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Stumping For the Trees

4 minute read

Peter “Sid” Sidebottom’s constituents, he says, don’t much like being in the spotlight. Since 1998, the Labor M.P. has represented the federal seat of Braddon, a quiet, largely rural electorate in north-western Tasmania of around 62,000 voters, many of them farmers and fishermen. But one of the region’s other industries, forestry, keeps bringing the residents of Braddon’s towns and hamlets the kind of attention that makes Sidebottom furious. “Many hundreds” of his constituents depend on the state’s forestry industry, he says, and if the campaign in this election to phase out logging in Tasmania’s old-growth forests succeeds, Sidebottom fears they’ll be sacrificed by voters on the mainland, “half of whom have never been to these forests.” “They’ve obliterated their own environments,” he says, “so they look over here and just pick a spot to make themselves feel better.”

Far to the north, in the Sydney suburb of Vaucluse, local Julian MacLulich is waiting “with bated breath” to see how far Prime Minister John Howard and his rival Mark Latham are willing to go to save the forests he’s heard much about. Though he likes the Howard government’s economic record, MacLulich still hasn’t decided who he’ll vote for. When he does, he says, the fate of Tasmania’s old-growth forests will be as important in his choice as the economy. He’s waiting to be swayed. “Most people want to do the right thing, wherever it is,” says the restaurateur, “and old-growth forests are a global issue.” With several polls showing overwhelming national opposition to the clear felling and woodchipping of giant stands of Eucalyptus regnans, the tallest hardwood trees on the planet, swinging urban voters like MacLulich are in hot demand – even in the traditional Liberal seat of Wentworth, which includes Vaucluse and other well-heeled eastern Sydney suburbs, and where sitting member turned independent Peter King has already promised a private member’s bill on the issue.

Despite signaling they’ll move for change, both Labor and the government still had their forest policies under wraps as the campaign entered its final week.

Howard has perhaps more room to move, says Monash University political commentator Nick Economou, with the Coalition holding none of the five House of Representatives seats in Tasmania. If he offers a package to save the forests, Economou believes, “he’ll write Tasmania off.” Labor, meanwhile, has the trickier task of satisfying traditional voter bases in seats like Braddon and also wooing mainlanders like MacLulich. But the momentum is there: some of the strongest applause from the party faithful at the Sept. 29 Labor campaign launch came for Latham’s promise to detail a policy before the election. Party strategists know that at this poll Tasmanian forests matter, not only because of the dogged campaign by conservationists that has won mass public support, but because a strong showing is predicted for the Greens, who have led the fight to end old-growth logging. “The forests are symbolic of all the special places people want to see protected,” says Geoff Law, campaign coordinator for Tasmania’s Wilderness Society.

Other environmental issues have failed to arouse the same clamor in this campaign. Both sides are promising to pursue water reform, with Latham announcing $A1 billion to revive the Murray river, and the Coalition touting a $A2 billion water fund to expand water recycling and efficient irrigation infrastructure. But to the concern of many scientists, crises like salinity and biodiversity loss have barely been mentioned. And despite Labor’s promise to sign Australia up to the Kyoto protocol on greenhouse emissions and increase renewable energy use, climate change has also struggled to stir voters. “I think once they’ve done water and the Tasmanian forests, they’re almost exhausted,” says one senior scientist. After leading the world in climate-change awareness in the late 1980s, Australians now lag behind, says climatologist Graeme Pearman. In most parts of the country, worries the former head of atmospheric research at the CSIRO, “it’s just not on the public’s mind.”

But the forests certainly are. When travelers arrive at Peter Niven’s holiday cabins in the small community of Maydena, it’s usually trees they’re there for.

Nearby is the Styx Valley, where loggers and protesters argue over stands of E. regnans earmarked for woodchipping, and the Wilderness Society conducts tours along logging roads. Many timber workers pass through Niven’s door, but in past months it’s tourists who’ve been flocking to stay. They come, says Niven, “because they have to see the forest before it disappears.” After this weekend, they may not have to be in such a rush.

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