Blessed are the boundary crossers

The issues of native forest logging and the size of our island’s parliament have been stewing away at the heart of Tasmanian politics all this century. Each has much to tell us about tribal loyalty and the state of politics today.

Just-installed Greens MP Vica Bayley and the leader he replaced, Cassy O’Connor, were in the direct line of fire a decade ago not just from opponents but also from their side of politics.

Bayley, then the Wilderness Society’s Tasmanian campaign manager, describes that historic Tasmanian Forest Agreement as “a massive learning experience”. That was also true for the other signatories, along with parliamentary backers of the deal – Labor premier Lara Giddings, prime minister Julia Gillard, and the two Green MPs holding ministries in the Giddings government, O’Connor and her leader Nick McKim.

The battle to protect old native forests was a battle that had to be fought and must continue to be fought. The agreement unquestionably advanced that cause: the value of old forests for both their biodiversity and their vast carbon stores far outweighs any short-term benefit that can be gained by their removal.

Prolonged, intense negotiations back in 2011-12 led to a deal which substantially lowered the heat in the forest wars and prevented logging of wide expanses of native forest. That protection remains in place to this day despite promises to “rip it up”.

The agreement is best known for the acrimony that surrounded it, led by its arch-enemy who became Liberal resources minister, the late Paul Harriss. But Bayley’s main detractors at the time were on his own side, including environmental champions like novelist Richard Flanagan and Greens icon Christine Milne. Both objected vehemently to this pact with enemies. 

On one side of the agreement, besides Bayley you had Don Henry of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Lyndon Schneiders of the Wilderness Society and Phill Pullinger of Environment Tasmania. Sitting opposite were representatives of various industry sectors: Ed Vincent, Ken Padgett, Terry Edwards, Dave Pollard, Fred Ralph, Michael O’Connor and Jim Adams.

All these people, stepping into unknown territory by signing the agreement, would have anticipated some hostility from their own side. But the venom they copped would surely have exceeded those expectations. 

Harriss and Liberal leader Will Hodgman avoided public calumny while dishing it out to others for political advantage, and it worked. After signing off on the deal the parliamentary Greens were split by it, and Gillard and Giddings were both undermined within their parties. In subsequent federal and state elections Labor and the Greens lost office. 

A disaster all round, was the general view. The take-home message was that trying to reach across tribal divides is too dangerous to be worth the effort. But there was a legacy that remains to this day: those 365,000 hectares of protected forest that not even Harriss and Hodgman dared to revoke.

A fierce defender of the values of her party, Greens leader O’Connor was just as forthright in defending positive attributes of opponents. Having learned to live with Labor in 2010-14, more recently she defended the integrity of Jeremy Rockliff when he took on the Liberal leadership.

In 1998, the Liberal and Labor parties cut the size of parliament in a cynical deal designed to damage the Greens. It ended up damaging good governance, severely cutting numbers available for ministries. Having experienced this first-hand, Rockliff made the Greens’ cause his own, and took responsibility for returning the House of Assembly to 35 members. 

The bill passed unanimously with just five speakers: Rockliff, O’Connor, Labor leader Rebecca White, Clark independent Kristie Johnson, and Lara Alexander, who was in the early stages of taking an independent stance, much like her federal Bass counterpart Bridget Archer.

White focused less on the size of parliament than on denigrating the government, knowing she would have lost face in her own ranks had she given a Liberal premier full support. For his part, Rockliff is now dealing with the awkward consequences of charting his own course. Discontent within the Liberals is now widespread. 

Every year that passes shows ever more clearly the limitations of the kind of rule we’re used to – government by a single political party in isolation, separated by its ideology from other viewpoints. That applies to Labor and the Greens as much as it does to their conservative opponents.

Those prepared to see things from others’ perspective deserve our wholehearted support. The complex world outside party boundaries demands big-picture, independent thinking and a willingness to risk defeat. Winning elections is one thing, but the really hard bit is winning the respect of posterity.

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