South Sister St. Marys, Tasmania

South Sister

the oldest trick in politics

- by richard flanagan

In early 2002 some millions of dollars of forestry machinery in the southern forests was badly vandalised. Following intense and unquestioning coverage by Tasmanian media of the deputy Premier Paul Lennon's claims that the vandalism was the work of environmentalists, I wrote the following article. The Mercury declined the piece, saying it had adequately covered the story. To this day no evidence has been produced to back the deputy premier's calms.

The only sight sadder in Tasmania than the stuffed thylacine in the Hobart Museum is that of a desperate politician reworking the oldest trick in the island's politics.

It goes like this: when your fortunes are low, denounce Greenies as troublemakers who lose us jobs and who will do anything to win their arguments.

The hoary old favourite was most recently trotted out by Deputy Premier Paul Lennon who, faced both with an imminent election and the recent destruction of heavy forestry machinery, felt the need to associate conservationists with this lamentable vandalism, and in so doing attempted to take us all back to brawling in the clearfells.

Almost as much of an anachronism as a stuffed thylacine himself, the man who embodies all the long dead develop or perish values of yesteryear, Paul Lennon is regularly touted as future Tasmanian premier.

Yet unless one can call an output of woodchips double the combined total of the rest of Australia an achievement worthy of lauding, Lennon as a minister has been inept, failing to address the long term problems of the forestry industry, his handling of the Southwood project arrogant and clumsy, leading only to outraging community groups across the south and making what not so long ago looked an impossibility, the election of a second Green parliamentarian in Franklin, now a real possibility.

In such desperate straits, a few months out from an election, some Greenie bashing from a government good on rhetoric but indolent in office and short on any real achievement, was perhaps as inevitable as it is untrue to our history.

Violence directed at conservationists

For the last thirty years the Green movement has been a serious political force in our society, in which time the forestry industry has shed jobs consistently while the growth in employment has been in areas prophesied by the Greens back in the 1970s - tourism, fine food, culture - sometimes, as in the case of the revival of Strahan, in direct consequence of Green campaigns.

As for violence, the only violence I can recall has always been directed at conservationists.

From the mysterious disappearance in 1972 of Brenda Hean and Max Price in their Tiger Moth on its way to Canberra to protest Lake Pedder's flooding, with dark stories of sabotaged planes, to the beating of Bob Brown in Queenstown during the Franklin campaign, to the firebombing of Jack Lomax's car in the Picton, Tasmania has a shameful past of violence being suffered by Tasmanian conservationists but never used nor advocated by them.

There are sound reasons for this rejection of violence. Both philosophically and politically the Tasmanian Green movement in its many forms has always been deeply wedded to non-violent protest coupled to constitutional means - parliamentary election, legal challenge and international forums - to fight for their causes.

Because these methods have by and large proved successful there never have been serious voices raised in the Green movement here advocating violent or destructive methods.

So where is the evidence to back up the deputy premier's suggestion of green destruction?

Well, strange to say, there is none.

Damaging consequences

All that is on offer is another old election favourite, the unsigned letter, and a venture into print by a cabinet colleague, Peter Patmore, that states the obvious: that extremists do exist, and could exist here, but produces no proof that this is so.

But whatever the dubious foundations of a tale that now seemed to be seeking to link vandalism in southern Tasmanian coupes to Californian eco-nazis, we ought be in no doubt as to its damaging consequences.

Even if the police discover those who committed the vandalism and these people then present themselves as acting in the cause of conservation, it would not excuse Paul Lennon's politicisation of the issue.

For we in Tasmania have been down the road of bitter division too many times before, allowing politicians with no ideas for tomorrow to take us back to yesterday, to cover their failure with the politics of them or us, rather than showing what we share as Tasmanians, and what we need to do together if we are all to have a future.

Who can forget the sadness of Tasmania in the 1980s, when we were persuaded to hate one another, when it wasn't safe to walk into pubs in some Tasmanian towns looking vaguely Green in dress or deportment, when bushwalkers cars were regularly vandalised and the politics of hate determined much of government policy.

Robin Gray, Paul Lennon's spiritual predecessor, left us with our public finances in crisis, with an image of our island as reactionary, rednecked and backward, and a sense of ourselves as divided.

We had lost our way, and at a time when we desperately needed a unity of purpose and direction the island languished.

But I suspect Tasmanians, if not all our politicians, have moved on since that sorry time.

Perhaps Tasmanians do know both sides of the forestry debate: the tragedy of our diminishing old growth forests, the decency of those who work within them and our need to look after them as well as the trees, as difficult as that equation is to get right.

And what we need are answers to the difficult questions all this raises, not thuggish accusations that seek to once more divide us on the basis of hate and fear.

[First published by Tasmanian Times in 2002; republished here with permission.]

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