A last-ditch effort to win votes in key seats in South Australia and Victoria has prompted both major parties to make changes to their policies on oil drilling in the Great Australian Bight.
The resources minister Matt Canavan – who has previously said offshore oil exploration should be a national priority – said on Thursday a re-elected Coalition government would commission an independent audit of the oil regulator’s consideration of exploration in the Bight.
Canavan and the environment minister Melissa Price said in a statement they recognised “the Great Australian Bight and the surrounding region are important to local communities, and the fishing and tourism industries”.
“The region is known for its unique environment and deserves strong protection,” they said.
Labor meanwhile updated its proposal to conduct an independent scientific study of the impacts of an oil spill in the Bight to add that such a study would be completed before the regulator, Nopsema, made a decision on any project.
The rush to act on concerns about the risky deepwater drilling is an appeal to voters in the seats of Boothby in South Australia, held by Liberal MP Nicolle Flint, and the Victorian seat of Corangamite, held by Liberal MP Sarah Henderson.
Opposition to plans by the Norwegian company Equinor for oil exploration in the Bight has been a key issue in both seats during the campaign.
In Corangamite, the independent candidate Damian Cole has made opposition to the Bight the focus of his campaign and is directing his preferences away from the Liberals.
He has coordinated the paddle-out protests occurring at beaches around the country and Henderson herself attended one at Torquay in April.
Simulation models have shown the potential for an oil spill in the Bight to hit coastline and ocean extending to Victoria and Tasmania, Esperance in Western Australia, or Sydney and the New South Wales coast.
What is unclear, however, is how either of the major parties’ proposals for reviews would work in practice given Nopsema is scheduled to make a determination about Equinor’s environmental plan on 25 May, just a week after the election.
Nathanielle Pelle, a senior campaigner at Greenpeace, said it was “about time” both major parties recognised “the risk in the Bight is exceptional”
Guardian Australia asked both parties for more detail but neither indicated if they planned to intervene to suspend the Nopsema process.
A Labor campaign spokeswoman said the proposed oil spill study “is intended to inform the independent regulator’s decision-making”.
The Greens environment spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young has written to MPs in Norway urging them to withdraw from the proposal. Equinor is 67% state owned.
Leon Bignell, a Labor MP in the South Australian parliament, has written a similar letter to Norway’s prime minister in which he states that, “Bill Shorten, and Labor’s environment shadow minister, Tony Burke, aren’t fans of drilling in the Bight”.
Equinor was met with opposition from Australians and Norwegians at its annual general meeting in Stavanger on Wednesday.
Lyndon Schneiders, the national director of The Wilderness Society, said the message had clearly got through to MPs, at least in the southern parts of Australia, that there was high community unrest over the Bight proposals.
“Five weeks ago the Liberals and Labor were on a unity ticket saying ‘we’ll let the process run it’s course’,” he said.
“This is an example of people power actually working.”
But he questioned why it had taken the government, in particular, so long to change its position when protests had been occurring throughout various assessments by the regulator involving the Bight for years.
“Why does it literally take until 48 hours before polls close to finally discover there may be a problem,” Schneiders said.