Even the Fin was sceptical about the Prime Minister’s energy statement
yesterday. “Howard caves into polluters”, the headline read on the
Chanticleer column. And it was pretty clear from the feral 7.30 Report
interview on Monday night that Environment Minister David Kemp hadn’t
come out on top as Cabinet put the package together. What has started
off as an environmental policy very much ended up as an energy document.

But does this really hurt the Government? We reported talk several
months ago about a “green wedge” strategy in the lead up to the next
election.

This died down when Iron Bark went for his frolic in the forests with
Bob Brown – but the Peter Garrett signing has got the speculation
flowing again. What does it really mean?

There’s that great Hollywood saying “But will it play in Peoria?” – out
with middle America. Let’s look at that wonderful little local
microcosm that has been the cradle of much of the Australian
environment movement, Tasmania.

There, Labor’s hard working Michelle O’Byrne holds the key marginal
seat of Bass. She is a good grass roots member. Labor can feel pretty
confident about hanging on for now – but the greener Latham becomes the
more alienated the voters of Bass will feel. Bass is a “conservative”
seat of the blue-collar Labor type. It is not a green electorate by any
means. The Garrett/Latham bond might work wonders for mainland city
folk with warm and fuzzy feelings about rainforests, but it won’t go
down well in Launceston.

If Latham comes up with some sort of end to clearfelling promise and
compensation package then there could be an almighty backlash against
Labor in Tassie. The average Launceston punter will not want the feds
interfering with their forestry industry. The same scenario can
probably be applied to Braddon and Lyons as well.

Has Latham effectively wedged himself? The environment is the biggest
wedge danger he currently faces. Nothing more clearly splits
traditional blue-collar Labor from the new Labor elites. Right down the
middle.

There he was, happily drifting above the policy detail talking in
visions and values. The average person knows absolutely nothing about
politics and detail. They think in images: Howard the staid boring
father figure; Latham the new guy with ideas.

Latham seemed to recognise that he needed to build a broad constituency
to win and so concentrated on unifying issues such as health and
education.

So why this obsession with the environment anyway? The Green
preferences weren’t going to go to the Libs. There is no gain for
Latham in becoming deeper green.

Perhaps Howard will wait now – wait and see what other slips his opponent makes.

Peter Fray

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