Labor is building a case to review the approval of the Adani mine’s groundwater management plan, accusing the government of using the start of the election campaign to avoid scrutiny over whether environment minister Melissa Price’s decision was subject to interference.
Scott Morrison’s decision to call the election on Thursday cut short Senate estimates, which was due to examine Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation witnesses about scientific advice given before the approval.
The handling of the Adani mine is a delicate balancing act for the Coalition and Labor, which are competing both in northern Queensland marginal seats that could benefit from jobs in the Galilee Basin and in climate change conscious constituencies opposed to the new coalmine, particularly in Victoria.
On the first day of the official campaign, the Coalition defended the promise of the Adani mine while Labor attacked the approval process, sealed in the final days of the 45th parliament after a fierce campaign from Queensland Liberal National party MPs, and the Greens called for Labor to get off the fence.
At a media conference in the suburban Melbourne marginal seat of Deakin, Shorten suggested it was no “coincidence” the government had prevented CSIRO being questioned about the mine.
Shorten told reporters the government had avoided “facing the scrutiny of parliament about the fairly politicised and bullying process of mine approvals” by calling the election.
The deputy Labor leader, Tanya Plibersek, told ABC TV she was “very concerned the environment minister was pressured to ignore advice” before the approval, with Queensland colleagues threatening she would lose her spot as a minister if she didn’t sign.
Plibersek said in government Labor would “respect the law and science” but her personal view is that she has been “sceptical of the project” all along.
“I think it has overstated the number of jobs it would support and understated environmental impacts,” she said.
In a statement the shadow environment minister, Tony Burke, said it was “extraordinary” that Price had been “threatened by colleagues depending on how she made a statutory decision”.
“The public needs to know how this came about and whether the bullying of Minister Price influenced her decision on the approval of the groundwater management plan for Adani,” he said.
If federal Labor is elected on 18 May, the environment minister could review and reject the groundwater management plan approval.
While Burke has stopped short of indicating his future course, Labor has sought material to help determine if Price’s decision-making was affected by political interference, which would bolster legal challenges or lead to a review.
The Greens senator Larissa Waters said: “Labor now needs to tell voters whether they’ll allow this devastating project to continue if they win government or if they’ll review and reconsider the approval and act to protect our groundwater and environment.”
If estimates had gone ahead, Waters was set to query if Price’s claim CSIRO was comfortable with Adani’s updated groundwater management plan was correct and whether the agency’s concerns that Adani’s models were not “sufficiently robust” had been addressed.
Labor intended to ask how the environment department formed the view the updated plan addressed concerns raised by CSIRO and Geoscience Australia, who were not asked to review the final version.
CSIRO released a statement late on Thursday in which it defended its “robust, peer-reviewed science” and assessment of groundwater modelling in an earlier version of Adani’s plan but also “acknowledging there were still some issues that need to be addressed in future approvals”.
CSIRO also said its advice was “limited to answering discrete inquiries on whether elements of Adani’s proposed plans would be adequate to protect nationally significant environmental assets”.
Instead of estimates, Burke demanded on Thursday that Price release a cache of documents including the final groundwater management plan, the environment department and CSIRO’s assessment, actions agreed to by Adani before the plan was approved, and correspondence with Queensland colleagues who lobbied for the approval.
Labor also demanded notes from a briefing between the environment department, CSIRO and Geoscience Australia on 5 April.
Environment groups have been vocal about the unusual process in the lead-up to Tuesday’s announcement of the approval.
CSIRO and Geoscience Australia gave an assessment of Adani’s plan to the environment department in February that identified that the groundwater models and monitoring approaches proposed were “not suitable”.
Adani submitted an updated version of the plan to the environment department in March, but this was assessed within the department and did not go back to CSIRO or Geoscience Australia.
Environment officials told an estimates hearing on 4 April they gave their recommendation to Price on April 1 and there were was no intention to go back to CSIRO or Geoscience Australia.
But then both agencies were briefed the next day and the department published letters from them stating concerns had been addressed.
In its statement on Thursday, CSIRO said it had identified “inadequacies” in its February review of the plan and “was subsequently asked to review Adani’s response to the recommendations CSIRO made to address the issues raised, as summarised by the Department of the Environment and Energy”.
On Thursday the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, told 2GB that the LNP MPs George Christensen and Michelle Landry were “fighting for 8,000 jobs”, which he said could be created in the Galilee Basin by the Adani Carmichael and other mines.
Dutton said that Queensland needed “people that will fight for their local electorates” and Labor was promising “to lose thousands of jobs”.
“If Bill Shorten is telling the Labor [MP] in Herbert [Cathy O’Toole] that she can’t mention … the name Carmichael or mining or that she supports the workers in the Galilee Basin, then what worth is she in the parliament?”
Dutton suggested Labor was “more interested in Green voters in inner-city areas in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane than they are in workers out in western and central Queensland”.