For those Dewers who’d like a change from US politics, may I offer up an alternative entertainment? The people of far-away Tasmania go to the polls next weekend when the fate of the incumbent Labor government will be decided. Australia’s island State is among the most beautiful places on earth but if you ever wish to see the consequences of unfettered corporate power, political hypocrisy and politico/religious bastardry, then Tasmania is the place to look at – though Western Australia looks set to soon be its equal in these attributes.
First, though, a bit of background. Tasmania, like the Federal Government and all other States bar Queensland, has a bi-cameral parliament and a party controlling the Senate can for all intents and purposes determine the fate of legislation. Australia, generally speaking, has four main political parties and to make sense of the rest of this article, I’ll need to briefly summarize them here:
Labor, at one time the champion of the worker and social reform, now slightly to the right of center, more akin to moderate conservatives and prepared to hop into bed with almost anyone it believes will help it gain power;
Liberal, once conservative, slightly to the right of center and champion of the establishment; now very much to the right and more akin to the noisy Republican faction here, and also prepared to get into bed with almost anyone it believes will help it gain power. In tight elections it has an advantage over Labor because of its traditional coalition with
National, which boasts it is the “party of the bush” and pro-farmer but increasingly is the voice of the strident right and champion of just about anything that’s white and anti-left and will get into bed with anyone as long as they’re of the same political viewpoint and the same sex. Not a factor in Tasmania;
The Greens, considered a “minor party” though candidates often outpoll Nationals in some electorates, has taken over much of the role once filled by Labor with regard to social and political reform. A “grass-roots” party with any member being able to have policy considered – which damages them at election time when their opponents delight in highlighting the more radical of members’ wish lists – is increasingly seen by many younger voters as the only party offering alternatives to the recurrently failing policies of the past.
Interestingly enough, the Leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Bob Brown, is openly gay and yet not once have I heard this used against him. This is either a testament to the man’s integrity, of which he is not short or, more likely, just plain fear of the political consequences on the part of even his harshest opponents.
Though against all the odds they steadily gain ground in all Federal and State elections, it is in Tasmania that the Greens are most feared and reviled by the mainstream.
Way back in 1989, protests against State government policy saw them gain enough seats to hold the balance of power in a Labor government, which had defeated Liberal’s headkicking bully boy Robin Gray. So incensed was media owner and timber-baron Edmund Rouse, Chairman of ‘forestry’ giant Gunns Limited, that he attempted to bribe a Labor MP to cross the floor and vote with the Liberals. Rouse copped time in jail and the ensuing uproar saw the Tasmanian Greens gain a permanent coalition of foes: Labor, Liberal and Gunns Limited, of which Robin Gray is now a director.
All this came home to roost in 1998 when a snide deal between Labor and Liberal saw the size of Tasmania’s Lower House reduced to just 25 seats, a move intended to destroy the Greens. It set the party back but they have reclaimed a lot of ground since, thanks in part to antediluvian attitudes and incompetent, crony ridden politics on the part of both the major parties and the fact that Gunns Limited is viewed, rightly or wrongly, by a broad spectrum of Tasmanians as dictating government policy and virtually controlling much of the legislative process. According to political observers in Tasmania, this move led to a shrinking of the available “talent pool” in Tasmania’s Parliament and the results have become increasingly obvious over the years since.
State and Federal approval for a huge pulp mill – which opponents claim will, among other things, strip the island of its last non-protected reserves of old-growth hardwood forests – has added fuel to the election debate, especially after it was revealed that dissenting voices had been removed from a commission of enquiry into the project and legislation stifling opposition is said to have been written by Gunn’s lawyers.
During a previous State election, voters were subjected to anti-Greens propaganda from two sources not overtly connected to either of the other parties. One was a well-funded shadowy group named Tasmanians For A Better Future, its front man a former Gunns spokesperson.
The other group was funded by the Tasmanian arm of the Exclusive Brethren, a secretive Christian sect that, ironically, forbids its members to vote in elections – which for anyone else in Australia is compulsory – because politics is “not of God”. Encouraged, it is said, by the Liberals the Brethren apparently set up a front company to fund a campaign warning of dire consequences for ‘the family’ if the Greens were elected. Most bizarre of all, two men alleged to be sect members donned pig’s-head masks and disrupted Greens’ political meetings. Calls for an enquiry into the sect’s activities go unanswered – not surprisingly, as there are claims the Exclusive Brethren aided the Liberals in the most recent federal election and at least one other State poll.
All in all it looks set to be another gripping round of more of the same in Tasmanian politics only more so – a return to the days of the bitter campaign fought over the proposal to dam the Gordon River all those decades ago.
I’ll keep you posted.