The place of nature? Electoral politics and the Tasmanian Greens.

Author:Crowley, Kate

Green politics in Tasmania is very much a politics of place, driven by struggles to save iconic natural areas such as Lake Pedder, the Franklin River, the South West wilderness and more recently the state's old growth forests and unprotected areas. These struggles have inspired a green politics that is historic, in the sense of inspiring the formation of 'the world's first green party, and distinctive for the growing and consolidating of green parliamentary representation. Whilst the rest of the world may be attempting to explain the waxing and waning of green parliamentary politics, in Tasmania the questions that need answers are: why does green parliamentary representation persist and has it reached its limits. This paper focuses on the trajectory of Tasmania's parliamentary greening, rather than on the green movement's broader characteristics, disputes and groups. It is a study of recent electoral efforts by the Tasmanian Greens and the counter efforts of anti-green forces. It focuses on the state election in 2006, and argues that there are very clear limits to the place of nature within the state parliament. Whilst the Greens are old hands at gaining parliamentary advantage, in the 2006 election opposing forces used effective tactics to constrain their further success.


Nearly twenty years ago, Australia's small, remote, southern, and relatively wild, state of Tasmania was described as a crucible of environmental conflict. It provided in microcosm 'a taste of the likely shape of politics elsewhere in the world should the green agenda reach the political frontline '. (2) Since that time, the Tasmanian Greens (Greens) have been distinctive, no longer only for emerging from the world's first green party, (3) but also for their parliamentary longevity and achievements. It is now twenty-five years since Greens were first represented in the Tasmanian parliament, with the Lower House of Assembly's preferential proportional electoral system (4) ensuring their consistent presence since 1982 (see Table 1). They have supported two minority governments, one centre-right Labor Government (1989-91), and one centre-right Liberal Government (1996-98), with these parties being less distinguished by ideological divides than in the Europe an context. (5) A key issue dominating the 2006 state election, in the absence of any other catalysing, issue, was whether the Greens would again assume the balance of power and what demands they would bring to government. A further more academic question is whether, after decades in state parliament, the Greens are now capable of partnering more stable and productive coalition governments in which they serve with ministerial portfolios as members of Cabinet.

Table 1: Tasmanian Greens House of Assembly results 1986 to 2006--percentage of votes and number of seats Election 1982 (a) 1986 1989 1992 1996 Vote/seats 5.4/1 6.1/2 17.1/5 13.2/5 11./4 Election 1998 (b) 2002 2006 Vote/seats 10.2/1 18.1/4 16.6/4 Notes: (a) Bob Brown inherited the first green seat in the House of Assembly in 1983 in a recount following the resignation and subsequent election to the Australian Senate of Australian Democrat Norm Sanders. (b) The quota for an individual was raised from 12.5 per cent to 16.7 per cebt prior to this election in an attempt to minimise the election of Tasmanian Greens and the likelihood of minority governments. (15) A clear indication that the major parties (Labor and Liberal) hope to constrain Green parliamentary representation was evident a decade ago in their bipartisan change to the state's electoral system in 1998. The Liberal minority Government, which had been kept in power by the Greens, supported the Labor Opposition's amendment to the Parliamentary Reform Act (1998) (Act31/1998) as one of its last acts before the 1998 election. This amendment raised the electoral quota for an individual from 12.5 per cent to 16.7 per cent and cut the numbers in the Lower House. The impact on Greens' parliamentary representation was immediate in 1998, with 10.2 per cent of the state vote under the new quota delivering the Greens only one seat, to its leader Peg Putt, instead of the four seats that the old quota would have produced. (6)

Having minority government rely upon the Greens had greatly stressed the major parties, and greatly unsettled the business community and ultra-conservative Tasmanians. However, the attempt to wipe out the Greens enjoyed the briefest success. The reform not only raised the electoral quota, but cut the total numbers in the Lower House from 35 to 25 members, leaving both the government and opposition benches severely depleted which remains a problem today. However Peg Putt was widely credited with working tirelessly, supported by only one assistant, to provide effective opposition to the Labor Government on social, environmental and state development issues for the next four years. (7)

At the 2002 state election, the Greens were rewarded for their leader's efforts with a record vote of 18.1 per cent that returned their previous four members, most significantly at an election in which there was no single catalysing environmental issue to stir the public. Indeed it could be argued that their leader's effort between elections not only ensured the persistence of green parliamentary politics in Tasmania at a time when it could have been annihilated but raised the green vote to new heights. So the Greens survived the electoral reform threat against them. The public backlash against their balance of power experience was behind them, they had raised their vote to an all time high, and returned to a position of strength by 2002. What did not kill the Greens parliamentary politics in 1998 in fact only made it stronger at the 2002 election. Indeed, from 1998 in particular, the Greens have behaved more clearly as an opposition party, ironically for four years with only one member, and at the very least have confirmed their third party status.

The green vote in general also reflects the part that the major parties have played in contributing to Tasmania's parliamentary greening. Typically this happens when environment-versus-development conflicts force the major parties together and create the space for green politics to flourish. (8) At the 2002 election, for example, the major parties supported old growth logging, a contentious Regional Forest Agreement, and a proposed pulp mill. The Tasmanian environment has now assumed international significance and the pressures for its protection, including of its old growth forests, have escalated not declined. The politics of place are certain to be sustained.

The trajectory of the green vote over the last twenty-five years is therefore one of a steady rising and consolidating despite two clear dips following both experiences of Greens-supported minority government. The 1982 green vote of about five per cent rose to 17.1 per cent in 1989, settled back in the 1990s conservatively to about 11 per cent, and is currently averaging 17 per cent for this decade (see Table 1). This rise does confirm Hay and Haward's (9) prediction that 'the green vote can make substantial inroads into levels of traditional party support'. These inroads, they suggest, would be on the basis of...

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