Following yesterday’s Federal Court decision against opponents of Gunns’ proposed pulp mill in Tasmania’s Tamar Valley, Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been gifted a golden electoral opportunity, and one that could enhance his chances of taking the leadership of the Liberal Party.

The proposed mill is situated in the federal seat of Bass, a seat Labor hopes to win back and the Coalition, sitting on a margin of only 2.6%, hopes to hold. Given that the Tasmanian parliament is all but guaranteed to approve the mill, the final decision is now Turnbull’s.

Does he side with concerned local businesses, residents and environmentalists who want the project abandoned? The strategy has attractions. The federal government has a newfound opposition to state governments. The Lennon Labor government’s ham-fisted boosterism of the project is apparent to all, and there are lingering questions over the mill’s environmental efficacy. Pulping the mill taps into voter displeasure and strengthens the Coalition’s environmental credibility.

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Or, mindful of the electoral influence the Tasmanian forestry industry, does he give life to a project sold to Tasmanians people as an economic cure-all?

Or does he do both?

Greens senator Christine Milne points out that asking for more information on environmental compliance will lead to delay and greater cost, prompting Gunns to abandon the project, which would most likely see the Coalition hold onto Bass. Turnbull could then argue he was supportive of the mill, but he couldn’t allow Paul Lennon to jeopardise the future of the Tamar Valley. And that, says Milne, is excellent positioning for grabbing the Liberal Party leadership.

“After Haneef he said ‘in another life I probably would have been on Haneef’s other side.’ And on the republic he said ‘I still support the republic but that’s in the future’. That’s a signal to the small ‘l’ liberals that he’s progressive on social policy. So he just needs to send a signal to the environment movement that a Turnbull led government would be a return of the small ‘l’ liberal.

“What Turnbull becomes then is the hope after Howard. Because Rudd has gone for the me-tooism, there’s a growing sense that he could be a false dawn,” Milne told Crikey this morning.

All of which leaves Turnbull with a decision that affects Tasmania, the future of the Liberal party, the upcoming federal election and his own political ambitions. Over to you, Malcolm.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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