GBRMPA in Chaos.
Reef watchdog upheaval: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority insiders say budget cuts, job lay offs undermining conservation effort
Recently departed directors of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) are warning budget cuts, the loss of key staff, and a lack of leadership is undermining the agency’s ability to protect Australia’s greatest natural wonder.
In exclusive interviews with the ABC, three former senior directors have explained their reasons for accepting voluntary redundancies in the wake of an internal restructure and a $2.8 million Federal Government cut to GBRMPA’s budget.
In total, five directors and a dozen other staff have decided to take a package and leave, in what some are calling the biggest loss of expertise in the authority’s history.
The authority’s former climate change director, Paul Marshall, is one of those who have taken a redundancy, saying budget cuts put an end to the agency’s climate change action program, and along with it his future with the authority.
“I think it’s a huge hit, and it’s a hit at a time when we need more expertise and more capacity to deal with these issues,” said Dr Marshall, a 14-year veteran of GBRMPA.
“Sometimes we had eight to 10 people working on climate change. Now you can’t point to one who is entirely focused on climate change.”
The Federal Government’s recent 2014 Outlook Report said “climate change remains the most serious threat to the Great Barrier Reef”, warning that “sea temperatures are on the rise and this trend is expected to continue, leading to an increased risk of mass coral bleaching [while] gradual ocean acidification will increasingly restrict coral growth and survival”.
Dr Marshall’s colleague, heritage conservation director Jon Day, also decided to move on after 21 years at GBRMPA.
“I was basically told that [my] position wasn’t going to continue,” said Mr Day, who in 2004 was awarded a Public Service Medal for developing and implementing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Representative Areas Program.
“It was suggested that I should consider one of the voluntary redundancies.”
Morale crashed after decision to allow Abbot Point dumping
Adam Smith is another who decided to accept a redundancy, ending a 15-year GBRMPA career which saw him rise to the position of director of environmental assessment and management.
“You often join an organisation for its leadership and its values, and you leave for similar reasons,” Dr Smith said.
“I had some robust discussions with some of my leaders and that was part of the factor in leaving.”
One of those robust discussions revolved around GBRMPA’s decision to allow the dumping of 3 million cubic metres of dredge spoil from Abbot Point into the marine park.
As environmental assessment director, Dr Smith was charged with dealing with the contentious coal terminal development’s impact on the reef.
“It was complicated on a number of levels,” he said.
“It wasn’t just environmental. It was social, political, economic. There wasn’t a clear plan, or if there was, it changed all the time.
“My advice to the delegate was that there were a number of risks. Some of those risks were extreme, some of them were high, some of the risks could be mitigated. But the general view was that there were better options.”
“There was a huge reduction in morale in the agency as a result of that decision,” Jon Day said.
“But I stress this isn’t the only decision that has upset some of the staff. They know what the agency was like in the past, they know how we’ve stood up for issues and fought them. Today we’re not having that same level of leadership.”
Chairman defends leadership, says authority in middle of ‘evolutionary change’
GBRMPA chairman Russell Reichelt has told the ABC some agency staff were disappointed with the Abbot Point decision.
“A third of the staff felt strongly that we were not making the right decision,” he said.
“A third probably thought ‘well it doesn’t really affect me, it’s happening over there’. And a third would think that the whole process of port development is distracting us from the real issues confronting the Barrier Reef ,which are climate change, water quality and other things.”
Dr Reichelt defended the restructure of GBRMPA, saying the agency still had “a very good team” despite the loss of five directors.
He also defended his own leadership of the authority.
“I do come with a lot of support from the staff and I feel confident that I can lead the agency in the right direction,” he said.
“What I do see is sometimes people are uncomfortable with evolutionary change.”
Authority’s independence being ‘systematically eroded’
But key industry figure Col McKenzie, the executive officer of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, has echoed the criticisms of the former directors, saying the authority is lacking strong leadership.
“I base that on the simple fact that the decision on sea dumping in the marine park, I believe, was in breach of its own act,” Mr McKenzie said.
“The members of my industry, at this point in time, see the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority as environmental vandals, not environmental protectors. It’s a disgrace to see those five directors go.”
Jon Day is worried about the pressure being placed on GBRMPA staff, saying those steering the agency are failing the organisation.
“I don’t believe they’re doing the job they need to do to save the Great Barrier Reef,” Mr Day said.
“There’s several hundred years of experience that has basically left the authority without, I think, effective succession planning.
“I want to stress there are good people still left in the agency. However, what they’ve been asked to do with less resources is, I think, almost an impossible task. We used to have a director just for climate change, another one just for water quality, another one just for fisheries. Today there is one director who’s responsible for all of those issues.”
“I think it’s about morale too,” former climate change director Paul Marshall said.
“It used to be an exciting place to work. There was always a buzz around the floors. And now people are just too busy to even look up and it’s actually getting quite grim internally.”
The ABC contacted other former office holders of GBRMPA about these issues.
“People inside the authority are disillusioned about the Abbot Point decision, because their advice was ignored,” a former director said.
“With the loss of these directors GBRMPA doesn’t have the expertise to fill the void. They’re irreplaceable.”
“Abbot Point highlights the agency’s rubber stamp approval process and how GBRMPA acted like an arm of the [Environment] department,” a former board member said. “There was no fight.”
“The situation at GBRMPA is looking pretty crook at the moment,” another former director said.
“There seems to be a systematic erosion of GBRMPA’s independence to carry out its statutory responsibilities as the manager for the marine park and the world heritage area.
“It would be tragic if this was allowed to crumble, not only for the Great Barrier Reef but for marine conservation around the globe.”