The Age, Opinion, May 16, 2007
Labor got pounded in 2004. Tact and ticker are need for 2007, writes Natasha Cica.
Inching daily closer to the federal election, Labor should not be dazzled by the beautiful set of polling figures that Maxine McKew just scored in the star seat of Bennelong, nor dwell too long in the mines of Western Australia and big city boardrooms.
Tasmania and its forests tend to be left off mainland maps - but only a fool would do that now. Partly because the northern seats of Bass and Braddon are must-wins for Labor: both were lost on forestry policy as the first falling dominoes in Mark Latham's 2004 election defeat. And partly because a Saulwick poll released last week measured first-preference House of Representatives support for Labor in Tasmania at just 36 per cent, compared with 44.6 per cent in 2004. That poll unhelpfully did not deliver the two-party-preferred picture, and indicated 13 per cent of voters were still undecided, but it's fair to say Labor would prefer a trend in the opposite direction. So would the Coalition, whose lower house primary vote was measured by Saulwick at just 34 per cent, down 9 per cent from 2004.
John Howard's riposte to the Bennelong survey was "that poll didn't tell me anything I didn't know" - words he must also have muttered in response to this sampled snapshot of Tasmanian voting intentions in Bass, Braddon and beyond. No fools, both Howard and Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull have visited Tasmania in the past fortnight to press flesh and wedge Labor on this front. Hard cop Howard mainly stuck to forestry-dependent communities in Tasmania's north, labelling opponents of Gunns' proposed Tamar Valley pup mill a "noisy minority" (measured by another poll at almost half the local population) and holding the jobs-equals-logs line. This was a calculated attempt to punch a hole through the somewhat greener deal Rudd cut before Labor's April national conference with Tasmania's pro-logging Premier, Paul Lennon, and the powerful CFMEU, who both walked straight into Howard's arms at the last election. The contours of the final policy product remain to be seen, but part of the promised package involves conserving more forests.
Soft cop Turnbull took a different tack. First, he deflected questions about the democratic dimensions of the Federal Government's environmental assessment process for the pulp mill, which requires all public submissions to be sent through Gunns - a corporation notorious for running the "Gunns 20" litigation against environmentalists, and recently hoist (again) on the pointed pen of Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan, writing for The Monthly and London's Daily Telegraph.
Turnbull quickly turned to whacking Lennon's Labor for neglecting its environmental responsibilities on Macquarie Island, a world heritage area ravaged by rabbits and rats. "This is a state government that has put $15 million into (Hawthorn) Football Club but is not prepared to put one cent into an island that has been part of Tasmania since 1825," thundered Turnbull, singing from almost the same songsheet as cultural commentator Leo Schofield, now resident in rural Tasmania.
After the bloodletting surrounding Lennon's March fast-tracking of the pulp mill - featuring hardline attacks on the reputations of local objectors, including a former Supreme Court judge, a senior CSIRO scientist, 14 University of Tasmania specialists in ethics, governance and law, an award-winning broadsheet journalist and a dissident state Labor parliamentarian - Schofield mounted his own protest.
He denounced Lennon as an "uberbogan" who brings ridicule to his office, attracting "nothing but scorn and disdain from thinking members of our population", and who "seems to think anyone who admires a tree or who is moved by poetry and beauty is a dickhead or worse".
Apparently appreciating that Tasmania has historically been both Australia's poorest state and home to its boldest environmental activism, Howard and Turnbull have walked and chewed gum at the same time, playing to two different galleries. To beat that, Rudd and environment spokesman Peter Garrett will need to go one better - uniting Tasmanians on forests. Rudd made the wise opening move of drawing Lennon and friends into his consultative tent. Federal Labor must also ensure its forestry policy passes Rudd's own future test, setting young Tasmanians up for working futures in the 21st century, not the 20th or worse. All this will demand enormous reserves of ticker and tact. But if all else fails, Team Rudd can always fall back on Greg Combet's winning line from ABC TV's waterfront epic Bastard Boys: "Change hurts, John."
Natasha Cica is director of management and communications consultancy Periwinkle Projects.