Labor faces election defeat in Tasmania

January 24, 2014

Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings sacked Greens ministers Nick McKim and Cassie O’Connor from cabinet on January 15 — the same day that she announced a state election would be held in March.

The Greens have shared power with Labor since a minority government was elected in 2010. But the deal has proven unpopular with Labor voters and Giddings has ruled out a power-sharing deal with the Greens in future.

It looks unlikely Labor will be re-elected on March 15. The Liberals have held a significant lead in the polls since the last election. An EMRS poll held in November last year showed only 22% of people would vote for Labor, compared with 49% for the Liberals and 19% for the Greens.

In a last-ditch effort to save the seats of sitting Labor MPs, Giddings is trying to resurrect the controversial pulp mill, project formerly owned by Gunns, which went bankrupt last year. Labor has also preselected former Forestry Tasmania boss Bob Gordon to run as a candidate in the electorate of Lyons.

KordaMentha, the receiver selling Gunns’ assets, says there are buyers interested in the mill but it is difficult to sell while there is a pending legal challenge by the Tasmanian Conservation Trust. The TCT is asking the Supreme Court to determine whether the permits for the mill are still valid, since no substantial works have been done on the site, a legal requirement that Gunns was meant to have completed by August 2011.

KordaMentha wrote to Giddings in September last year, requesting the government help by amending the Pulp Mill Assessment Act to extend the permits and secure the mill against any legal challenges.

Giddings agreed and will recall parliament on January 28 to table legislation known as the “no doubts bill”. If the legislation is passed, permits will be extended until 2017.

There is still strong opposition to the pulp mill and many people are angered by the attempt by parliament to pass legislation for the benefit of a private corporation. About 500 people attended an anti-pulp mill forum in Launceston on January 22 and another anti-pulp mill rally was held outside parliament house on January 28.

Vica Bayley from the Wilderness Society said in a statement: “It is seven years since the original fast-tracked permits were approved. Since then we’ve had a global financial crisis, failure of plantation managed investment schemes, collapse of the manufacturing sector, changes in international markets, a restructure of the Tasmanian economy and so many positive developments that seek to move forward.

“Now parliament is being explicitly asked to pass another special piece of legislation to shore up a pulp mill from a past era and take Tasmania backwards.”

Although the Liberals support the bill, it is not guaranteed it will pass. When parliament is recalled, Labor will be governing in a minority since it terminated its deal with the Greens. Greens MP Kim Booth has indicated he will move a no-confidence motion against Giddings, and if supported by the Liberals, an election would be held immediately.

There appears no end in sight for the forest wars. In response to continuing actions by protesters in the forests that force logging contractors to stop work, as well as the spectre of an organised blockade against the pulp mill, the Liberals have promised much tougher anti-protesting laws if they are elected.

Their election policy says they will crack down on protesters who “illegally enter or impede access to a workplace”.

This includes “on-the-spot fines of $10,000 for individuals and $100,000 for corporations … with a mandatory three-month jail term for second offences. Offenders would also be forced to pay for any damage or economic losses caused during protests,” the Hobart Mercury reported on December 10.

They will also “give the right to companies to sue over false and misleading claims regarding their business”.

But protesters have vowed to keep protesting. Huon Valley Environment Centre’s spokesperson, Jenny Weber, said: “The Tasmanian Liberals' plan to demolish democratic freedoms of speech and protest is an extreme measure to protect the interests of the companies that destroy the environment.

“[They are] Attempting to penalise people for telling the truth about how corporations are operating in our society, the damage they are doing to the environment. You can’t make it an offence to tell the truth about companies in our community.”

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