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This week, the Senate approved a Coalition-backed inquiry into the “evidence-based regulation” of farm run-off along the Great Barrier Reef.

While the terms of reference seem benign enough, the inquiry appears to be an attack on the Queensland state government’s new laws extending run-off regulations along the Great Barrier Reef.

Federal LNP Senator Susan McDonald tells Crikey that unpacking the evidence base is “about transparency and consultation for the most impacted stakeholders”, such as farmers, who feel “their efforts to improve land use have been dismissed as the Queensland Labor Government pursues a clear anti-farming agenda”.

But is there a legitimate reason to question the science underpinning these laws, or is this another franking credit hack job, with scientists simply collateral in a culture war?

What exactly is under fire?

The reef is in crisis. Half its coral has been bleached and new coral has declined 89% since 2016. But after climate change, the biggest source of the damage is water run-off. According to federal government body the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), increased sediment loads in the water smother coral, reduce light availability and favour growth of harmful macroalgae. Queensland’s package, passed overnight, extends run-off regulations to catchment areas and industries that were not previously covered.

Queensland’s minister for environment and the Great Barrier Reef, Leeanne Enoch, tells Crikey that the legislation follows over two years of stakeholder consultations and has undergone a number of subsequent changes, the latest of which were made this week.

“The entire grazing minimum standard in the legislation was rewritten after consultation with AgForce and graziers, to ensure it applies only to land in poor condition,” Enoch said.

Enoch also pointed to the large body of research undertaken at both a state and federal level which emphasised the need for new regulations. While many of these reports are independent, and compiled by the government’s own scientists, they have been consistently undermined and challenged by the Coalition.

The Coalition v reef scientists

Last month, Environment Minister Sussan Ley went on a tour of the reef and decided it wasn’t dead. Ley’s conclusions were well-received in the media, getting a glowing write-up in The Australian. Two weeks later, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, a government organisation, released its outlook report, which downgraded the reef’s long-term outlook from “poor” in 2014, to “very poor” in 2019. In response, Ley wrote an opinion piece in the Ninefax papers where she declared “the reef is not dead”, making no mention of the report’s downgraded prognosis.

That same day, the government released the Reef Water Quality Report Card, which concluded that industries around the reef were falling well short of best practice targets. That report, produced by the Commonwealth and Queensland governments, had been available weeks earlier, but was released the same day as the outlook, a tactic reminiscent of the way emissions data is dropped.

But the recent release of the report card also makes the proposed Senate inquiry seem even more irrelevant, and adds greater weight to the criticism that it is purely political.

Questioned on why the evidence base needs an inquiry, McDonald says farmers “feel the new regulations are based too much on modelling rather than tried and tested data”.

“One example [of an uncovered cause] is assessing the amount of erosion caused by the damage feral pigs do to creek and river banks.”

Unsurprisingly, the inquiry has drawn ample criticism. Conservationists have labelled it a politically-motivated attack on Queensland’s Labor government, and an opportunity to give a platform to Peter Ridd, a climate change denier whose views on the reef are at odds with scientific consensus and who helped farmers’ groups lobby the Coalition to hold the inquiry in the first place.

Professor Terry Hughes, one of Australia’s leading reef scientists and an award winner for science advocacy in the face of government censorship, told Crikey that the Senate inquiry, which effectively undermines the conclusions of the government’s own experts, was an attempt to “muddy the waters” around climate science and the health of the reef.

Responding to the criticism, McDonald said the government wasn’t taking issue with the scientists, but giving them an opportunity to have their work reviewed, while also making sure farmers, local governments and communities had adequate input into Labor’s regulations.

“Without an Upper House in Queensland to keep the Labor Government in check, its methodology needed investigation,” McDonald said.

But for Enoch, the government’s decision was just the latest chapter in its war on science.

“This is the extreme right of the LNP flexing its muscle and politicising science to push their extreme ideologies,” he said. “The Federal LNP is divided amongst itself and is openly criticising peer-reviewed, published, scientific evidence that underpins their government’s own policies.”

Peter Fray

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