Saving the reef by throwing money at it: will it work?

You can tell elections are around the corner when governments start announcing nice, round-number plans to save this and that. This time it is the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), with the Commonwealth Government just announcing a $500 million program to tackle several problems that threaten the wellbeing of the reef (I note the really awkward reference to driving and protecting jobs in the Government’s announcement. It seems like a really cheap attempt to stamp ‘jobs’ over pretty much anything, even if it is not relevant at all).
Most people would agree that this is a worthy initiative. Knowing this full well, the government has just made the announcement without providing much detail on how the pledged funds are going to be spent. From government’s perspective, the point is to play the tune that the electorate would like to hear, and not to worry about the details. However, when it comes to complex and wicked problems, such as the health of the GBR, all the devil is in the detail.
We have seen time and time-again governments committing huge amounts of funding to rectify problems with high electoral salience, only to find out that all those money spent were to very little avail. A good example is the Murray Darling Basin (MDB): some $25 billion dollars were committed and spent on various programs to improve environmental conditions in the basin over the period 1997-2009 (Lee and Ancev, 2009) with very little actual effects. Indeed, even today environmental problems in the basin are rife.
I can see nothing in the government announcement on the GBR that would suggest that this time it’s going to be different. Funding is committed to broad areas, and typically to areas that will keep various stakeholders quiet for some time. For example, sugar cane farmers who have been repeatedly linked to the poor water quality in the reef due to excess use of fertilisers that ends up running off into the reef, are set to gain some $200 million under the program. This will effectively amount to subsiding cane farmers in their efforts to reduce nutrient runoff. I am not a big fun of subsidies, not in this nor in other cases, as we know that they create serious perverse effects, as well as negative fiscal implications. The evidence from the MDB is that subsiding irrigators to reduce their water use did not work very well. There is nothing to suggest that subsidies will work in the case of the GBR. In addition, I am particularly averse to subsiding production of sugar, as it has huge negative effects not only on environmental health, but also on human health.
Taking initiative on improving the state of the GBR is a worthy cause. Of course it is very important, and of course it requires funding. I just wish that politicians can resist opportunities for quick positive publicity by committing large sums of public money to programs that are not well thought through. We could be doing so much better with that kind of money! We could be really saving the reef, rather than just posing and appealing to popular views and to special interests!

Author: Tiho Ancev

Tiho Ancev is a Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics in the School of Economics, University of Sydney. His main research areas are agricultural, environmental, natural resource and energy economics. Tiho’s main contributions have been in water economics and policy, economics of energy, economics of air pollution and climate change policies, and economics of precision agriculture and agricultural input use. He has published widely on these topics in top international peer reviewed journals. Tiho has led and contributed to national and international research projects in these research areas. He is currently the Managing Editor-in-Chief of the Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics.