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Reef science emerges as major election issue for Queensland


Great Barrier Reef and climate are the main scientific differences between Queensland contenders

In a recovery-focused state election set for 31 October, clean power, the Great Barrier Reef and climate change are the main scientific issues being pushed to Queensland voters.

The incumbent Labor Party and the Liberal-National coalition are neck and neck, according to the latest figures from Newspoll, an opinion polling brand, with many voters still undecided.

Research and science have not been widely debated in the campaign, except on the hot-button issues of the reef and climate change in relation to the state’s agricultural base.

The state government’s economic recovery plan is targeted mainly at supporting individuals and small businesses, with a stimulus package of overall tax relief and money for traineeships. The government expects the state’s economy to hold steady over 2020-21, with growth of just a quarter of a per cent.

With the Great Barrier Reef a focus for Queensland as a tourist drawcard and because of moves to protect it from environmental damage, which may affect farming activities, both parties have made the reef an election issue.

Labor has committed to issuing an annual report on pollution reduction targets and to continuing to fund the joint state-federal reef water quality science programme. The state’s reef water quality improvement plan contains A$53 million in spending for 2019-20, including on finding ways to reduce reef damage, evaluation of farming impacts and administrative support.

Liberal leader Deb Frecklington has written to agricultural groups promising to wind back recently passed state laws protecting the reef from runoff from farming activities.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society’s assessment of both parties’ policies for the reef put Labor ahead but with “room for improvement”. David Cazzulino, the society’s spokesman on the reef, said in a statement that “the future of the reef is in the hands of the next Queensland government. Following three mass bleaching events in five years driven by global warming, our beautiful reef is at a crossroads.” The society assessed all parties on both pollution and global warming, giving the Greens a high rating.

Labor says it supports a 2050 carbon-neutral target for the state and opposes the return of environmental veto powers over major projects from the Commonwealth to the states. Labor’s policy for renewable energy includes a pledge to build a A$23m renewable energy training facility in Brisbane. The party also promises “a 10-year R&D blueprint” for the agriculture and food industries.

The Liberal-National policy on the environment is less detailed: it says it would “mandate investment by our government-owned energy companies in renewable energy generation where it makes economic sense to do so”. The party has not committed to a specific carbon reduction target.

Under Liberal-National policy, the New Bradfield Scheme would receive A$20m in funding. This scheme revives a decades-old plan to divert water inland, irrigating drought-prone land. The updated version includes a hydroelectric power component, estimated at 2,000 megawatts.

Both sides have said that better links between industry and research, particularly scientific research, will be priorities for the next government.

The direct response to Covid-19 in the state has been largely bipartisan. In April, the state’s main research funding body Advance Queensland redirected this year’s research fellowships exclusively to Covid-focused projects. The grants of A$6.1m went to 32 different researchers in early August. The University of Queensland’s Covid-19 vaccine work also received a A$10m grant from the state in March.

The state’s borders remain closed to the rest of Australia and internationally.

Queensland is Australia’s third-largest state by economy. It spent A$353m on R&D in 2017-18, the most recent year for which the chief scientist’s office has released figures. A$100m of that was directed through Queensland Health, closely followed by the state’s department of agriculture and fisheries at just under A$97m.

Hugh Possingham, a former director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, became the state’s chief scientist in September.