With the Queensland election less than six months away, it’s time to
take stock of the Newman Government’s environmental record. We’re all aware of its appalling failure to protect the Great Barrier Reef and its commitment to open up vast new coal mines in the Galilee Basin. What’s less well known is its backing for vast land and water grabs in Northern Queensland to support an increasingly flimsy “food bowl of Asia” fantasy. This ideologically fuelled agenda goes against the latest independent science and will destroy some of the world’s last remaining savannah woodland and free-flowing tropical rivers.
The Gilbert River system in Queensland’s Gulf of Carpentaria is at the forefront of the battle between independent science and increasingly partisan politics. But as well as being a battle in its own right, it also illustrates a more systemic and worrying pattern of behaviour from this Government – typified by broken promises, shonky deals and disregard for the views of the public.
Despite promising in the 2012 election campaign not to weaken tree clearing protections, the Newman Government took the axe to the Vegetation Management Act. Its changes now allow any land to be cleared for “high value agriculture”, which apparently includes crops that might only break even three years in every 10.
That’s what’s happening on Strathmore Station in the Gilbert River catchment in Queensland’s Gulf Country. Thirty thousand hectares of previously protected savannah will be cleared for sorghum on land that the Government’s own soil maps show isn’t suitable for cropping.
Another scheme in the Gilbert catchment, Integrated Food and Energy Developments (IFED) wants to clear 77,000 hectares, flood a further 18,000 hectares and suck up more than 550,000 megalitres of water a year – more than the volume of Sydney Harbour.
Despite its own internal advice that the amount of water required by IFED could not be sustainably harvested from the river, the Newman Government gave IFED special Coordinated Project status. CSIRO research revealed that IFED needs at least three times more water and twice the land than is available, which should have been the trigger for the Newman Government to revoke IFED’s Coordinated Project status.
Instead, the Government entered into a secret Development Protocol with IFED which the Wilderness Society believes will give IFED priority access to water.
Unfortunately for the environment and other water users, IFED’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) will be considered under new one-stop-shop arrangements, meaning there will be no federal oversight. As such, it’s likely that IFED’s EIA will simply be rubber-stamped by the Newman Government. Water extraction at the levels proposed by IFED will have devastating impacts on both the river system and its estuarine and marine environments, including the $230 million Gulf fishing industry and the existing pastoral industry.
But what’s happening on the Gilbert is also part of a bigger story. And it’s a story that should have us all worried. It’s about a Government so intent on pursuing its own ideological agenda it’s prepared to leave the environment, locals, existing industries and public consultation processes in tatters.