The Sea Change Comes to Canberra: An address by Tim Winton to Parliamentarians in the Mural Hall, Parliament House, Canberra, 9 May, 2012
Think of your happiest moments, your most vivid memories. A holiday. Summer. It’s always summer, isn’t it? Mum and Dad. Maybe a caravan, a tent, a beach shack. Maybe a fire on the beach, a kero tin full of crabs or prawns. Sunburn against the sheets. That boy or girl in the next tent you’re trying to crack onto. The games of beach cricket. I’m sure you all have variations on these sorts of memories.
In mine I’m always standing on a beach, beside an estuary, on a jetty. Holding a fishing rod. Or a net, a mask and snorkel. Hunting and gathering is in my blood. As a boy I loved the freedom, the direct engagement with the physical world, the feeling of competence. Now, I didn’t know it at the time but I’d inherited two great treasures: a cultural tradition
Flick back through your own happy snaps: there you are in your Speedos, your boardies, your frill-bottomed one-piece, your teeny keeni. So young. So
Australians are islanders. Coastal people. Almost all of us live on the edge of the world’s biggest island. On the veranda of the continent. Just as we once lived on the verandas of our houses, half in and half out. Remember the sleepout, the slapping flywire door? This is what we tap into when we go on holiday now. The shack, the boat, the 4x4. That yearning is deeply embedded. We still want to engage with our physical surroundings. And the thing is we
I’ve been writing about coastal folkways for thirty years. It’s literally at the core of who I am. I still go out in a dinghy and pull my craypots at dawn. I have to be close to the water, smell it. A day when I haven’t surfed or swum or wet a line feels like a wasted day. And I’m not unique in this regard. In hundreds of offices, classrooms and boardrooms today, there were thousands like me wishing they were at the beach. Saving to get there.
I’m not a complicated bloke. Doesn’t take much to make me happy. Sitting in the tinny with the old man catching a feed of herring. Snorkelling with the missus. Taking our granddaughter for a dip. That’s my idea of happiness. But even I tend to take this stuff for granted. A little coastal memoir of mine was recently published in Europe. The reviews were very gratifying. But I was taken aback by the tone of wistfulness, of envy in these reviews. All I was doing was recounting the bog-ordinary working class beach life I grew up with. But for so many Brits and Europeans this is an impossible, exotic fantasy.
It’s our birthright. Given to us, not made by us. We need to remember that. Celebrate it, sure. But also assign it proper value. Safeguard it. By custom. With awareness. And by legislation.
During my own lifetime the world’s oceans have suffered a terrible decline. I’ve read about it. And I’ve seen it up close and ugly. When I lived in Greece I saw the results of oil spills, dynamite fishing, lax regulation. I’ve surfed in raw sewage in Indonesia and putrid medical waste in Brazil. And I’ve wondered: am I swimming in the future? Will my grandkids inherit a sea of shit and plastic? The global trends aren’t great. Collapsing fisheries, dying corals, gyres of plastic the size of entire countries, catastrophic oil spills that ruin the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of fishing families and poison the food chain for decades.
Okay, I tell myself. All this is happening abroad, in someone else’s ocean. But we’re not immune. Not after the Montara spill. Not when a recent spike in sea temperature caused a mass kill of abalone on the mid-west coast and shut down the fishery until further notice. Not when the nation’s iconic barrier reef has to be compromised for the sake of coal ports.
Many of my neighbours are commercial fishermen. Lots of my friends are marine scientists. They don’t always agree with each other, though they’re all passionate about Australia’s seas and want to do what they can keep them healthy. But none of them is telling me that things are getting better and better here at home.
I’m not pushing an alarmist line here. I don’t think we’ll pass on a dead ocean. I can’t think that. There are people in this room tonight who have worked hard as MPs, advisors, scientists and advocates to make sure this doesn’t happen. We have comparatively decent fisheries management and many good fishing operators. Still, consumption only goes up and the resource doesn’t get any bigger. We all know we’re pushing the ocean too hard. And the pressure to relegate marine protection - to defer it - that pressure is intense. And the balance is not in the ocean’s favour. Taking a loss has become business as usual. Where else, in what other field, would mediocre outcomes be so acceptable?
