LONG before Prime Minister Tony Abbott left Canberra for Hamilton Island on Saturday, rumours of his planned visit to the Whitsundays had reached the mainland.
About 20 local residents who have fought against the expansion of Abbot Point and dumping of dredge spoil in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef boarded a ferry in the hopes of making their feelings known to Australia’s top politician.
Security around the Prime Minister’s arrival was expectedly tight and the band of reef campaigners were by no means assured of catching anything more than a glimpse.
As luck would have it, a few of them made their way to the bar on One Tree Hill, just over the crest from where Mr Abbott launched the eagerly anticipated Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan.
After his press conference Mr Abbott was quickly whisked away to the bar, where locals Hayley Sestokas and Craig Devlin took full advantage of this twist of fate.
Mr Devlin handed his mobile phone to Dawson MP George Christensen, who captured the moment when Ms Sestokas turned to his boss and said, “Mr Abbott, we can’t have a coal industry and a healthy reef. Which do you choose?”.
“His response was all very mumbled,” she said, “confirming that ‘yes we can’ and that’s why he was here.”
Local campaigner for the Australian Marine Conservation Society, Cherry Muddle, said she like the others had travelled to the island to show Mr Abbott the reef was “priceless”.
“But the funding commitments don’t reflect this… the reef’s a national treasure that generates billions, but without investing billions to help tackle long term threats like climate change, the reef’s future remains uncertain,” she said.
Former Whitsunday Greens candidate Tony Fontes, who was also among the group, agreed the Reef 2050 Plan’s ban on capital dredge spoil dumping was a win not just for the locals but the people of Australia and the world.
“But there are still some weaknesses and I guess the two big ones are, one although there is some new money, we need closer to $1 billion over the next five years to truly make this plan work and two, there’s a lack of serious action on climate change, which is the most serious threat to the future health of the reef.
“It’s great to have a plan but I think it’s more of a band aid at the moment,” he said.