The wood from the trees

Appearances in the media suggest that Labor’s qualified plan to end old growth logging in Tasmania has misfired, having created uncertainty among those employed by the timber industry without offering assurances solid enough to convince environmental groups. I’ll take these on one at a time, so look forward to a sequel to this posting later today or tomorrow.
For now it’s time for a late-campaign visit to Tasmania, home to five seats that have all been held by Labor since 1998. Two of these, Denison and Franklin, are too urban, green and pro-Labor to enter our calculations. Patricia Karvelas and Brad Norington of The Australian reported yesterday that "most of the timber workers are in the northern and north-western seats of Lyons and Braddon ("central" would be nearer the mark than "northern" in Lyons’ case – PB). The most marginal of Tasmania’s seats is Bass, held by 2.1 per cent, where most timber workers are employed in softwood plantations and two softwood mills, unaffected by any stop to old-growth logging".

There is an obvious precedent for Tasmanian voters punishing Labor for perceived pandering to mainland environmentalists, that being the 1983 election that brought the Hawke Government to power. On that occasion Hawke Labor’s opposition to the Franklin Dam helped the Liberals retain all five seats with increased majorities even as their mainland colleagues were dropping like flies. But a lot has changed in Tasmania since then, and there is now a burgeoning environmental constituency that hardly appeared to exist in 1983. The Greens now threaten to poll over 20 per cent in Denison where the Liberals these days are nowhere in sight (notwithstanding the bizarre delusions of Tasmanian Opposition Leader Rene Hidding). They are also a factor in Bass, where they managed well over 10 per cent in the main booths of Launceston at the 2001 election. The backlash will hit much harder in Braddon and Lyons, and the question is whether Labor’s margins of 6.0 and 8.2 per cent are enough to absorb the shock. Normally it would be unthinkable for an opposition to lose seats held by margins of this order, but there are historical reasons to think these two are different. Labor built its strength here on the back of big swings in the GST elections of 1998 (10 per cent in Braddon and 9.3 per cent in Lyons) and 1993 (5.4 per cent in Braddon and 5.6 per cent in Lyons), which largely stuck the next time round. This suggests that Labor has had a lot of soft support in these seats from voters with very sensitive hip-pocket nerves.

Despite everything he has just said, the Poll Bludger has withdrawn only Bass as a Labor retain in the election guide, since it was teetering on the brink already. With the Liberals yet to launch their own Tasmanian forests policy, Braddon is still on notice. Taking a step back, it appears the response to Medicare Gold has not justified any wholesale shift in Labor’s favour, but there are still a number of seats on both sides of the ledger that warrant careful monitoring in the coming days.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.