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Tasmania markets itself as a natural beauty, pitching to people on the mainland that they should “come down for air”, but it’s been a different story in the island state’s frenzied election campaign. Nature was nearly entirely absent from the first month of campaigning ahead of election day on 23 March.

By late last week, the incumbent Liberal party had issued more than 220 press releases since the campaign kicked off on Valentine’s Day. None included an environment policy. Labor, which is attempting to return to power after 10 years in the political wilderness, had sent out 130 press releases without mentioning nature.

Coincidentally or otherwise, that changed after the Tasmanian Greens flew journalists to Melaleuca, deep in the south-west world heritage wilderness, to make a string of announcements on Friday.

Kate Crowley, an adjunct associate professor in politics at the University of Tasmania, said the environment had been “noticeably absent” from the election campaign despite what is sometimes described as the state’s clean, green image. She said this wasn’t surprising.

“We have seen a continuing erosion of support from the major parties for protecting important nature areas,” she said. “In a way, this is as much a reaction to the Greens as anything to do with the environment itself. Labor and the Liberals tend to ignore the environment unless it’s really pushed under their nose and they’re forced to do something.”

With less than a week to go until polling day, a central question is whether this reflects the will of the electorate. Polling by uComms of 1,174 Tasmanians, commissioned by progressive thinktank the Australia Institute and released last week, suggested a majority oppose a Liberal promise to allow logging in 40,000 hectares of protected forests.

It also found there was strong support (69%) for reducing the number of inshore salmon farms – a step that would be at odds with the policies of major parties, which both back the fish farming industry. But the poll did not test the extent to which these issues would influence how people voted.

The Australia Institute’s state director, Eloise Carr, said the results showed people were not satisfied with “a continuation of the status quo” on environmental and other issues, and that the lack of focus on nature in the campaign ignored that “people visit and live in Tasmania because it’s a part of the planet that is in relatively good nick”.

“Voters are asking why this policy vacuum exists,” Carr said. “And Tasmanians do care – look at the numbers.”

Into the wild with the Greens

On Friday, the Greens MP Vica Bayley led a group of journalists, tourism operators and Indigenous leaders that flew over the path of the South Coast track, a bushwalking trail through 85km of remote, scenic wilderness, to launch the party’s nature policy. The view below took in button grass plains, pristine beaches, steep peaks and country with documented Indigenous history.

The track is the subject of a contentious proposal to allow six luxury accommodation huts that would open the area to a greater range of tourists but would, according to an analysis commissioned by the Wilderness Society, significantly affect the wilderness values of the area.

The Greens oppose what they say has been a “dodgy” process under which tourism businesses have been invited to lodge expressions of interest for developments in the world heritage area and national parks, with little transparency over what would result.

Their policy also promises to fight to establish an Aboriginal-owned national park and expand the world heritage area that was established in 1982 and covers about a fifth of the state, but excludes areas that campaigners say have been found to have unique wilderness values.

Tabatha Badger, a Greens candidate for Lyons, a seat that includes rural areas and coastal towns, said the minor party was fighting to protect natural places while the Liberals and Labor ignored them. “Where are the other parties? We’d absolutely welcome some sensible environment policies from them, but yet again they are letting Tasmanians down,” she said

Tasmanian Greens candidate Tabatha Badger (right) with tourism operator Tory Stewart at Melaleuca lagoon. Photograph: Tasmanian Greens

While the Greens were in the wild, Labor released its first environment statement of the campaign. It was not backed by a media conference or public events. Labor accused the Liberal party of having “no interest in protecting our environment” and failing to release a state of the environment report during its decade in power, despite legislation requiring one every five years.

Labor’s policies include a promised $500,000 package to create new jobs managing national parks, a position similar to that also backed by the Greens. It said it would work to reduce the effect of feral fallow deer, provide increased funding for Landcare and release the state’s first state of the environment report since 2009.

Its remaining environment policies, including a ban on single-use plastics, introducing a container deposit scheme that has been in development under the Liberal government and a restatement of existing climate commitments, were not nature-related. The party’s environment spokesperson, Sarah Lovell, said Labor would “get on with the work needed to protect our environment and parks, to ensure our children can enjoy the same Tasmania we know and love”.

The Liberal party followed with a parks and environment statement on Saturday. The premier, Jeremy Rockliff, said Tasmania’s parks were “world-class”, that its “globally significant natural environment is the jewel in our state’s crown” and that more than 50% of the state’s environment was “protected forever”. This figure is disputed by the Greens and environmentalists, who say development, logging and mining are allowed in significant areas counted to reach 50%.

Rockliff promised that if re-elected the Liberals would spend $15m to upgrade three parks to “enhance the visitor experience for visitors and locals alike”, and commit $8m over four years to a threatened species fund. The environment minister, Roger Jaensch, said: “The Liberals are absolutely committed to protecting Tasmania’s pristine natural environment.”

The state’s environment groups supported the Greens’ position and were critical of what the major parties offered, particularly their support for continuing – and, in the Liberals’ case, potentially expanding – native forestry. Jenny Weber, campaigns manager with the Bob Brown Foundation, described the Liberals and Labor as “both pro-logging and pro-toxic salmon parties”.

On Sunday, thousands of people joined a protest march through the centre of Hobart calling for a native forest logging ban. The Bob Brown Foundation said it had expected about 500 people, but estimated the crowd that gathered outside state parliament topped 3,000.

Alice Hardinge, state campaign manager for the Wilderness Society, said it was increasingly clear that some politicians were prepared to ignore people who cared about nature, but Tasmanians ultimately expected the state’s “precious places” to be protected.

“What is at stake is worth far more than cheap politics.”


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