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Hot off the press: Govt pushed scientists to rush reef report, leak it to News Corp

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A report by the Australian Institute of Marine Science was brought forward, and leaked to News Corp papers, amid debate over the future of the Great Barrier Reef.

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The ABC has used documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws to show the government directed AIMS to rush the release of a major scientific report and help leak aspects to The Australian and The Courier-Mail.

The report noted the reef was experiencing a “rare window” of recovery but suggested it would be short-lived. Nonetheless, News Corp opted for headlines including ‘Historic signs of Great Barrier Reef regrowth’ and ‘Reports of the death of the Great Barrier Reef may have been exaggerated’.

The intervention helped Environment Minister Sussan Ley, who soon departed on a political rescue mission overseas, lobby countries to stop the Great Barrier Reef being declared a World Heritage Site in danger. According to the ABC, diplomats also shared a draft summary of the report with foreign delegations before it was complete or released to Australians.

The documents show the government pressure extended to asking AIMS to also “leak” a graphic for use in the reporting. AIMS research program director Dr Britta Schaffelke appeared to push back, at one point asking “are you sure this is what we want?”

Schaffelke and another AIMS leader, Dr Richard Brinkman, are due to give evidence to a Queensland parliamentary inquiry on Friday about the state of the reef and what it needs to survive.

While UNESCO still has Australia on notice over the reef listing, and AIMS has concerns, the documents raise questions over the institute’s independence and the pressure it has been put under by the government.

Ley has blamed climate change politics for undermining Australia’s best-known natural asset and tourism drawcard.

AIMS did not make a written submission to the committee, which is looking at a cross-bench bid to lift some of the restrictions on primary industries around the Great Barrier Reef, but is expected to argue the science backs continued vigilance.

In parliament today, after a question on climate change from the Greens, Resources Minister Scott Stewart said coal exports would continue for years to come, providing jobs and royalty revenue for public infrastructure.

While another minister has responsibility for the environment, Stewart said coal mines would only be supported if they made sense economically, environmentally and socially.

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