Federal Politics

License article

Burke's backyard cries out for the appliance of science

The ALP Government has temporarily banned the super trawler, amid howls of derision from Tony Abbott's Coalition that the decision was political and only made due to public outrage.

Is this criticism valid? Probably. But it doesn't follow that the decision was the wrong one.

The federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, when announcing his intention to stop the Margiris, said: "The challenge with this one is not the certainty but the uncertainty".

In other words, if he doesn't feel he has the scientific evidence to say for sure our marine environment can handle this onslaught, especially in localised fishing areas where depletion from a large factory vessel may occur, then he shouldn't let it go ahead. The Greens motion to cancel the super trawler's doubled quota and effectively ban the Margiris until further science was available was based on this idea as well.

This is a good example of precautionary, evidence-based policy. The only problem is the Environment Minister has chosen to take this approach solely with the super trawler. When it comes to approving other large developments or actions which pose significant dangers to land and water, threatened species or environmentally significant places, scientific uncertainty about the impacts is no obstacle.

A prime example of this is the Australian Government's approach to the Great Barrier Reef. In an attempt to facilitate a massive boom in coal and gas exports out of Queensland, Tony Burke approved major LNG facilities and port expansions in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. UNESCO expressed "extreme concern" at these and other planned ports, and asked for an overall assessment to gain some scientific certainty about how much development the Reef could handle before it all went ahead.


Tony Burke, with the reluctant cooperation of the Queensland Government, agreed to do the assessment – however, he failed to put any of these huge fossil fuel developments on hold while the assessment is completed. The Great Barrier Reef could be irreparably damaged long before science can tell us how much the Reef can take.

Another example is coal seam gas and its impacts on groundwater systems. Recently the coal seam gas industry was slapped down over its spin campaign claiming the CSIRO said CSG is safe for groundwater. The CSIRO publicly denied ever saying CSG is safe for groundwater. In fact, both CSIRO and the National Water Commission say the long-term impacts of CSG on water systems are still not well understood.

And yet state and federal governments haven't waited to establish this science, but instead allowed CSG drilling to spread across the country, with potentially irreversible consequences. The new independent scientific expert committee may help us complete some of this urgent research – but both the ALP Government and the Coalition, including the Nationals, have refused to press pause on coal seam gas until this science is in.

All of which reveals Tony Burke's decision to stop the super trawler was not based on any real commitment to science-based policy. For environmental approvals that have gained less media attention, Tony Burke and the Australian Government are far more likely to slap on a few conditions than to hit pause because of scientific uncertainty.

A popular catch-all condition is the "management plan", which allows the Environment Minister to give developers their approval before he even knows if the risks can be managed, or if the management plan will work. When approving the Alpha coal mine, the largest coal mine in the southern hemisphere so far, Tony Burke slapped a pitiful 19 conditions on it, most of which boiled down to nothing more than management plans.

So the rest of the environment – that is, all the parts that aren't directly threatened by a super trawler - miss out on the benefits of evidence-based policy making and have to suck it and see. This goes a long way to explaining why, every five years, the State of the Environment Report sadly documents further environmental decline in Australia.

While our marine ecosystems enjoy a welcome reprieve from the uncertain impacts of the super trawler, the question remains: When will the Environment Minister and the Australian Government take the same evidence-based approach to the rest of their environment policies?

And why does it take an avalanche of pressure, from the public and the Greens, to compel the Australian Government to make evidence-based decisions in the first place? Isn't this their job?

More and more Australians are feeling that, like the Liberals, the ALP are becoming locked in to policy that suits the vested interests of industry and big business, and are no longer making decisions based on science, or evidence, or in the public interest.

But don't worry, I'm sure the Government has a management plan for that.

Larissa Waters is Queensland's Greens Senator

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