Stuck in the treetops


Could the Greens and the ALP please join the rest of us in the twenty-first century?

Something needs to change in environmental politics. During the election, we (once again) had the spectacle of the ALP diving into Tasmania and making what it claimed as a good, ‘hard’ policy choice, to protect more Tasmanian forests. Groan.

Of course, we were told this was going to be after a ‘scientific’ inquiry into forest protection. Presumably Latham and his colleagues have forgotten the last time the ALP tried this stunt, and it blew up in their faces. Remember Graham Richardson in that ABC TV documentary ‘Labor in Power’, famously recounting how the Helsham Inquiry into Tasmania’s forests came up with the ‘wrong’ answer to the question of why Tasmanian forests needed protection? Labor set up the inquiry, then didn’t like the results and had to ignore them to deliver its political fix.

Not only did Labor’s Tasmanian forests policy disregard this history, it was politically anachronistic. Labor seems still to be fighting the 1990 federal election. Exactly which green voters was it planning on garnering preferences from? Mainland swinging green voters? As the Prime Minister might have said: hello? Did anyone actually manage to find one of these people who was not already committed to not voting for the Coalition?

Surely the loss of Bass and Braddon, and Labor’s failure to make inroads on the mainland, comprehensively demonstrates the failure of this strategy.

The environment as an issue has evolved beyond the 1990s. The greens are now an established (however small) political force in elections and parliaments, whereas in 1990 the issue was being driven overwhelmingly by the big NGOs. Back then, ‘green’ issues, of forests and World Heritage, were the political flagships. Now the major issues are water, salinity and greenhouse.

Back then, election results showed that green voters were there to be swung behind either party. Recent elections, and the recent parliamentary performance of green representatives, both suggest the greens are a party of the left. This is in no way a criticism. Someone needs to occupy that territory, since the ALP won’t. But the ALP does not seem to have worked out what this means for their campaign priorities.

The ALP did not need to seek the blessings of Senator Brown and the institutionalised green parties. It needed to win debates in the broader public arena. Tasmanian forest protection was not the issue which could drive this. It is a mystery why Labor didn’t learn from the reception afforded its schools policy and realise that shafting some timber workers for the national good was a tactic that was never going to work.

But no, Labor decided to protect yet more trees in a State that has massive parks, but to say nothing of consequence about the environment anywhere else in the country. Ecologists around Australia will tell you that the most endangered ecosystems in this country are in just about every state other than Tasmania. Furthermore, many of them support fewer jobs than do Tasmania’s forests. And, if we are going to be utterly Machiavellian, most of those ecosystems (and jobs) are in safe Coalition seats.

While Labor was busy rehashing tried and failed strategies from its past, where was Bob Brown? Not helping, as far as it was possible to tell. Can he reflect on the possibility that he is encouraging this political madness, and that it may be dragging the parliament “ and even the environment movement “ away from important goals?

Senator Brown, despite all his sincere intentions, may risk unintentionally becoming a hybrid of Ralph Nader and Brian Harradine. He is the figurehead of a movement that is taking votes “ and, indirectly, seats “ away from the ALP. And he could be perceived as more committed to parochial Tasmanian objectives than he is to national or global environmental priorities. Surely this is not what is meant by ‘think globally act locally’.

I’ve seen the Tasmanian forests and they are gorgeous places. I’ve shared the roads with the logging trucks, and they are ugly, dangerous beasts that discourage the development of tourism. I’ve seen the numbers on the timber industry in Tasmania and it looks unsustainable. But, if that is the case, let’s treat this as a Tasmanian economic development issue. It is not about winning hearts (and as for votes and minds, forget it) amongst tree-hugging mainlanders. Meanwhile, the mainland has some serious environmental problems that lack policy leadership.

Important parts of the environment movement need to come down out of the Tasmanian treetops, otherwise action on the big issues will continue to go begging. How bitterly ironic that the 2004 election, in which the greens secured their best primary vote, should also present such an indictment of current environmental political strategy.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.