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Success of green independent candidates in Tasmanian election indicates voter concern on environmental issues

BILL HARE: The stunning electoral success of the green independents in Tasmania demonstrates clearly that the tide on environmental issues is turning in Australian politics. In dismissing the prospect of green independents emerging as a major political force in mainland Australia, on the grounds that Australia is not a single issue electorate, the Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, is missing the fundamental lesson from Tasmania.

Eighteen percent of Tasmanians made their first choice the green independent candidate. In doing so, they were registering their concern across a broad spectrum of current social, political and environmental issues. The independents ran on a broad platform, encompassing economic, welfare, education and health issues, as well as a range of environmental concerns. The attraction of the independents for the Tasmanian voter was not because of their advocacy of a single issue but because they provide an entirely new approach to politics. As was repeatedly said during the election campaign, the environment is a prism through which all other issues are viewed. Environment is central to political and economic decision making, in the view of the green independents, and it is this idea that is capturing the hearts and minds of Tasmanians. Political parties who underestimate the capacity of environmental issues to change the way in which people think about politics are simply not adjusting to the realities of the late twentieth century.

The environment and our society's relation to it is destined to become the political issue of the nineties, upon which governments will stand or fall. Whilst it is true that Australia as a whole, does not have an electoral system like Tasmania, it is also true that an increasingly large proportion of people are prepared to change their vote because of environmental concerns. In an electoral system which can see a government in or out of office on a small percentage change in voter intentions, the massive swing to green independents in Tasmania must have profound implications for the next Australian federal election. It would not be sufficient for the Prime Minister and his government to rest on their laurels, as their environmental performance has not been enthralling. Issues such as the failure to act systematically to protect Australia's national estate forests, and the government's feeble response to the threat of climatic change, highlight the essential shallowness of the government's environmental record.

The new coalition leader, Mr Peacock, also has a major task ahead of him if he is to convince the Australian electors who are concerned about the environment, that the Liberal and National Parties would not revert to a State rights stance when confronted with difficult political decisions in the environmental arena. With decisions imminent by the Federal Government on the future of mining in the Kakadu National Park, and in relation to the future of the south east forests of New South Wales which are threatened by woodchipping, we shall soon see whether or not the lessons of Tasmania have been learnt.