Student and campaigner Hillary Montague wants the Great Barrier Reef to have a voice, and her startling short film on the subject will be shown at Environmental Film Festival Australia in Melbourne between 11-19 October.
Hillary Montague is bound to a chair and covered in muck. Her hands are tied; her mouth is taped shut. A faceless man in a suit is pouring all manner of trash and gunk over her head.
It’s a bizarre, startling assault. But far from being some kind fetishist stunt, the 25-year-old is in fact playing a role; the role of the Great Barrier Reef. See, Hillary isn’t happy with the way the Reef is being treated, so she made this film clip (she’s writing a thesis on why the Reef should be granted legal personality, too) in an attempt to spur Australians into action.
The urgent short film, tentatively titled Why the Reef Needs a Voice, is one of many that willbe shownat the Environmental Film Festival Australia in Melbourne this month. For Hillary, whose passion for climate justice was spurred during a stint working at Oaktree before being galvanised during a 14-month trip to areas most affected by climate change – Kiribati, Bangladesh and India, among others – enough is enough.
With the Reef invariably at risk of extreme weather, coral disease, poor water quality and the infamous Adani Carmichael coal mine – half of the Reef has been bleached to death since 2016 – Hillary believes the time has come for the Reef to have a voice of its own.
Bank Australia: Why was making a film the right method of communication for getting this message out there?
Hillary Montague: I feel like we’re very much at the point where we really need to start talking about drastic legal changes in order to have a hope of preserving the Reef. But the conversation of granting it legal personality is still very much at the academic level. It’s difficult to communicate to the everyday person, and I felt that instead of putting out more text – which I’ll be doing with my thesis – it would be good to have some kind of emotional trigger.
What are you hoping people will take away from the film?
We don't accept that kind of treatment to a human; so why do we accept that treatment to the Earth, or to any kind of ecosystem which is very much – in its own right – a living thing? That was the point I was trying to get across.
Our current legal system is not prepared for handling the situation and is not in any way, shape, or form, capable of protecting the Reef from our collective behaviour. We need a dramatic response to a dramatic situation.
Talk us through the idea of ‘rights of nature’ – what does it entail?
One thing about legal personhood to remember is that it’s not just for humans. Right now, every corporation, most charitable organisations and religious organisations all have legal personality. This means they can go to court and sue on their own behalf; they can claim for injuries sustained just like a person would.
Currently, if anyone wants to bring any kind of litigation on behalf of the Reef, it’s virtually impossible. Whenever it’s been successful, the government response has usually been to just change legislation which could essentially override whatever the court ruled.
By granting the Reef legal personality, it means the Reef itself can bring a case to the courts, via a body of guardians, which I believe should be Indigenous groups who are the Traditional Owners and have a spiritual and cultural connection to the Reef. It’s the same rights of nature model that New Zealand has.
What’s so exciting about it is that, when you think about all the energy that’s gone into Stop Adani, if the Reef had legal personality, it could sue the government over Adani – since it would cause the Reef personal harm – and Adani could be stopped.
How is granting the Reef legal personality better or different than the Reef’s current status as a protected area and national park?
In both of those situations, the government is in charge of ensuring that the Reef is not harmed. So when the government is the perpetrator of harm, as well as the body that’s supposed to be protecting the Reef from harm, there’s clearly a massive conflict of interest.
Their current authority, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, is a government body and has approved things like dredging, which is clearly no way in the Reef’s best interest. But they approved it anyway.
That tells us that something isn’t working, and that power should be taken out of government hands and given to an objective, independent body. By granting legal personality, the guardians’ only duty is to act in the best interest of the Reef and to prevent it from harm. That is their legal prerogative.
Do we still have a good chance of saving the Reef?
It's a very dire situation, but we can turn it around. There are a lot of things we can do, now, that would have a serious impact in terms of protecting the Reef. We're at now the point that we really need to start thinking about those, because what happens to it is our choice. It's all our choice; we're not helpless here. It’s just a matter of acting on it.
There’s a petition, a campaign that’s being run to grant legal personality and rights to the Reef. Google ‘rights of the Reef’, and you’ll find it. If you want to do something on top of signing the petition, write a handwritten letter to your federal member of parliament, and ask them to seriously consider granting legal personality to the Great Barrier Reef. Outline why you care, and why it’s a personal issue for you.