KATE BURTON, http://www.katemburton.com/

Saving the forests (or, Why they will have to wait).

Politics in Tasmania has long been polarised by the environment. The Franklin Dam campaign of the late 70s and early 80s is one of Tasmania’s best-known, but there are often battles about proposed developments as well as regular conflict over logging between environmentalists on one hand and forestry workers and police on the other hand.

But the release this week of a report on homelessness in Tasmania is a reminder that social issues are also central to the political landscape of this State. The report found that 2,500 people were homeless in 2006 – a 62% rise on the figure in 2001. And the State Government has conceded that the number of homeless people has probably risen further since 2006, in part because of the impact of a deteriorating economic environment.

Moreover the report invites reflection on the likelihood of victory of environmental activism in Tasmania – as well as the need for more activism on social issues. Because the forests are doomed. Or they will be unless political leaders demonstrate that they can think long-term and put in place policies to match. And if we are to see the desperately needed shift in political perspective from short- to long-term we won’t see it first in the environment portfolio. We’ll see it in the areas that Liberal and Labor take more seriously – or at least to which they give greater lip service. That’s because the environment is a long way down the list of most government’s priorities, particularly in Tasmania.

Recently a friend recounted a conversation he had with Peter Shergold, then Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. The subject was energy production and my friend asked Peter if he thought that coal-fired power stations looked attractive. It was posed as a rhetorical question, but Peter answered in the affirmative. ‘You’re lying,’ my friend replied.

A visitor to Tasmania, I told my friend that Peter might well have been telling the truth. Down here, I explained, a semi-industrial vision of progress rules. Pulp mills, zinc smelters and tin mines are signs of the State’s wealth and advancement. No Tasmanian Premier has ever articulated a real vision for Tasmania that builds on the ‘clean, green and clever’ brand to which all parties say they have signed up.

The current parliamentary leaders – Premier David Bartlett, Liberal Leader Will Hodgman and Greens Leader Nick McKim – are from the right generation to deliver on that promise. Liberal and Labor, however, are still ruled by the previous generations with outmoded notions of progress. (And, more disappointingly, both parties also host Generation X-ers who share these notions.) And for all of David Bartlett’s promise to create a ‘clever, kind and connected Tasmania’, his 10 year vision articulated in May this year was startlingly lacking in ideas for making Tasmania less reliant on 20th century products and the environmentally destructive means of producing them. The rhetoric can be sharp but anyone waiting for evidence of real change has been disappointed.

For the party that has historically championed the lot of the underprivileged State Labor has also been worse than disappointing in its social policies. Dismal, in fact. Public housing lists swell as Minister after Minister responsible for that portfolio outlines yet another plan for solving the crisis, while little is delivered. And the shelters for people experiencing homelessness, which shoulder the vast burden of this policy failure, receive little or no additional help from the State Government.

On other social issues the Government’s record is just as bad. A highly successful crime prevention program for young people, Chance on Main, will soon close its doors because State Labor refuses to put up the $400,000 needed to keep it running. To put this figure in perspective, it costs about $250,000 a year to detain one young person at Ashley Detention Centre. Chance on Main can help over 70 young people a year for less than double the cost of a single inmate at Ashley.

That isn’t to say that the Liberal Party would prove any better. Neither alternative party of government (at the moment the Greens aren’t in a position to claim that status) views social issues with long-term vision. Hence policy ‘solutions’ are to problems requiring a quick political fix and usually with a close eye on the next election.

And of course the problem isn’t unique to Tasmania. People with an interest in public policy have long derided the short-term nature of policy-making in Australia. Political reality seems to dictate that governments devise policy around electoral success rather than on securing sound long-term outcomes. The examples above show some of the effects of this on social policy.

In Tasmania environmental policy fares even more badly because here the environment isn’t seen as an end in itself, it is a means to an end – forestry, tourism, a political wedge. Even calculating the value of forests as carbon sinks as part of emissions trading is problematic because it buys into the notion that trees don’t have an inherent value; their existence must be quantified in economic terms. Apparently it is bad politics to admit that the environment is, quite simply, priceless.

So the forests lose on two counts. One, they are way down the priority list of policy areas – especially in Tasmania. And two, the self-interested and short-term political thinking which passes as policy-making in this State simply cannot accommodate policies and practices that ensure careful stewardship of the environment.

Consider this. If the Labor Party cannot put in place policies to advance the class after which it is named, any hope of it approaching environmental issues with a long-term and sustainable vision is desperately false. The forests will have to wait.