We have to stop spending beyond our means. Robbing Peter to pay Paul. Otherwise we’ll be the generation - the richest, most mobile and well-educated generation in Australia’s history - that passes on a dud inheritance, and leaves the estate in arrears. Bequeathing a loss to a family, a community, a nation, that’s a despicable thing to do. ‘Kids, all this shit and plastic is yours. Don’t spend it all at once.’
The great news is we haven’t blown it yet. We still have incredible assets to reserve and build upon: immense underwater canyons and sea mounts, fringing reefs, barrier reefs. Remote archipelagos teeming with birds and turtles. Precious inshore habitats, breeding grounds. Intricate coral atolls that are thrumming engines of oceanic life. These miracles of nature are our good and great fortune. They aren’t just sources of protein. They’re also food for thought, fields of scientific discovery. They are reservoirs of life inextricably entwined with our own. Because the health of the sea determines our human future. Yes, we
This isn’t the fever-dream of some dreadlocked vegan on the fringes of Australian society. (And my apologies to all the hirsute and enlightened here tonight.) What I’m saying here is mainstream. This is white-bread thinking. The overwhelming and uncontroversial scientific consensus is that in order to maintain or regain their health our oceans need the balance tipped back firmly in their favour. How? By more sober management, more restraint, creating savings in the form of sanctuaries.
Commonwealth waters are public assets. The family silver. Silver that moves, breathes, swims. If you’ve ever swum in a school of trevally or barracuda or anchovies, you’ll know what I mean; it’s like being Scrooge McDuck rolling around in the vault. These riches are
have compromised great ecosystems already. We’ve made mistakes. And we’ve improved our game. But there’s a gap between our aspirations and our achievements when it comes to stewardship. We must do better. We will do better. If we act now. entrusted to government by the people. That trust, gravity of the task, has come into sharp focus in recent years. And in the past decade, in a groundswell of public consciousness that I simply didn’t see coming, citizens have begun to expect a new level of accountability in marine stewardship. Why the sea? Well, because as much as they love the bush, Australians spend more time on the water. And they travel abroad – especially to places where they swim and surf and fish. Like me, I guess, they’ve come to see what we stand to lose. What the worst future looks and feels and tastes and smells like. So they value their marine inheritance much more consciously and vividly than you may realize. They expect the managers of their marine birthright to act prudently, conservatively. Which means they expect proper fisheries management. They want to know there are genuine limits to the incursions of oil and gas, that a marine system is at least as important as a coal-mine, or a port. Most importantly they expect government to hold significant marine assets in reserve by way of parks and sanctuaries. Where people can visit but not extract anything.
There’s a precedent for this, one that makes sense to ordinary people. Generations ago, when our nation was far less prosperous, far less educated, far less certain of its place in the world, our forebears set aside habitats and ecosystems on land in the form of national parks and reserves. Pretty brave at the time. This was their gift to the future. The kind of sacrifice Australians instinctively understand and celebrate. You and I inherited the fruit of that enlightened impulse. We enjoy the work and the courage of those Australian thinkers and legislators who came before. And now, from the fringes of our cities, from the very hearts of our cities in some instances, right out to the interior, there are wild places to which we can take our children, where we study, or simple stare in awe - because someone fifty, sixty, seventy years ago was visionary enough, decent enough, and courageous enough to make it happen, to reserve a share of the family silver for us. You and I are connected to those visionaries by that patriotic impulse, that love of country, that love of family.
So now in 2012 we’re on the cusp of achieving something like that in the sea. A system of marine parks for the nation. A network of representative ecosystems reserved for conservation purposes. It’s the outcome of a process that’s not owned by any narrow political interest. It’s taken years of study and consultation, been overseen and supported by governments both Liberal and Labor. It has the potential – if we hold our nerve and follow through - to be one of the great moments of marine stewardship. Of environmental responsibility. But also one of the great moments of Australian patriotism when our belief in the common good shines through, when we show our higher selves
This is not a fringe thing. And neither should it be contentious, although I know there have been attempts to make it so, to make something unifying into something divisive. But the principle of marine parks has taken hold. You know that hen more than 100,000 citizens make submissions in support of them, urging members of parliament to stay the course and reserve these parks, that something’s going on. 100,000 people: that’s a capacity crowd at the MCG on Grand Final Day. Each of these people has friends and family that they’re talking to about this. People in this room know better than me what the multiplier effects are there. So think about that.
