his objective achieved – the furore never ceased.
The background? In 1894 Dreyfus had been charged with treason, court-martialed, convicted and imprisoned on Devil’s Island. But as time passed, the Army’s wrongdoing began to emerge: an intelligence officer confessed to forging a key document in Dreyfus’s court-martial, and in 1896 a different officer, accused of being the real traitor (which he was), was formally ‘cleared’ by the Army. By 1899, under pressure from Zola’s letter and mounting public indignation, the Army granted Dreyfus a new court-martial, but again purported to convict him – an outcome so flagrant that the French president immediately pardoned him.
I was reminded of this by Dr Peter Ridd’s article, ‘Dying-Reef Claims Sinking at Senate Inquiry’ in the Australian (16 Sept.), commenting on a Senate Committee of Inquiry hearing. In September 2019 the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport was asked to identify the processes that ensure ‘evidence-based’ legislation of farm practices that impact water quality outcomes within the Great Barrier Reef. The inquiry was to have ‘particular reference to… the existing evidence-base on the impact of farm water runoff on the health of the Great Barrier Reef and catchment areas’ and the relationship of that ‘to water quality outcomes in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park’. The Committee met on 27 July to hear (initially) witnesses from the Australian Institute of Marine Science and from TropWATER, a research institute at James Cook University, both in Townsville. With the Senate staff’s courteous assistance (for which, my thanks) I have since perused the Proof Hansard of that hearing.
I am no Zola, of course, but the testimony given in that hearing has so aroused my own anger and contempt for the ‘army’ of people that has long conspired to gull the Australian public (among others) about the state of our Great Barrier Reef that I must protest.
For decades we have been told that the future of that great natural wonder – and incidentally, natural asset given the international tourism it attracts – is under threat. That view was succinctly summarised by Dr Hardisty (chief executive of AIMS) in answer to a leading question from Greens Senator Waters: ‘What we can say definitively is that, if current trends continue, most… scientific predictions suggest that reefs as we currently know and enjoy them… will be a shadow of what they are by mid-century’. What a load of horse manure.
Justifying that verdict, consider LNP Senator Susan McDonald’s cross-examination of the same Dr Hardisty on his opening statement to the Committee that ‘AIMS research shows unequivocally that deteriorating water quality has a negative impact on coral reefs and other coastal marine ecosystems.’ She forced him to admit that ‘the extent of this impact is mostly constrained to coastal and inshore marine systems’. That is, the ‘impact’ of deteriorating water quality has effectively nothing to do, not only with the outer GBR, hundreds of kilometres from the coast, but also even with the inner reef – closer, but still well offshore. He is actually speaking, believe it or not, about mangrove forests on the shoreline, or the estuarine water at river mouths!
How many readers knew that for a fact? I didn’t, though I have long doubted the scientific integrity of the ‘research’ in this area. And how many of you knew that ‘coral calcification rates in Porites’, the large corals that make up much of the reef, ‘are not significantly impacted by agricultural activities at all’, as the AIMS confessed some time ago to AgForce Queensland (a farming organisation)? True, Jennifer Marohasy (now with the Institute of Public Affairs) has been telling us this for years; but ‘our’ ABC, and our media more generally, has persistently preferred to run the scare stories by which, it seems, our governments in both Brisbane and Canberra have been guided. As Senator McDonald (on behalf of us all!) said: ‘Why is this not something I’ve been able to read in any of the consensus documents?’ These are documents prepared every five years which, according to Dr Britta Schaffelke (AIMS), summarise the state of scientific knowledge ‘about impacts of land run-off and water quality on the various ecosystems’ of the GBR – the only problem with that definition being that, as noted earlier, the findings have literally nothing (of any significance) to do with the GBR itself.
Believe me, I could go on – and on, and on, as Queensland Senators McDonald, Green (ALP), Roberts (PHONP, ), Rennick (Liberal) and Canavan (National) put these witnesses to the sword; and what a pleasure to see some competent politicians doing the job for which we pay them. But space is limited. So, having mentioned above a few members of the army of those who I accuse of deceiving us, by both commission and omission, what of others?
There is first of all UNESCO (why are we still a member?), which has sought to stick its nose into, and internationally denigrate, the state of the GBR. Among our political parties we have the always egregious Greens; a large majority of the Labor party; probably about half the Liberals – the flabby-minded ‘moderates’; and maybe even a few Nationals. The ranks are swollen by whole regiments of journalists, with the SMH, the Age and Turnbull’s misbegotten Guardian Australia all supplying their battalions. But how many even from the News Corp publications have come forward to contradict them on this topic?
Among the thousands of government staffers now in Canberra, how many watched that enthralling Committee set-to on 27 July? As for their employers, did any Ministers do so? Not even the Minister for the Environment, Sussan Ley? Any backbenchers, even? I can’t be certain, but I suggest the answers are, respectively, none, no, no and no.
What of our latter-day Dreyfus? – former Professor Peter Ridd, who after long service to JCU found himself court-martialed (under judicially corrupt processes) for treason – telling the truth about the quality of much of its ‘research’. Dismissed, he now fights on in the courts. It was said that the ‘Dreyfus Affair’ changed France forever. Can ‘the Ridd Affair’ work to change the shattered reputation of Australian environmental science? Those 27 July hearings mark a major step towards doing so.
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