The worst kept secret in Australian politics is out – but what will it mean for the Senate?

The worst kept secret in Australian politics was has finally been put to rest with former Tasmanian Greens leader and now staffer for Bob Brown, Christine Milne, announcing she will run for a senate seat at the next election.

Hard core wonks can see how the three Tasmanian dailies covered the story at The Examiner, The Advocate and The Mercury.

This being a Greens announcement, timing was everything. It came at the same time as the release of draft guidelines by Premier Paul Lennon for a pulp mill in Tasmania (see more stories at The Mercury and The Examiner).

Now that Milne’s candidacy is out in the open, there are two issues to consider – what Milne’s chances of success at the election are and, and secondly, what impact will the broad issue of a pulp mill have on the Tasmanian political landscape?

Senate specs

Liberals Eric Abetz and Guy Barnett, Kerry O’Brien and Kay Denman for the ALP and independents Shayne Murphy and Brian Harradine are up for election this time.

Shayne Murphy – if he stands – cannot win a seat. He was elected Labor then resigned to sit as an independent. He has a very small personal supporter base and there is no way he can get a quota on his own.

The Liberals will win two only. They would like to think they can win three but with two right wingers heading the ticket in Abetz and Barnett, coupled with the state of the local Liberal party. They simply lack the broad electoral appeal to get a third Senate spot.

Labor will win at least two, and have a better than even chance of winning back Murphy’s seat which they see as rightfully theirs. But the main unknown is whether Harradine, aged seventy, will recontest. If he does, that leaves a three-cornered contest with Labor, Harradine and Milne fighting for two seats.

Although he garners fierce support from his faithful followers and has been a senator for 30 years, Harradine is never a shoo-in; he only scored .55 of a quota on primaries at the 1998 election.

So it will come, as it always does, down to preferences. Harradine as always will enjoy a lot of preferential support from below the line voters, but how will they favour Milne? She is popular with the Green faithful, but the support will drop off quickly after that as the Greens tend to attract extreme love or extreme hate with voters.

If Harradine retires it will make it easier for Milne as she, perversely, will gain some of Harradine’s “maverick” vote – those who vote below the line and look for candidates outside the main parties.

Labor may well pick up one of the two seats up for grabs and that Harradine, if he stands, will just beat Milne to the other. If there is no Harradine, then Milne should be a certainty.

Another Green or Harradine in the Senate. It’s easy to guess which one the Government would prefer – or Prime Minister Latham.

Pulp friction

Christine Milne made her name in the 1980s leading a community uprising against a pulp mill earmarked for Wesley Vale in northern Tasmania.

She rode the wave of public support into state parliament which culminated in her leading the Greens and keeping the Liberals, under Tony Rundle, in minority government for two years until Rundle got sick of it and called an early election in 1998.

Jim Bacon’s Labor swept the Liberals aside and decimated the Greens, including Milne, in the process with only Peg Putt surviving the electoral holocaust. Since then, of course, the Liberals have sunk even lower to return only seven members in 2002, while the Greens re-grouped to return four.

Premier Paul Lennon is cleverly positioning the pulp mill to be one of the key issues for the next election due in 2006. Milne is on record as only supporting a mill that is closed loop, chlorine-free and uses non-native vegetation. It is a match stick to a stringybark that Lennon’s mill proposal will not satisfy the Greens.

Labor will appeal to the majority “reasonable” voter – those that want a timber industry, hate the Greens but are still vaguely worried about old-growth logging – to support the mill as down-stream processing of re-growth and plantation timber. It will create jobs and they will claim it will stem the export of wood chips to Japan.

Liberal leader Rene Hidding has been banging on for most of the past two years in support of a pulp mill and will try and claim as much credit as possible, but all that will be lost on the voters. By mirroring Labor’s policy position the Liberals will have the same problem as they have with forestry policy in general – irrelevance in the electorate.

Lennon wants the next election to be fought on environmental and forestry issues where the government is in combat with the Greens. He knows this squeezes the Liberals out who just will not be heard. He will also play the “vote for Liberals is a vote for minority government” card for all it is worth.

The Greens have been doing well in Tasmania, largely due to the pathetic performance of the Liberals, but they really need a major environmental issue to hang their hat to do any good at an election. But even with that they will struggle to return more than three, maybe four, seats.

The pulp mill issue is good for Labor and the Greens because it galvanises their respective supporters and bad for the Liberals because it renders them irrelevant. An election is not due until 2006 – but don’t be surprised if Paul Lennon decides to go to the polls late in 2005 and make it largely a referendum on this issue.

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]