In the past fifteen years something really has stirred in the hearts of Australians when it comes to the seas. I know this because I was drawn into its undertow and I have felt the strength and constancy of the groundswell as it’s grown. A decade ago, 15,000 citizens encircled the CBD of the city of Fremantle to spare a coral reef most Australians had never heard of, and Ningaloo is now on the World Heritage list. Since then support for marine parks has only grown. It’s geographically widespread, spans all age groups, and is non-partisan. And if you hadn’t noticed it’s probably because it is so mainstream. Folks who look like you. There’s no screaming, no violence, no alienating weirdness. No facile media moment to frighten you and catch your attention. Because it’s so positive, so charged with hope. It’s people who are for something. And at a time when many environmental issues are struggling to get any traction with ordinary mums and dads, this thing is big. It’s caught people’s imaginations and it’s stuck
The people asking for marine parks understand this for what it is: goo.d housekeeping, prudent management, a future for their kids. And I think legislators ignore this tidal change at their peril.
There’s a bumper sticker I’ve been seeing on the freeway a lot lately.
to our selves and to those unborn. for something. And at a time when many environmental issues are struggling to get any traction with ordinary mums and dads, this thing is big. It’s caught people’s imaginations and it’s stuck. I FISH AND I SUPPORT MARINE SANCTUARIES . I started seeing it on Kombis first, beaten up stationwagons, the usual suspects. The mung beans as my neighbours rather unkindly call them. About eight months ago they started showing up on people-movers. Then Beemers, and then Camrys.
People have waited patiently and politely for this process to reach its conclusion and now they expect a real outcome.
This is not a conspiracy to deprive miners of resources. Neither is it a war on fishing. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here, full stop. It’s an effort to achieve a fairer balance. This will not solve all our fisheries dilemmas. It’s about reserving ecosystems not just fish.
This room is filled with people who came to this place with high ideals, to make a difference, to seek the common good, with thoughts of leaving a noble legacy for the future. Something your peers and your families will be proud of. Something that will give you deep satisfaction after you leave this place. So while you’re eating Anna Gare’s lovely sustainable seafood and it’s sparking all those memories you associate with water and sun and family, think about that next holiday or the long weekend down the coast, or even the retirement you may be planning. After all these freezing Canberra mornings, all those days spent indoors feeling like a mushroom in the dark. You can see yourself, can’t you: on a beach, in a tinny, on a jetty. With your friends, your kids, or maybe the grandkids. Claiming that bit of Australian coastal lifestyle that is your birthright.
So, here’s my question. What will you have done this year to secure that birthright – for the common good?
Because now that this moment is upon us, people you love and people you don’t know - some of them not even born yet – they are depending on you to get this right: to follow through, to honour the sacrifices of the past and to set an example for the future.
So this is a genuine legacy moment. Supporting the introduction of a proper system of marine parks may well be the most significant legislative gift you will make to this nation. There’s no point being half-arsed about it, and going soft in the face of short term vested interests. If your predecessors had done that last century we wouldn’t have national parks on land. They held their nerve and took the long view. Let’s do it right while we can.
When your grandkids ask you what you did as a member of parliament some of them, I’ll admit,
People want a budget surplus that makes sense. In biological terms, in heritage terms, in cultural terms, in terms of future-proofing and risk-management. So the time has come for the Commonwealth to reserve a solid portfolio of marine parks. Nothing radical in that -just good housekeeping.
Then on work trucks, tradies’ utes, delivery vans. That’s when you know something has left the fringes and gone mainstream. will be entranced by your stories of tax reform. Stands to reason. They’ll love the story about that parliamentary committee, how you made the Member for East Bumcrack look like the tosser he undoubtedly was. But think of the day when you help your granddaughter reel in her first flathead, the day you take your nephew to the aquarium, the morning you take your grandkids snorkelling in a marine sanctuary and their eyes are out on sticks. There’s always that quiet moment you get on the way home. After they’ve seen that turtle, those dolphins, the rockpool full of life. That’ll be when you let it slip. Offhand. You know, real casual, about what you did when you were in parliament. You helped save Australia’s oceans. You’re one of people who made the marine parks. And you did it for them. Tax reform might do it. Fair enough. But to get that rare moment when a little kid looks up at you with a flicker of interest, even a moment of admiration. My money’s on the dolphins and the marine parks. Just a thought.