The Greens’ last fling

Tuesday, 9 October 2007 

The trouble with the discussion over the Tamar pulp mill is that it tends to be treated too much on its own terms.

There is no reason why the siting of a mill in a heavy industrial sector of the Tamar should be anything other than a local issue (if that). Instead, like most environmental issues for the last twenty years, this is really about the major parties.

Usually it’s been about Labor. Labor’s adoption of green issues since the 1970s has been about filling the void left by the decline of union radicalism. The 1983 Franklin dam issue may not have directly won votes, but it did give the Hawke government a sense of modernity to younger and middle class voters that its union links could not. As the union links became increasingly devalued with their role in the economic reforms of the late 1980s, so did such environmental issues play a greater role, but ultimately not enough to fill the gap left by the end of the role for which the party was set up.

This time it is about the Liberals. What gave a local Tasmanian issue national importance was not Bob Brown, or even Geoffrey Cousins’ threat to campaign in Wentworth, but Turnbull’s response to it. His over-reaction to Cousins’ threat by calling for him to be dumped from the Telstra board created a national issue that he has only just defused by hiding behind the Chief Scientist to make the decision.

The problem is that the issue that made Turnbull over-react in the first place is still there. Turnbull is in danger of losing his seat, not because of Cousins or the pulp mill, but for the same reason Joe Hockey is in trouble in North Sydney and even safe Liberal seats in Melbourne are looking vulnerable, the Liberals are losing their core supporter base. The last survey of Newspoll reported a 12% swing away from the government in its safe seats and like Labor in the past, environmental issues are looking to be a focal point for a disaffected base.

However, it is difficult to see the Liberals adapting to it like Labor did. Labor had problems enough incorporating the two wings of union bureaucrats and environmentalists (there was especially a fault line in the state with the most unreconstructed old-style Labor party, Tasmania). This was why it was easier for Labor that the environmentalists organised outside the party even though their programme was very similar to the Labor left. It would seem especially difficult for the Liberals to reconcile the anti-growth agenda of the environmentalist with its traditional business supporter base.

If the Liberals will struggle to know how to use environmental issues, Labor probably won’t need to. The need to give a modern image to its old role with the unions becomes less necessary as the unions’ role in the party is wound up. Once again, commentators are seeing Rudd’s me-tooism on the pulp mill as a tactic rather than a sign of the new Labor party that is coming to power. Environmentalism is now the language of diplomats and there is no need for Labor to pursue a local environmental agenda, so it is hard to see the Greens survive as a significant influence on national politics. Bob Brown’s swinging between threatening Labor on preferences and then trying to point out Labor is missing a chance to repeat something it did a quarter of a century ago, looks increasingly like a desperate old man clinging to the past.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 9 October 2007.

Filed under State and federal politics

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