With the Queensland government's Reef Regulations Bill expected to return to Parliament next week, no one is questioning the value of the Great Barrier Reef or that we must do all we can to extend its adaptation window until greater action on climate change is taken. But questions remain around whether the legislation will realise the best environmental, economic and social outcomes.
Unsurprisingly, increasing regulation to the whole Reef catchment area, some 350,000 square kilometres, and to the majority of agricultural industries has not been well received by many farmers. There are various reasons for this, including the fact that the evidence put forward to justify greater policing of farming operations is incomplete.
Since May 2016 when the GBR Water Science Taskforce delivered its final report, there has been significant engagement effort and an exponential increase in the participation of BMP and other voluntary practice improvement programs. However, a 12-month lag between data collection and the release of the Report Cards mean that we are currently only considering a water quality story up to 2015. The 2017 and 2018 Report Cards are expected to be released soon, but due to the data lag and the design of some voluntary programs they will not provide a current picture either. The reporting framework only registers practice improvement at completion of the practice change. Considering the QFF-managed Reef Alliance project - the largest ($46 million) investment by the Australian government into change management practices - results will not be reflected until the 2020 Report Card even though the project began in June 2016.
There has been significant under-investment in voluntary programs to realise the ambitious targets set and a proper analysis on the cost and effectiveness of existing Reef regulations has not been undertaken.
Questioning whether expanding Reef regulations will deliver the best environmental, economic and social outcomes is valid. If passed by Parliament there will be a degree of disillusionment and disengagement across agriculture. At a time when we all need to be pulling in the same direction, this is something the Reef can ill afford.