Increased vote for Greens a sign of hope

July 24, 2002


HOBART — The record vote for the Greens in the July 20 Tasmanian election indicates there has been a swing to the left in the electoral arena. At the close of counting on July 20, the Greens had won four lower-house seats. The party gained 18.2% of the vote, up from 10.2% in 1998.

In the outgoing parliament, the Greens had just one lower-house MP. The Greens' gains came at the expense of the Liberal Party, which lost four of its 10 seats and received 26.9% of the vote (down from 38% in 1998). The Greens outpolled the Liberals around Hobart. The Labor government increased its majority by one seat to 15 (its vote jumped from 44.8% to 52.3%).

The Greens' success was based on the advances made by the movement to save old-growth forests in Tasmania and the consistent oppositional role that state Greens parliamentarian Peg Putt has played. The respect won by Greens senator Bob Brown for his opposition to the Coalition-Labor anti-refugee consensus and his opposition to the "war on terrorism" also boosted the Greens' support.

The fact that the Greens have won an extra four seats is particularly significant because the Labor and Liberal parties conspired prior to the 1998 state election to reduce the size of the parliament in an effort to wipe out the Greens. A party needed to get almost 17% of the vote in each lower-house electorate to win a seat (instead of the previous 12.5%). In 1998, the Greens' representation was reduced from four MPs to one, even though the Greens' vote remained substantially unchanged.

The Greens are no longer a single-issue party focused on saving the environment. The party has detailed policy documents across a range of issues and takes a progressive stand on most social justice issues.

Nevertheless, saving Tasmania's old-growth forests is a key issue around which the Greens have campaigned by consistently mobilising their supporters to take action, including several rallies of up to 5000 people. It is no surprise that the advances made by this movement have been reflected electorally.

The forest campaign has won considerable support over the last 10 years, including among workers and within the trade union movement. While the forest industry and the government continue to push the "jobs versus forests" line, it does not fool as many people these days.

People have seen from experience that the 1997 regional forest agreement (RFA) has cost jobs in the industry and has led to a massive increase in woodchipping — to the extent that Tasmania now produces more woodchips than the rest of Australia combined. The Greens have launched a "Forest Transition Strategy" that would phase out woodchipping of old-growth forests and creates more timber industry jobs than are lost.

The Labor and Liberal parties both strongly support the forest industry. They say that they cannot break a signed agreement like the RFA.

Nevertheless, there are signs within both major parties that they are feeling the pressure on this issue. Both parties are fielding candidates who have privately said they support an end to clear-felling in old-growth forests. In an attempt to stop leakage to the Greens, Labor Premier Jim Bacon and Liberal leader Bob Cheek have cynically suggested that they will see how much room there is to move "within the RFA framework" to reduce old-growth logging —after the election, of course.

Another sign of division in the establishment camp was the announcement by ultra-conservative, "pro-development" former lord mayor of Hobart John Freeman that he now believes that old-growth forests should be saved.

While the Greens have not organised grassroots campaigns on anything like the same scale around other issues, Peg Putt has taken consistent stands in parliament and in the media on social justice issues, including in defence of refugees' rights and opposition to genetic engineering of food crops. Independent commentators have dubbed Putt "the real opposition".

This has meant that the Tasmanian Greens have not been weighed down by the mistakes they have made in the past. These have included giving support to Liberal minority governments, supporting cuts to education and health made by the ALP government in the early 1990s and the Greens' proposal at the last state election to support de facto privatisation of the state's electricity commission.

Progressives have every reason to be encouraged by the strong vote for the Greens in this election. It represents a growing number of people who are prepared to vote against the economic rationalism of the major parties. In turbulent times such as these, it can be a short step from the latent opposition of voting for progressive parties to taking direct action in the fight for social justice.

[Alex Bainbridge was a Socialist Alliance candidate for Denison in the July 20 Tasmanian election.]

From Green Left Weekly, July 24, 2002.
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