No-one should be surprised that Gunn’s pulp mill in Tasmania is sending election plans “pear shaped” for the member for Wentworth, Malcolm Turnbull, or for Peter Garrett in the adjacent Sydney electorate.

There is a long history of conservation issues turning on even the toughest factional warriors and creating unlikely coalitions.

In 1971 the Builders Labourers Federation of NSW instituted a “Green Ban” when they were approached by a group of female Hunters Hill residents to help save Kelly’s Bush, a coastal reserve that AV Jennings had threatened to develop with the help of a compliant council.

In the BLF executive Jack Munday and Joe Owens were prepared to dismiss the concerns of the “blue rinse set” but their colleague Bob Pringle was clear that protecting the bush, the birds, plants and the animals of the landscape, was an issue that crossed class and political boundaries.

The union hit Jennings with the threat of bans and the community fought on, eventually earning significant protections for Kelly’s Bush.

Conservation issues — the protection of what little remains of natural bushland in Australia — come from the heart of the electorate. People of all “castes and creeds” are prepared to tackle seemingly impossible odds and inspire an equally broad cross-section of the community — voters — to do the same.

Governments and oppositions plan for elections carefully — policy development, advertising, schmoozing and pork barrelling, monitored by increasingly sophisticated technology, repackaged and rechecked in response to phone polls. But when what little remains of “the bush” appears to be threatened, rhetoric from voters can become volatile and unpredictable.

Rudd and Howard have ignored the conservation of Australian bushland to date, but Howard’s mate Cousins has set out to test the mood of the electorate, raising the Tasmanian bush again to a national issue by focussing on the singularly unpopular Gunn’s pulp mill proposal.

Malcolm is in the middle. On one side is his huge environment Australia bureaucracy who have shovelled tonnes of paperwork at the public as they have approved full tilt clearfell forestry and mining in the states for more than a decade. They are keen to “tick” Gunn’s pulp mill proposal.

On the other side is an increasing percentage of the national electorate fed up with the apparent hold forestry departments/timber companies have over both Liberal and Labor.

Even if Kevin Rudd was the star of a strip show, the polls are driven by a desperate need to just “pull up” government in general, yet the Howard Government in particular will probably hold its ground.

But, if Turnbull can find a way of getting action out of his monolithic Environment Australia bureaucracy and the “JohnPaul” show in Tasmania, he could outflank Rudd. History is on his side if he can distinguish between academic “environment and lifestyle issues” and genuine conservation.

The arch conservative state premier Henry Bolte anointed a progressive protector of bushland, Dick Hamer, as his successor. He set about an unprecedented expansion of National Parks and instituted world leading natural resource management condemning state Labor to years more in opposition.

Does Howard have the foresight or philosophical wherewithal to pull that sort wombat out of his hat?