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The re-emergence of green politics

CHRIS CLARKE: Of course, there's not a State in Australia that doesn't have big environmental problems to deal with. Our marine life is particularly vulnerable: from Shark Bay in Western Australia to Sydney's coastline; the Great Barrier Reef in the North, to Tasmania's Derwent River in the South. Australians are over-fishing and polluting the fragile marine environment. Growing public concern over deforestation, sea and air pollution; excessive coastal development and mining, have all become election issues for both the State and Federal Governments. Felicity Biggins reports on the latest greening of the political agenda.

FELICITY BIGGINS: In New South Wales a grim picture is emerging of sparkling blue seas awash with toxic chemicals and viruses. The Water Board is under siege, accused of cover-ups and lies, and despite its pledge to clean up its act, there's still concern that its planned deep water outfalls, that'll dump the sewage two and a half kilometres out to sea, won't stop the excrement hitting the sand.

In Tasmania, the $1 million Wesley Vale Pulp Mill, has become an election issue, with Independents committed to the project's demise, expected to win seats in Parliament at the next election. Conservationists say the Mill will foul the environment with deadly chemicals. The Tasmanian Government says its much discussed environmental guidelines are the toughest in the world.

Federal Cabinet is currently weighing up the Mill's alleged benefits for our balance of payments problems, with concerns expressed by the Federal Environment Minister, Senator Graham Richardson, that the guidelines are not strict enough.

The so-called green vote has been attributed with helping Labor to power: in 1983, over the Franklin Dam dispute in Tasmania, and in 1987, over Queensland's rainforest. But it's also been alleged the Labor Party in New South Wales lost seats in the South because of its promise to preserve large tracts of forests to the claimed detriment of the timber industry.

The Wilderness Society's pollster, Geoff Lambert, says federally the ALP has tended to benefit from the green vote. But in the States, it's becoming Independents who are benefiting most, particularly in Tasmania.

GEOFF LAMBERT: Tasmania is going to be landmark case. There are already two such people in the Parliament. I would think that there would be four, and possibly even five after the next election, and a lot of people around Australia who are interested in environmental politics will take great heart from that, and I think you might see that effect flow over even into places like New South Wales and Victoria, where there are single member electorates.

FELICITY BIGGINS: How much influence are Independent greens going to have if their still in Parliament in such small numbers?

GEOFF LAMBERT: I think the power of the greens will grow from them having a balance of power. Now that may not always happen; it's already happened in the Legislative Council where we have a green Democrat here in New South Wales; it's almost certain now to occur in Tasmania. And I think the Senate is another place where you have Democrats, or possibly green Independent candidates in a future election, would be able to influence government policy that way.

FELICITY BIGGINS: Well, if then you are still relying to some extent on winning the hearts and minds of the major parties, why hasn't the Wilderness Society managed to convince the major parties of the need for them to take heed of the environment vote?

GEOFF LAMBERT: Well, there's a lot of pressures on the Party. I think there are quite a number of people in the Party, including Senator Richardson, who do recognise the importance of the environment vote. But, of course, in any political party it's bad form to acknowledge your dependent upon someone else. So, although they don't acknowledge it publicly, I think they're placing a lot of stock by the environment vote, and Bob Hawke only last week said that the environment vote was going to be important in the next election and he was going to be campaigning on it.

CHRIS CLARKE: Geoff Lambert from the Wilderness Society talking to Felicity Biggins.