10 June 2015


WWF-Australia says a damning report by the Queensland Auditor-General exposes government failures that have resulted in the Australian people and UNESCO being misled on the Great Barrier Reef.

Nitrogen, sediment and pesticide pollution are a major cause of Reef decline. In particular nitrogen leads to outbreaks of coral-eating Crown of Thorns starfish. For the last few years government Reef Report Cards have told Australians and UNESCO that pollution levels were improving.

“… we've had significant improvements in sediment, nitrogen and pesticides. Sediment has improved by 11 per cent, dissolved inorganic nitrogen by 16 per cent and pesticides are down 28 per cent.”1 Environment Minister Greg Hunt at the 2050 Reef Plan launch in the Whitsundays

But Queensland Auditor-General Andrew Greaves has found that these reports of improvements cannot be relied on as fact. Following an investigation, that began under the previous LNP Queensland Government, he found:

“The statement in the 2012-13 reef report card that the 2009 goal of halting and reversing the decline in water quality entering the reef was achieved, is easily misinterpreted as fact. There is a high level of uncertainty in the modelled outcomes on which this statement is based” (p. 4). 

“The regular public reporting fails in this regard, lacking transparency at best, and being misleading at worst” (p. 45).

Mr Greaves also found a litany of other problems including poor management by government, low uptake of voluntary best management programs by farmers, and increased land clearing in Reef catchments:

“Queensland’s response [to poor quality water entering the Reef] has lacked urgency and purpose, characterised by disparate projects with no central authority and no clear accountability for their delivery or for achievement” (p. 2). “The state government programs … are not close to achieving the scale of land management practice change necessary … due to the government's disproportionate reliance on voluntary participation and slow industry take-up in improvement programs, especially with sugarcane growers. This lack of progress casts doubt that nitrogen and sediment reduction targets will be reached by 2018" (p. 33).“Results indicate that the right balance has not been achieved between industry-led, voluntary approaches, and regulatory enforcement” (p.2).

“The recent relaxation of land clearing rules also increases the risk of adverse consequences from sedimentation run-off, and could work against the achievement of Reef Plan water quality targets” (p.2).

“This report clearly validates UNESCO’s latest decision on the Reef which puts Australia on probation until real results are achieved including actual reductions in pollution levels,” said WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman.

“Given the Auditor-General’s findings on the high level of uncertainty, it would be wrong to continue to quote these as reef facts.”

“Governments must ensure that under the Reef 2050 plan they guarantee that the reporting system for pollution flowing to the Reef will be completely independent, with all data released immediately each year, and regulations enforced to stem pollution."

“WWF calls on the government to fully implement the Auditor-General’s recommendations,” Mr O’Gorman said.

WWF-Australia Media Contact:

Mark Symons Senior Media Officer, 0400 985 571, msymons@wwf.org.au

1. Environment Minister Greg Hunt, transcript joint press conference Hamilton Island, 21 March 2015.