Laws governing the protection of the Great Barrier Reef are to go on trial when a Senate Inquiry probes the science underpinning the legislation.
The inquiry, which was due to start on March 17 before it was postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions, is set to provide a highly charged stage for environmentalists, farmers, scientists and industry leaders to continue the fight that reached its peak last September.
That was when the Palaszczuk Government passed its controversial reef management laws, applauded by conservation groups but slammed by farmers as a crippling blow to their livelihoods.
Critics say the laws have unfairly penalised farmers with higher compliance costs to meet new regulations, and are based on unproven links between farming and reef health.
Supporters of the laws argue farming must be highly regulated to prevent fertiliser and chemical run-off into waterways that eventually leaches into the ocean poisoning the reef.
Former Queensland State of Origin rugby league great turned Mackay Regional councillor Martin Bella is leading the charge to have the science verified.
Bella, who also grows sugar cane near Mackay at Sarina, says he will accept the referee’s decision if the Senate Inquiry can prove beyond doubt that farming is a major contributor to coral decline. On the evidence he’s seen so far, Bella remains unconvinced.
“If you have regulation or legislation that is going to significantly restrict or inhibit a large industry you should be absolutely certain that the science that underpins that legislation is valid,” he said.
Bella instigated the inquiry with support from the Green Shirts Movement, a grassroots political group that was formed out of farmer anger towards the Palaszczuk Government’s controversial vegetation management laws in 2018.
Bella calls himself a coordinator of the Green Shirts, perhaps best known for their raucous protests outside the Queensland Parliament building and for heckling Premier Anastacia Palaszczuk when she officially opened Rockhampton’s Beef Australia event in 2018.
The Green Shirts maintain they are not politically aligned, although Bella and Mario Quagliata, a Tully cane farmer and earth moving contractor, received significant help to win approval for the inquiry from Queensland LNP Senators Susan McDonald and Matt Canavan while he was still Minister for Resources and Northern Australia.
The high-level federal intervention suggests there is more at stake than how farmers manage their land. If the science can be successfully challenged on something as significant as the Great Barrier Reef, what other government controls protecting the natural environment from other industries in other jurisdictions might be called into question in the future?
And with a State election scheduled for October – the same month that the inquiry’s report from the Senate Rural & Regional and Transport Committee is due to be delivered – the LNP Opposition will be choosing its words on this issue delicately.
Anything sounding like support for the Green Shirts will be interpreted as nothing short of climate-change denial by city voters. Arguing in favour of the science risks further anger among the LNP’s farmer constituency, particularly the “sugar seats” of central and north Queensland, which the LNP must win if it has any hope of clawing back government.
In what could be described as seizing the LNP’s precarious position and launching a pre-emptive strike, the Green Shirts rallied outside Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington’s Nanango electorate office last month, demanding the LNP spell out its plans for rural Queenslanders.
The Green Shirts Movement has also indicated it will maintain a visible presence at key polling booths across the State at the Queensland election on October 31.
Science on trial
In his submission to the inquiry, one of 120 received, Bella argues that no distinction has been drawn between the inner reef, which constitutes 1 per cent of the coral system, and the outer reef which composes the remaining 99 per cent.
“Issues facing the outer reef must be evaluated and categorised, not supposed,” Bella wrote.
“If there is proven damage, merely finding traces of an element such as sediment or nutrient, does not allow one to assume they are the reason for the impact.
“This is purely an associative link and is akin to finding someone in a room with a dead body and assuming they are the killer.”
Bella is in agreement with controversial marine scientist Dr Peter Ridd, who was sacked by James Cook University in 2018 for expressing doubts about damage to the reef caused by climate change and agricultural run-off.
Last year the federal court awarded Ridd $1.2 million in compensation for winning an unfair dismissal case against his former employer.
The now independent researcher, who has studied the reef since 1984, coinventing the first instruments capable of taking long term measurements of sediment deposits on the coral system, says farming has little to no impact on the reef.
In his submission to the inquiry, Ridd wrote:
“Water surrounding the Great Barrier Reef is as pristine and sparkling blue as the Pacific Ocean due to massive ocean currents that sweep into and out of the reef.
“These currents mean pollution from land cannot build up in the reef. As much water flows into the reef from the Pacific Ocean in eight hours as comes down all the rivers in a whole year.
“Reef water quality is determined by these enormous “rivers” of clean ocean water – not by the rivers flowing from land. Only a very small part of the Great Barrier Reef falls under any direct influence of farm runoff.
“The Great Barrier Reef is a long way from the coast and almost totally unaffected by mud and pesticides from farms. Science institutions focus on the effect of agriculture on “inshore” reefs.
“These are the fringing reefs close to shore not the GBR-proper, which is generally 40-100 km from the coast. The inshore reefs are only about 1 or 2 per cent of the coral, a point never made by science institutions claiming agriculture is killing the GBR. Even the inshore reefs are only marginally affected by farm runoff.”
Reef under threat
Ridd’s views are at odds with scientific groups such as CSIRO, which maintains in its submission that the reef remains under threat from pollutants in the ocean that have well exceeded naturally occurring levels, naming pesticide and fertiliser run off, livestock activity and movement of machinery as primary culprits.
Fertiliser giant Incitec Pivot, which supplies the bulk of fertiliser used on farms on the eastern seaboard, says farmers on the Queensland coast, particularly cane farmers, have slashed nitrogen and phosphorous application by as much as 45 per cent in some districts and have been enthusiastic adopters of new management techniques.
Incitec Pivot president Stephan Titze says the next phase of reef management should involve additional government funding to develop ‘next generation’ products to improve production efficiency and reduce farming’s environmental footprint. His company is also advocating for more federal and state government supported training for farmers.
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