The announcement by wood chipping “behemoth” Gunns Limited that it has selected Long Reach, a site on the Tamar River just north of Launceston, for its proposed $1.5 billion pulp mill means an environmental issue will dominate the political landscape right up to the next state election, due in mid-2006.
The project is currently going through an approval process called “projects of state significance” under the state’s planning laws - maybe it should be called “projects of political significance” because it is one issue that could return Tasmania a hung parliament.
That is not to say that planning approval will be a rubber stamp - rather that it is a certainty that Gunns has done its homework and will be able to meet the environmental guidelines when they are endorsed by the independent Resource Planning and Development Commission.
For Premier Paul Lennon the timing is exquisite: mid-2006 is about the time the project should commence construction. With 8,000 workers needed for the 2-year building phase and 1,200 ongoing jobs, what premier could resist that happy coincidence?
Also for Mr Lennon it gives him the opportunity to beat up on the Tasmanian Greens who will certainly oppose the mill. Once away from the café strips of Hobart and Launceston, most Tasmanians tend towards a conservative outlook and, I think generally, will support this massive project.
Most, but not all. The Greens, although they never would admit it, need a major environmental issue like the pulp mill to rally their supporters and get close to the 16 per cent quota and a seat in parliament in each of 5 electorates under Tasmania’s proportional Hare Clark voting system.
As if they need it. Pugnacious Gunns chairman, John Gay, has already given the conservation movement a rallying point by launching a so-called “McLibel” case against 20 environmental activists - dubbed the “Gunns 20” - for $6.3 million allegedly for disrupting logging operations and company vilification.
So the pulp mill announcement is just more fuel to stoke the Green fire.
The Liberals, reduced to a seven-member rump of an opposition at the last election, run the risk of being made politically irrelevant. Their leader, Rene Hidding, has enthusiastically endorsed the pulp mill hoping, no doubt, to neutralise it as a voting issue, but if it swamps debate in the lead-up to the election it will be Labor versus the Greens and the Liberals could find themselves marginalised out of the campaign.
Catch 22 for Mr Lennon is that it might be clever politics to drown out the Liberals but by giving the Greens oxygen he runs the risk of them garnering enough support to return the four seats they currently hold. And if the Liberals, under the inoffensive Mr Hidding, do as well as current opinion polls show, Labor only needs to lose two seats for the result to be a hung parliament.
The question neither major party leader has a realistic answer to yet is what they will do if the 2006 election does deliver a hung parliament.
Both see it as political death to admit to the electorate that they would form minority government with Green support. My view is that this is a “furphy” and the Tasmanian electorate is mature enough to accept minority government, if that is what eventuates and further, would expect the major political parties to deal with it.
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