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As questions swirl around the Great Barrier Reef Foundation grant, another non-profit group pledging citizens’ support for the reef is revealed to have links to business and tourism bodies. By Alex McKinnon.

Further Barrier Reef business links

Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef director Andy Ridley (left) in front of the “Citizens Gateway”.
Credit: FACEBOOK

“It’s only when we’re united as Citizens that our individual actions can come together to make a real, physical impact on the Great Barrier Reef.”

That’s the tagline of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, a Queensland-based non-profit that calls itself “the world’s first collaborative movement for the Reef”. A self-described “new kind of organisation”, Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef makes the bold claim on its website that “we are the first generation in history that has the ability to connect behind a common purpose”.

When it was launched, in October 2016, the Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef website listed some ambitious goals. It aimed to “reach 100,000,000 people across four continents”, although didn’t define what “reaching” meant. More tangibly, it aimed to recruit five million “Citizens” and raise $5 million in donations. Those goals have since been removed from the site.

For an organisation with such lofty ambitions, the “real action” it urges people to take is modest. Becoming a “Citizen” of the Reef involves putting down your name and city and picking a colour that is then named after you. “On the Reef millions of colourful creatures unite as one. It’s time we did the same,” the website explains. In a promotional video, actor Teresa Palmer urges would-be Citizens to “claim your colour and own a part of the Reef’s future”.

The Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef website also lists six “actions” for individuals to help save the reef, including buying reusable coffee cups and water bottles, pledging to give up single-use straws and plastic bags, and reducing food waste by using leftovers and buying “ugly” fruits and vegetables. About 5000 people have pledged to join the various campaigns. The Queensland government banned single-use plastic bags in July.

By its own figures, the “actions” of the foundation’s Citizens have saved just over 328 tonnes of carbon dioxide – about the equivalent of taking 71 cars off the road in a year. Besides that, its biggest tangible achievement has been raising $2550 since November 2017 towards training Indigenous divers to combat crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks. Its site estimates that training one diver costs $33,000. At that rate, Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef will have trained its first diver by 2027.

Astroturfing, especially around environmental issues, has become a sensitive subject since the federal government gave nearly $444 million to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. The spotlight thrown on the largely unknown foundation revealed a seemingly well-intentioned charitable organisation, dominated by fossil fuel executives and business heavyweights, that focused its energies more on tinkering with a few problems afflicting the reef than the difficult work of trying to change government policy.

Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef shares many of the same issues. It has deep connections with various north Queensland tourism and business entities. Despite its relatively small size, it has been the beneficiary of a number of lucrative federal grants for reef-related projects that promised more than they delivered.

The foundation lists Tourism Tropical North Queensland and the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators as “partners” on its website. That description understates the nature of the relationship between the charity and the local tourism industry, which has historically been reluctant to talk about the reef’s decline for fear of driving away overseas visitors.

Between August 2015 and September 2017, Tourism Tropical North Queensland registered five business names – all variations of “Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef” – under its ABN. While Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation Limited is a registered charity with its own ABN, it shares a Cairns street address with Tourism Tropical North Queensland, Far North Queensland Promotion and convention planner Business Events Cairns & Great Barrier Reef, all within a council-owned building primarily devoted to the Cairns visitor information centre.

The charity’s board of directors includes Tourism Tropical North Queensland chair Wendy Morris, former chair Campbell Charlton and former chief executive Alex de Waal, who founded the charity in September 2016. The non-profit’s secretary, Andrea Fogarty, is Tourism Tropical North Queensland’s long-time corporate services director. None of this information is available on the charity’s website.

The foundation was publicly rolled out in October 2016. Sydney shock jock Alan Jones was on hand to launch the website, broadcasting from Cairns over two days. He described the foundation as “a positive initiative to deny the Armageddonists” – his term for those who assert manmade climate change is the main cause of the reef’s decline.

“The Barrier Reef’s fine,” Jones declared after flying over it in a helicopter. “There are any number of reputable entities who will be looking after it and making sure it continues to be fine and looked after.”

In January 2017, Tourism Tropical North Queensland was awarded two federal grants worth $1.3 million. The first, worth $1 million, was for “the development of the Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef digital portal and associated collateral for the empowerment of individuals to become ‘citizens’ of the Great Barrier Reef”. It funded the Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef website, a PR and fundraising program and a “viral digital” social media campaign.

The second grant, worth $300,000, funded the construction of a public artwork on the Cairns esplanade. The “Citizens Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef”, which was installed in August 2017, is a six-metre-high jumble of stylised sea creatures arranged in an upright ring, along with a large representation of a stingray.

Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef shares several current and former board directors with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. Marine scientist John Gunn is on both boards, while Great Barrier Reef Foundation managing director Anna Marsden left Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef in late 2017. In July, Gunn and Marsden agreed to give evidence before a Senate inquiry into the Great Barrier Reef Foundation grant.

Like the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef officially acknowledges the threat climate change poses to the reef. “Climate change is the Great Barrier Reef’s biggest threat, causing rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification and extreme weather events,” its website says. “The sequential mass coral bleaching we are witnessing on the Great Barrier Reef is the literal effect of climate change.”

The charity also states that “the transition to renewable energy for all and the rapid reduction in the wasteful use of resources” is the only viable way to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

But – again, like the Great Barrier Reef Foundation – its deep connections with business and tourism industry bodies raise questions about how far it can push that message. Its website contains no mention of the proposed Carmichael coalmine, which will pump an estimated 4.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over its lifespan. Nor does it mention the expansion of the Abbot Point coal terminal, which will involve dredging 1.1 million cubic metres of seabed adjoining the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

The charity’s director, Earth Hour founder and former World Wide Fund for Nature head of communications Andy Ridley, acknowledges that Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef has had to negotiate a febrile political climate made even more tense by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation grant.

“In this political climate, you just have to keep on pushing”, Ridley told The Saturday Paper. “If there was a desire to quit screwing around and hit the most ambitious Paris targets, we could save most of it, but we can’t give up. If you’re going to give up on the world’s largest marine icon, what won’t you give up on?”

The chair of Tourism Tropical North Queensland, Wendy Morris, could not be reached for comment.

Asher Wolf contributed research to this story.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 25, 2018 as "Tourist trap". Subscribe here.

Alex McKinnon
is Schwartz Media’s morning editor, and a former editor of Junkee.