Coal seam gas, the Great Barrier Reef and the Queensland election – an analysis of party policy

How Queenslanders vote may affect parts of the Great Barrier Reef such as Heron Island. AAP/Heron Island

Queensland is different from other states in that it only has a lower house. In other states minor parties achieve representation in upper houses — and therefore have a role in government — through proportional representation voting systems.

Nevertheless, a vote for a minor party in Queensland can still be important because of the state’s optional preferential voting system. Where a candidate does not achieve 50% of the primary vote in an electorate, preferences are distributed to decide the winner.

In this weekend’s election, preferences for the Green Party and Katter’s Australian Party will likely be crucial in deciding the outcome in some seats.

In Queensland there has been a public spotlight on issues of coal seam gas (CSG), coastal development and health of the Great Barrier Reef. Many voters are likely to attach importance to one or all of these issues. This article reviews the issues, compares party policies and suggests voting options.

Coal seam gas

Both Labor and the Liberal National Party (LNP) are committed to a strong CSG industry in Queensland. This is not surprising given the importance of investment in stimulating the state’s economy and of royalties in balancing the state’s books.

There is a great deal of uncertainty on the nature and severity of the cumulative environmental impacts of CSG extraction, as testified by the large number and complex nature of the conditions put on CSG developments by the Queensland Coordinator-General.

There are questions surrounding how green and clean CSG is. Queensland’s Labor government was the first to sign up to the Commonwealth’s initiative to gain more scientific knowledge about CSG impacts on water resources.

CSG is a divisive issue, but both major parties support it. AAP/Andrew Peacock

Surprisingly, however, Labor’s policies on CSG are rather inaccessible. Only one specific initiative — the banning of BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethyl-benzene, and xylenes) in CSG extraction — is mentioned in its achievements report.

Labor could have been more explicit about its achievements by summarising the laws it has passed and the conditions put on CSG extraction by the Coordinator-General in giving approval for the three main LNG developments to go ahead in Gladstone.

In contrast, the policies of the other parties relating to CSG are easily accessed. In the case of the LNP and the Greens, policies are comprehensive. The LNP has three main planks: an access and compensation policy for landowners, ensuring greater direct benefits to communities, as well as monitoring and enforcement.

For environmental management of the industry the party will rely on the environmental conditions already imposed on CSG developments by the Labor government. The Green Party is specific in calling for amendments to the Environmental Protection Act 1994 and the Petroleum and Gas (Production and Safety) Mining Act 2004 that will cease the exemption of mining from existing environmental laws.

The Greens’ policies score by being integrated. CSG is linked not only with the impacts on surface and groundwater but also to impacts of the processing and transport of LNG on the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

Both the Greens and Katter’s Australian Party call for a moratorium on all new CSG development. This stance could be criticised as being a luxury affordable only by minor parties, which will not have the responsibility of trying to balance the state’s books.

Katter’s party is quite specific on community benefits, the diversion of royalties for local development and a change in property rights in favour of landholders. But the economic implications of these polices are not explained.

Gladstone

Development in Gladstone Harbour is to enable liquefaction of CSG and the transfer of LNG to large vessels, whose access to the LNG plants requires a large dredging program that will continue until 2015, with maintenance dredging thereafter. Given that the World Heritage boundary follows the shore line it was inevitable that the development of Gladstone Harbour would be controversial.

Gladstone Harbour. The rectangle is the Eastern Banks spoil disposal area for dredge spoil. The blue line is Great Barrier Reef Marine Park boundary; the red line is Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area boundary. Aurecon

But the way the problems associated with dredging, perceived and real, have been handled by the Gladstone Ports Corporation, especially its roughshod ride over fishermen and fish wholesalers and processors, will not have earned Anna Bligh votes on the coast.

Great Barrier Reef

The value of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park itself could be compromised if the Commonwealth allows dredge spoil dumping, associated with new coal port developments, within the Park’s boundaries.

Katter’s party responded quickly to this threat with a ban on spoil dumping. However, the party’s likely removal of regulations governing farming practices that protect the Reef could negate the impact of this ban.

The health of the Great Barrier Reef is at risk. WanderingtheWorld

An important Labor initiative on the reef is the reduction of fishing pressure by buying back net fishing licenses. Ironically, though, the promise of more dugong and turtle protection is likely to be undermined by the negative effects on these species of the massive developments proposed for coal ports together with the increase in coal-carrier traffic.

An ongoing and major threat to the reef is runoff loaded with sediments and agricultural chemicals. LNP leader Capmbell Newman has said the LNP is strongly committed to protecting the Great Barrier Reef from pollution, “by actively working with our farmers to ensure practical common sense conservation outcomes. Improving and modifying farm practices will be achieved by working with farmers, not by simply by filling in more and more paperwork.”

This seems to suggest the LNP will do away with the legislation already put in place by Labor to regulate farming practices that harm the Reef.

The Greens’ policies go further than Labor by advocating a moratorium on Great Barrier Reef coastal development, banning certain agricultural chemicals while further scientific studies are done, and providing incentives for farmers to alter their practices.

Your environmental how to vote card

This analysis suggests Queensland voters who want to send a strong message on coal seam gas, coastal development and protection of the Great Barrier Reef should vote 1 Greens and 2 Labor.

More pragmatic voters who do not want to compromise Labor’s chances of achieving 50% of the primary vote in their electorate, but want to make an environemtal statement, should vote 1 Labor, and 2 Greens.

The risks from CSG and coastal development by voting 1 for the LNP or for Katter’s Australian Party do not appear to be any greater than the risks from voting 1 for Labor. But such a vote for the conservative parties will likely increase the risks to the health of the Great Barrier Reef.

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