A Plea for the Future






Tim Winton





I don't know about you, but I was under the impression that the eighties were over. Remember when greed was good, when people seemed to say go for it and bugger the consequences? Remember when government was in business and business was in government? Lots of big talk, big shots, big deals. It seemed to be an era without consequences. And then it all disappeared up its own bellybutton and nobody could quite remember anything. A remarkable onset of amnesia. Well, I remember some of it.

What sticks in my mind is the palm tree and the white shoe. As a part of all that conspicuous consumption there was a sudden rash of resorts. The bigger, the bolder, the brasher, the better. They were like trophies to the entrepreneurial ego. It seemed that no state, no piece of coastline had any dignity until it had earned its own white shoe resort. Preferably with casino. Beautiful one day. Queensland the next.

Now, you've seen the proposal for the resort at Coral Bay. The plans, the promises. Don't you get just a twinge of déja vu? Note the artist's impression of a chlorinated tropical paradise, circa 1987? Look familiar? Everyone wearing smart casual, of course. No thongs, there. No dinghy. No daggy tent or camper trailer thanks very much. Rugged wilderness is all very well here as long as it's a distant backdrop over the wine waiter's shoulder.

A resort to cater for 2500 new guests. Built around a huge marina for hundreds of new and bigger boats. But wait, there's more. A marina with an artificial coral reef in it for tourists to snorkel on. I kid you not. Come west and see our inland reef paddle pool! This is what the developer is trying to characterise as eco-tourism in a sensitive iconic wilderness environment.

Now spare a thought for the government This is something they've inherited and they're in a bit of a fix. The reason this resort idea looks like yesterday's idea is simply that it is. It's been around that long.

The previous government learnt some hard lessons about how passionate Western Australians are about coastal development when the Leighton Shores development was rejected by a vast outpouring of public outrage. Later, our current government was elected on a surge of support for the environment. Citizens across the board made it plain that old growth forests were our family silver. That enough was enough. The Labor party listened and saw it, too. They won because of it. A great moment for the environment and for ordinary people. Our new premier, a smart and decent man, just recently announced a historic new sustainability policy. It seems as though he and his colleagues have heard the call of the future. They promise something new, something responsible, something exciting. And then, suddenly, here they are confronted by this old clunker from the past. I mean, look at the concept: it's high impact, with big engineering, and major physical disturbance, a real old-time imposition on the landscape. You don't have to be wearing a vest woven from fibres hand gathered from free ranging beasts and dyed in your own urine to find that concept in that kind of wilderness a bit much. You don't need a Nobel Prize to see how dated it is. Even for our elected betters its gotta feel wrong. I believe it reflects old values that we've all moved on from in our own communities and local councils - even in our governments. We're a bit smarter than that, more likely to blend with nature, rather than try to improve on it and dominate it. Tourists want unique experiences. Not the same stale, franchised package they can get in Florida or Cairns. Now, we have a government committed to innovation and sustainability and here's this old Club Med dinosaur on its doorstep. How awkward is that for them when they've spent so long living down the bad old days? To be fair, though, remember that this deal is not of their making. Yet if they don't give the resort the go ahead, the developer has said they will consider legal action against the state. They're in a pickle. Which means all of us are in a pickle.

I'm here to ask you to help. Help us give our leaders the courage to say no to this thing. If the Gallop government gives this resort the green light then we'll believe that they've caved in to the past, that they are still captives to old thinking, old procedures and agreements. All those ancient entanglements. Against their own policy. Maybe even their own consciences. Just because they inherited a political and administrative tangle, it shouldn't inevitably follow that they bequeath an environmental disaster. This government needs the guts to resist the call of the past, and govern for the future. It needs the community to remind it of its own principles. As a citizen who cares passionately that's your job. Tell them!

Remind them that you don't ensure a sustainable future for the world's longest fringing coral reef by saying yes to five years of water adversely impacted by construction. Nor by allowing a massive increase of boat traffic in a zone where humpbacks and turtles and dugongs and manta rays congregate. You don't let someone build a resort on the nesting beach of endangered turtles. You don't risk the very wilderness people come so far to experience.

None of us made Ningaloo Reef. We inherited it. The family silver, our precious heirloom. Our common asset. And we have a sacred responsibility to hand it on intact. To take all precautions to ensure its security. The precautionary principle. What on earth would induce us to risk something so valuable? It's hard enough entrusting it to our public officials who are at least somehow accountable, so why the hell would we hand it over to a bunch of businessmen? (Don't worry mate. We'll see you right. Yeah, no worries.) Why would we rob our own descendants unless we were greedy or gullible? Or asleep!

The developer says we're all being a bit emotional. Well, hell we have a right to be. It doesn't mean we're stupid or irrational. After you read the material and consult a few scientists and engineers you see the family heirlooms might start looking pretty shaky. Now that makes it personal. For the developer, it's just business. As he says, his final responsibility is to his shareholders. Well that's you and me out in the cold, isn't it?

I take it personally because I love the place. Only a few weeks ago I saw turtles laying and hatching on that beach. Swam with huge manta rays right in the path of the planned breakwater and the proposed dredging. Dived on porite corals where the water will become opaque and no coral will grow. Once you've seen a living, breathing place, a vivid ecosystem, it's hard to write it off as mere collateral damage. When you see your natural heritage as a precious heirloom it's too close to home.

There are tens of thousands of people for whom this is already way too close to home. More than a thousand of you in this room. People who are not asleep. People who are taking this threat personally. We're just ordinary citizens who want to get something right for once. It's just bare-arsed sandgroper luck that we have the world's most impressive fringing coral reef in our backyard. The envy of the world. Instead of just being passive heirs, why not be scrupulous stewards of what we have? How better to celebrate our good fortune than by being brilliant custodians? Be proud of what we've done and not just what we had fall in our lap. Why not strive for world's best practice in the sustainable management of such a unique area? Something new, something creative, something a little lighter in the loafers. Something that smells like the future and not the past. Something worthy of the reef, that protects our inheritance above all other considerations.
I think the word is getting out. This campaign is expanding exponentially. There are scores of people working on this day and night for nothing. They need input, advice, moral support, resources. Please help them if you can. Call the numbers on your information sheet. Write a blizzard of letters. Be part of something you'll be proud of.

Wouldn't it be great to think at this low point in our nation's history, when people despair at the lies and evasions of public officials, that the community might coax our state government to act on principle? To look to its better nature. To hold its nerve and not just tramp down the well worn path to the land of the great cockup. Because we've been there before, we've endured yesterday's men and yesterday's ethics. View yourself as a little memory aid. Remind the government of its own promises of what it stands for, of what its moral obligations are. Give them the information, the groundswell, the confidence to knock this thing on the head once and for all and act for the common good. That is, for the real shareholders. The people. Who deserve better. Who are awake and likely to take this all very, very personally.
So spread the word. Think of our future. Save the reef.

Tim Winton
Fremantle Town Hall, 9/4/02






Conservation Council of WAAustralian Wildlife ConsevancyThe Wilderness SocietyAustralian Marine Conservation Society

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