Senate inquiry into Great Barrier Reef seen as bid to discredit Queensland laws | Environment
The Senate has approved a Liberal-backed inquiry into whether farming and poor water quality harm the Great Barrier Reef, interpreted as a bid to debate the claims of the controversial scientist Peter Ridd and discredit Queensland laws to protect the reef.
The Greens and marine conservationists have warned the inquiry – due to report in October 2020 – will be used by the Queensland Liberal National party to attack the state Labor government, which is seeking land management changes and will be up for re-election in the same month.
Ridd – who became a conservative martyr when he was sacked by James Cook University – has been on a speaking tour supported by sugarcane industry managers campaigning against further state regulations by claiming that farmland pollution does not significantly damage the Great Barrier Reef.
An expert panel led by the former chief scientist Ian Chubb has warned that Ridd is misrepresenting robust science about the plight of the natural wonder and compared his claims to the strategy used by the tobacco industry to raise doubt about the impact of smoking.
On Monday the Nationals senator Susan McDonald and Liberal senator James McGrath gave notice of a motion to set up an inquiry into the existing evidence base on the impact of farm water runoff on the health of the reef and existing and proposed regulations.
McDonald was due to address the media alongside Ridd, the Green Shirts Movement coordinator Martin Bella and a delegation of regional landholders just hours before the Senate voted on the inquiry on Tuesday, an event that was then cancelled due to a supposed scheduling conflict.
In Senate question time, the government leader, Mathias Cormann, said the Coalition was “absolutely committed to the health of the Great Barrier Reef” and backed the proposed inquiry as “an opportunity to do even better protecting the Great Barrier Reef into the future”.
After question time, the Senate voted 33 to 30 in favour of setting up the inquiry, with One Nation and the Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick voting with the Coalition.
Patrick told Guardian Australia he had concluded the terms of the inquiry were neutral, so he defaulted to the party’s general position to vote for all inquiries “unless [they are] politically charged”.
“The outcome of the inquiry will fall according to the evidence,” he said.
Imogen Zethoven, the director of strategy at the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said the inquiry was “totally politically driven”, suggesting it was “inspired by Peter Ridd all the way through” and timed to coincide with the debate on environmental regulations in Queensland.
She said the inquiry was “a time waster” because the science was “rock solid”. “This gives the LNP a platform to campaign on right up to October  … it will be a political roadshow right up and down the coastline.”
The Greens senator Larissa Waters said the LNP would be campaigning “to win the state election by impugning Labor for attempting to protect the reef”.
“After years of the government denying climate science and saying water quality not climate is the biggest threat to the Reef, now it [has set up] an inquiry into whether water quality really is a problem for the Reef,” she said.
“This government is at war with science and the reef will suffer for it.”
McDonald rejected suggestions the motion was an attack on science, explaining the inquiry was “simply investigating the evidence used by the Queensland Labor government to push what is quite clearly a worrying anti-farming agenda”.
“After years of not being heard in Brisbane, farmers came to the federal government out of desperation,” she said.
“There are a lot of people on the land upset by Labor’s assertion they are environmental vandals, and I hope we can find out why this has become official public policy.”
The Queensland government has introduced a bill to clamp down on the amount of nutrient, sediment and pesticide runoff flowing from farms, sewage facilities and mines into the reef.
It would set limits for land-based farming and industrial operations to limit runoff into water catchments in the Cape York, Wet Tropics, Burdekin, Mackay Whitsunday, Fitzroy and Burnett Mary regions.
On Tuesday the Queensland environment minister, Leanne Enoch, agreed to a demand from a group of government MPs that if proposed changes were passed that they remain in place for five years before any further substantial changes.
The Mackay MP Julieanne Gilbert and the three Townsville MPs, Scott Stewart, Coralee O’Rourke and Aaron Harper, sought and were granted a five-year freeze on any further regulatory changes should the legislation pass this week.
They said both the reef and the state’s agriculture sector were important to Queensland, but that an approach which favoured both was needed.