Mermaid in the Mail

The comment period is open for ten days. The public, and its affiliated institutions, are invited to hold forth on each project’s potential impact on Australia’s matters of national environmental significance, as legally defined in federal law through the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the bible of Australian environmental law.

We, the bureaucrats at the Federal Department of the Environment, had received a ‘referral’, the legislated terminology for a development project proposal. This project would require dredging an area of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the world’s largest coral reef.

Now the public, meaning anyone closely monitoring our website, had ten days in which to respond.

Submissions were pouring in: form and form-esque letters instigated by local environmental NGOs; scientifically articulated concerns from BiNGOs, MaNGOS (big international and marine NGOs, respectively) and academics; and the usual smattering of passionately incoherent pleas from individuals of little expertise but great desire to participate. The latter are dismissed, out of hand. Nothing to see here.

We also received a larger than usual package, which contained a gaudy A3 painting of a paradisiacal bay, in thick brushstrokes of primary colours. Mermaids, people and large blobby sea creatures cavorted with gay abandon, amongst rainbows and a cloud-free sky.

It was, I think, accompanied by a handwritten letter in the round script of a child’s hand, pleading with us not to destroy a cherished place.

My colleagues and I joked about what to do with it: submissions can be posted on the public website, part of ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’. Someone wondered if mermaids could be listed under our endangered species act, thereby offering the site protection from the developers. Another speculated whether the painting could be framed, in order to liven up our tearoom’s blank walls. In the end, it was probably filed, along with paper copies of all the other submissions.

If you cannot speak to the government in the right words, ordered in the right way, your voice is muted, your sentiments discarded. The painting will sit in the reject pile, along with all other submissions that fail to translate emotion and lived experience to acceptably objective terms.  Only those who carefully mirror the phrases enshrined in acts of parliament can navigate the gauntlet, and be counted as relevant.

As Rebecca Solnit has commented, moments like these are when ‘forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that’s eaten a cow’  . The painting is unintelligible to our decision-making system; its visual language undecipherable by the regulations.

As a careful minder and advocate of the public service code of conduct, yet a private environmentalist, I always longed for the skill of public intellectuals like Neil Gunningham and Chris McGrath. Submissions from them could turn our legislation’s words back on us, sharpened and honed to perfection. Their words were brandished in ways that can be cut and paste, with slight modifications, into a ministerial, report or policy brief, thereby making it into the internal conversation.

It is the painting, however, that still shines bright in my memory.

A fair approximation of the painting (from
A fair approximation of the painting (from



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