At the 2014 Victorian election, the green battle ground will be a paddock, not a forest

The political terrain around environmental issues is shifting. The government knows it. But can it respond?

During the 2010 Victorian election campaign it was clear that the Coalition decided it couldn’t get ahead of the Greens and ALP on environmental issues and so ran silent, leaving the debate largely to an inner electorate argument about Hazelwood. Its ‘no target’ approach meant it tried to appear moderate, constantly promising to release a full environment and climate policy (which never surfaced) and even pledging support for several government initiatives.

But after 18 months in power the Baillieu Government’s real environmental agenda has become all too apparent.

Since winning office it has steadily pushed a slash and burn operation through the previous government’s environmental legislation, killing off the 20% greenhouse gas emissions reduction target, slashing the solar feed-in tariff, cutting staff in biodiversity, enacting a wind farm policy that effectively knee-caps the industry, and allowing cattle back into the Alpine National Park.

As a result it is facing a determined and united green movement, which will work hard to make environment and climate key election priorities in 2014.

What makes 2014 different is how things are un-folding in rural Victoria. In a significant strategic error, a growing number of the Coalition’s actions have also badly let down its own supporters, and the ramifications of this are likely to play out far from the usual inner city and leafy green suburbs. Even cost of living campaigns in recently claimed metro seats could be eclipsed by a rural and regional backlash.

Take the coal seam gas (CSG) issue for starters. A big issue across the ‘coal belt’ but barely reported in metro media. What is fascinating here is that rural communities are finding common cause with green activists, just as with the Lock the Gate Alliance in the northern states. Coalition representatives have been noticeable by their absence in their own constituencies at forums and in the media debate, while the people speaking at public meetings are more likely to be environmental activists. Federal and state Greens MPs have played a key role in a number of community campaigns against coal and gas. The ALP has called for a moratorium on CSG. Meanwhile, Deputy Premier Peter Ryan, a National in a seat where concern over CSG and new coal is huge, continues to declare that existing legislation will protect farmer’s rights.

No astute political observer can believe that this position will be tenable for much longer.

And it gets worse for the government:

The recent announcement of the closure of Department of Primary Industries offices at Ararat, Birchip, Camperdown, Cobram, Kyneton, Ouyen and St Arnaud is a further body blow to many small towns. 

The same applies to the two kilometre wind buffer and ‘no go’ zones that are already resulting in lost investment in regional areas and contract jobs for local tradespeople in small towns throughout the state. 

Slashing the solar feed-in tariff will prevent struggling rural and regional families from being able to reduce their household energy bills and hedge against future price rises.

The government clearly thinks it can get away with implementing retrograde environmental policies but I suggest they have overlooked two key factors that may yet come back to haunt them in 2014.

The first is the assumption that Liberal voters don’t care about the environment. Certainly not all do. But as any politician will know, it’s about margins, not absolute numbers.  And with Ted Baillieu’s approval rating already plummeting, 2014 is shaping to be a close election.

In some electorates, up to 30% of Liberal voters allocate their preferences to the Greens even when the Liberals have issued a how to vote card against them. A common statistic cited is that the preference ‘bleed’ is about 1 voter in 5. For those who pay attention to environmental debates, the Baillieu government is on the nose and this could well impact on where many Liberal voters put their preferences on election day.

The second element was harder to spot back in 2010 as it only came into focus last year. In recent times there have been a growing number of proposals for new coal and gas operations across the southern half of the state, with more than 20 exploration licenses currently issued for CSG in Victoria.

In the public realm, the state government ignores the mining issue, while a growing number of local councils have supported motions against coal, gas, or both. The Victorian Farmers Federation, long an ally of the Coalition, has finally come off the fence and called for land owners to have the same right of veto for CSG drilling that they have over wind turbines.

Communities have been fighting new coal proposals in western and southern Victoria and increasingly they are winning. In 2011, communities south of Colac faced off against mining company Mantle, which had the common sense to make a strategic retreat. 

As anger grows across Coalition held seats, and as companies jostle to turn their visions of an enlarged fossil fuel industry into real drill rigs and open cut mines, a key battle ground in the build up to the 2014 state election will be the farmland of southern Victoria.

Next week the final report of the Inquiry into Greenfields Mineral Exploration and Project Development in Victoria will be tabled in parliament. This is the government’s opportunity to show it is listening to community concerns.

The government must understand that anything less than a moratorium on coal and gas and full inquiry will not be enough to alleviate community concerns.

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Cam Walker is campaigns co-ordinator with Friends of the Earth.