The Great Barrier to Australia’s Reputation

Ellen Van Beukering | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow

Image credit: The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey / Richard Vevers

Earlier this year, despite an evidence-based recommendation from UNESCO, the World Heritage Committee decided not to place the Great Barrier Reef on the List of World Heritage in Danger sites. The ‘in danger’ list brings an international focus to sites listed and helps states address the issues at hand through a collaborative approach. Despite the intended helpful nature of the list, many governments perceive the listing of a national site as a dishonour. It was this attitude that inspired Australia’s intense lobbying efforts against the recommendation, through which it persuaded states on the World Heritage Committee to give prevent the reef from being listed.


While the Government’s efforts were successful, it brings into question Australia’s relations with multilateral institutions and the power that Australia holds, and is willing to wield, in order to pursue its own goals.


How did Australia benefit?

Australia’s reputation in relation to climate change is not currently a positive one. Both domestically and internationally, the state is criticised for its inaction. Up until recently, Australia has failed to commit to net zero emissions by 2050, despite many of its major allies strongly encouraging such a move. Public opinion in Australia also leans firmly towards climate action, with 78 per cent of Australians supporting net zero by 2050 and 74 per cent of Australians saying the benefits of climate action outweigh the costs.

With the changing climate now widely acknowledged as the biggest threat faced by humanity, states that fail to take an appropriate response face global backlash. Australia is no exception.


As a result, Australian foreign policy carries the extra burden of conducting damage control. The state’s reputation is under attack, and everything needs to be done to limit the impact on Australia’s image. If the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest reef system and one of Australia’s biggest tourism attractions, was listed as ‘In Danger’ by the UN, it would become even more difficult for Australia to justify its current climate policy. The reef would become the first World Heritage site to be listed ‘in danger’ as a direct result of the impacts of climate change—not a first any state wishes to be remembered for. Just as Brazil is remembered for failing to prevent the immense fires that ripped through the Amazon in 2019, Australia would be remembered for failing to protect the world’s most iconic reef. In the eyes of the international community, this would be a direct reflection of the inadequate action being taken by Australia to prevent climate change and environmental degradation.


By preventing the listing of the Great Barrier Reef as ‘in danger’, Australia managed to salvage what little was left of its reputation when it comes to climate change.


Was it worth it?

Traditionally, Australia has been a strong advocate for the rules-based global order; maintaining it in its current form is arguably one of Australia’s key national interests. To enable and protect Australia’s security, health, and prosperity, we rely on these global arrangements and the cooperation and compliance of other states to international norms and international law. UNESCO, specifically, is relied on to promote world peace and security through cooperation in education, the sciences, and culture.


While cooperation cannot always be guaranteed, most of the world’s states adhere to international law, and Australia tends to be one of them. However, when it comes to issues such as Indigenous wellbeing and reconciliation or the treatment of asylum seekers, the state is not always as compliant as it claims. The same can be said for climate change policies and Australia’s obligations to work towards a safe, sustainable, and healthy environment.


International agreements, laws, and norms are effective because states can rely on them. When a norm-abiding state such as Australia goes out of its way to reverse a scientifically supported ruling, it cements the idea that states will only comply with the rules-based order if it benefits them.


Australia’s intense lobbying efforts regarding the Reef have not gone unnoticed. The forced early leak of the Australian Institute of Marine Science’s annual report on the wellbeing of the reef was deemed to be “inappropriate” political interference, and environmental groups have argued that the outcome of the committee was a victory for cynical lobbying.


David Ritter, Greenpeace Australia Pacific chief executive, said “the Australian government promised the world it would do its utmost to protect the reef - instead it has done its utmost to hide the truth”.


Domestic polls show that even the Australian population doesn’t agree with the outcome. Seven out of ten Australians support the UNESCO recommendation to list the Great Barrier Reef as ‘in danger’, a trend which doesn’t change significantly when voting intentions of respondents were assessed. The majority of Australians are in favour of the world hearing the truth about the Great Barrier Reef.


In reality, the Australian government has merely succeeded in postponing the decision by a year, as the decision to omit the Great Barrier Reef from listing was made with a clause to review the ruling in 12 months’ time. In this limited time frame, it is unlikely that the reef will see a significant improvement, and it is also unlikely that major progress will be made in climate policy. Where Australia has succeeded, however, is in challenging its own statements about the importance of multilateral institutions and the global rules-based order. The state’s reputation may be temporarily spared, but Australia has now shown that it can and will wield power against institutions to better pursue its own interests.


Ellen Van Beukering is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.