Tomorrow, Tasmanians and South Australians will go to the polls for their respective state elections. In both cases the Liberals are expected to gain government, but the Tasmanian election may present an unexpected opportunity for the Greens.
The Tasmanian situation is reminiscent of last year’s federal election, pitting an unpopular governing coalition of Labor (led by Lara Giddings) and Greens (led by Nick McKim) against an anti-environmentalist Liberal opposition (led by Will Hodgman). Whereas the federal battle is focused on fossil fuel mining, the Tasmanian battle revolves around another industry which contributes to climate change: forestry.
Hodgman’s main policies are to tear up the forests peace deal agreed under the Labor-Greens government, introduce fines and jail sentences for anti-logging protestors, open up Tasmanian national parks for development, and cut “green and red tape”. Oddly, his position seems opposed to the views of Tasmanians: two-thirds support the existing Tasmanian Forestry Agreement and 92% support an end to the conflict, which would be reignited by tearing up the deal.
But Hodgman is certainly in accordance with the interests of the forestry industry, as well as Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s present push to have 74,000 hectares of Tasmanian forests removed from the World Heritage list. Such a delisting would be a precedent-setting world first. Recently in a laughable speech at a timber industry dinner, Abbott said “we have too much locked up forest”, called foresters “the ultimate conservationists”, and announced a Forestry Advisory Council chaired by an industry lobbyist. One suspects that all this logging will cancel out any carbon storage achieved by Abbott’s Green Army and Emissions Reduction Fund.
The latest Tasmanian opinion poll has the Liberals on 53%, Labor 23%, Greens 16%, and Palmer United 4% (though other polls place Palmer United in a better position). Although the Greens are a few percentage points behind Labor, there is an outside chance the Greens could become the Tasmanian opposition by winning more seats, ironically through an electoral system designed by the major parties to disadvantage the Greens. McKim says:
We are facing a hard right Liberal government from the Tony Abbott and Campbell Newman playbook. Labor clearly need time to regroup; they are effectively in disarray. If the people elect us as the opposition, we won’t let them down.
In my opinion the Greens would be a much more effective opposition than Labor. Modern Labor has little philosophical difference from the Liberals, as illustrated by the mediocrity of the present federal Labor opposition. When faced with a Liberal government, Labor can only make the weak argument “the Liberals are doing a bad job of running the government”, picking on minor charges of bad management and criticizing policies that are already unpopular. Tasmania, like Australia, needs an opposition prepared to mount a more substantive ideological critique: “the Liberals are acting based on misguided ideas and values, and here’s why”.
South Australian election threatens wind power
South Australia has led the country in renewable energy under the policies of the incumbent Labor government, led by Jay Weatherill. In the third quarter of 2013, the state derived 45% of its energy from wind and solar. But the Liberal opposition, led by Steven Marshall, is proposing exclusion zones for wind farms: five kilometres from towns and two kilometres from homes. Such restrictions would be completely arbitrary and baseless. Similar laws have crippled the wind power sector in Victoria.
The South Australian election is expected to be much closer than the Tasmanian one, with one poll putting Labor and Liberal near 50-50 on the two-party-preferred vote. Nevertheless, the Liberals are likely to continue their winning streak (other polls show them in front by several percentage points).
If the Liberals win both Tasmania and South Australia, they will be in power in every state and federally for the first time since 1970, leaving them unopposed in government (not counting the Australian Capital Territory). With the Abbott government hellbent on squashing all dissent from its extreme right-wing policies, Australia desperately needs a strong Greens party to stand up to them.
Update 16 March 2014
The Liberals won Tasmania (with the South Australian result still up in the air). Unsurprisingly, the Tasmanian Greens did not win enough seats to form an Opposition. Tasmanians have missed an opportunity to make history by creating a real opposition to the Hodgman government, and by extension the failed Abbott government.