Rudd has a new policy for forestry

…meaning Rudd has a new policy for hippies, greenies and Tasmania (the primary source of Australian’s hippies, greenies, ferals and treehuggers, generally, Bless ‘Em All).

This is always interesting. In Australia, “Legislation”, “Environment” and “Tasmania” come together to voltron the word (you heard me) “Cool”, ever since the Franklin River Dam, and a certain constitutional crisis (kids, ask your teachers). This was the famous time in the 1980s when the Tasmanian government took the Australian Federal government to the High Court, over who got to decide whether or not a hydro-electric dam would be built in Tasmania. It began with a planned dam, a discovery of Indigenous caves in danger, a state referendum, a premier replaced, a blockade, finally culminating in an election. And that’s when it got interesting:

On March 5, 1983, the Australian Labor Party won the federal election with a large swing. However, in Tasmania, the vote went against the national trend and the Liberals held all five seats. The new prime minister, Bob Hawke, had vowed to stop the dam from being constructed, and it has been suggested that the controversy over the dam helped to bring down the Liberal government of Malcolm Fraser. Hawke’s government passed the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act, which overrode the state legislation.

However, the Tasmanian government appealed the decision to the High Court, claiming that the federal government had no powers under the Constitution to pass the legislation. They claimed that as the right to legislate for the environment was not named in the Constitution, and was thus a residual power, that the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act was unconstitutional. The federal government, however, claimed that they had the right to do so, under the ‘external affairs’ provision of the Constitution as, by blocking the dam’s construction, they were fulfilling their responsibilities under an international treaty.

Americans, just think New York takes Congress to the Supreme Court, saying the EPA is unconstitutional. Bear in mind that blockade was pulling in 20,000-odd people. In the 1980s. In Tasmania (current population only 484,700). Like I said.

So, we come to this. Ringleader Senator Bob Brown is now, and has ever been, leader of the Australian Greens (for whom I vote). He was also the first openly gay parliamentarian. This all means that environmental legislation is news, and makes a difference not only in Tasmania but elsewhere, with our system of preferential voting (this is according to the electoral model, not like Florida’s approach in the US, or anything).

Prior to the previous election, former Labor leader Mark Latham announced a terribly unpopular policy: his government would protect enormous areas of forests from logging, and offer the industry AUD800m or so in compensation. It did not fly, but his election chances sure sank (another minor point – Tasmania is home to all of the workers in the logging industry. And their families. And the small economies that run on their salaries). Howard responded at the time with his more popular Tasmanian Community Forest Agreement.

Rudd is walking a fine line with this one. Latham blew the votes of industry last time, but any ground returned to them this time risks blowing the votes (and the preferences, potentially) of the Australian Greens. With near-50%-returns on primary polling, he may simply not mind the risk. Currently, Rudd has offered:

  • Support for the principles underpinning the Regional Forest Agreements and work with the Tasmanian Government to implement the Tasmanian Community Forest Agreement
  • Labor will boost the export of forest products through the establishment of a $20 million Forest Industries Development Fund, Mr Rudd said today.
  • Extra money and support for the joint industry and Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union training company to help improve the skill-base and capacity of the current and future forest industries workforce.
  • AUD8m for examining the impacts of climate change on forests. While increased carbon encourages tree growth, changes in extremes of wet and dry may harm both native forests and plantations.

Not bad. For context, the ‘relevance’, for want of a better word, of the foresty industry can be summarised thus (this is government information, meaning industry information):

  • Turnover: AUD18bn per year (1% of GDP; 2% if one includes printing, publishing, etc.)
  • Employs 83,000 people (directly)
  • The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates some 5% of Australian statistical local areas are dependent upon foresty and logging in Tasmania

There are far more connections, indirectly, of industry and manufacturing to logging, but not directly enough that I’d consider them voting links. One can see how they’d be courted by politicians, though. Taking Tasmania just might give a party control over both houses.

Even with the money for the CFMEU, though, Rudd is potentially re-exposing targets only recently hit. His support for the Regional Forest Agreements and the Tasmanian Community Forest Agreement are the best move, rather than trying to start from scratch. It means he’s copying Liberal policy (to which they have already alluded), but assures industry that he is ‘for’ the status quo, while potentially, depending upon the language employed by the Honourable Member of Parliament for Kingsford Smith (NSW) and the Labor party’s Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Environment, Heritage and the Arts Peter Garrett. Given his own tendency to be seen as an easy target, he’ll probably keep whatever he says – promise-or other-wise – off newspaper pages, where he can.

The key (for me) is this: the language of Rudd’s support for the Regional Forest Agreements and the Tasmanian Community Forest Agreement suggest both industry and environmentalist sides of the fight might see room for each of them to maneuvre. Here is the industry’s response:

Tasmanian Forest Industries Association chief executive Terry Edwards said the policy rightly recognised that the Labor position taken to the last election was “inappropriate”.

“I believe the policy tells us they have been careful to listen to what we have told them since the last election,” he said.

Labor cannot take Green votes for granted, but they can probably take them enough-for-granted-for-government work, if you follow. Much like the union vote. These are parties that have little reason to swing for the Liberal party, come the election. Now, Industry might see Labor coming around a bit to their way of thinking – at the very least displaying an awareness that getting on their wrong side at the last election hurt, badly. They are like any other group or individual.

In the textbooks, we vote for who best represents us. In practice we vote for who we see more sympathetic to, and influenced by, our view. Of course, one hopes Australia’s Labor does not go completely batty like England’s did.

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