North­cote by­elec­tion: Greens tap into groundswell of sup­port for for­est pro­tec­tion

The Guardian Australia - - News - Michael Slezak

The is­sue of for­est pro­tec­tions could help the Greens gain an­other seat from La­bor in a Vic­to­rian by­elec­tion this week­end.

Thirty en­vi­ron­ment groups have joined forces to wedge La­bor on the is­sue, which polling shows mo­ti­vates sig­nif­i­cant votes in the seat of North­cote.

Satur­day’s by­elec­tion was caused by the death of La­bor’s Fiona Richard­son af­ter a re­cur­rence of breast can­cer in Au­gust this year.

It is one of five in­ner-city seats where La­bor vot­ers are in­creas­ingly aban­don­ing them for the Greens. Two of those seats – Mel­bourne and Prahran – fell to the Greens in 2014, with just four per­cent­age points keep­ing La­bor ahead of the Greens in the pri­mary vote in North­cote.

Polling sug­gests La­bor is likely to re­tain North­cote this week­end, with a fur­ther re­duced mar­gin. But that polling also shows vot­ers in North­cote care a lot about for­est pro­tec­tion – an is­sue the Greens could ben­e­fit from, es­pe­cially with height­ened cam­paign­ing from con­ser­va­tion and re­search groups.

More than 30 such groups, with GetUp now adding its name to the list, have come ou­ton Wed­nes­day re­new­ing their call for the ur­gent cre­ation of the mooted Great For­est na­tional park.

The pro­posed Great For­est na­tional park would cover vast ar­eas of the cen­tral high­lands re­gion of Vic­to­ria, and in­clude some of the tallest, most car­bon-dense trees in the world. The area is home to the en­dan­gered Lead­beater’s pos­sum, with sci­en­tists warn­ing the species and ecosys­tem as a whole will soon col­lapse due to log­ging prac­tices and bush­fire trends.

A long and con­certed push by en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, in­clud­ing Sir David At­ten­bor­ough and Jane Goodall, to cre­ate a new na­tional park north of Mel­bourne has failed to sway La­bor to adopt the pol­icy.

How­ever, the lo­cal La­bor can­di­date, Clare Burns, said she sup­ported the con­cept and would ad­vo­cate for it. “As I said at the can­di­dates fo­rum last week, I al­ready have a proven record of de­liv­er­ing for the elec­torate of North­cote – be it plan­ning is­sues, much-needed fund­ing for lo­cal schools, or a new lo­ca­tion for the SES,” she said.

“When it comes to the Great For­est na­tional park, I will use those same meth­ods of ad­vo­cacy that I have for other lo­cal projects to ad­vo­cate for the for­est that’s on our doorstep.

“The Great For­est na­tional park is vi­tal for our wa­ter catch­ment, vi­tal for com­bat­ing cli­mate change and vi­tal for sus­tain­able jobs which is why I will ad­vo­cate for the cre­ation of the Great For­est na­tional park, within gov­ern­ment, where change can ac­tu­ally be made.”

Amelia Young, Vic­to­rian cam­paigns man­ager for the Wilder­ness So­ci­ety, said that since 2014, when en­vi­ron­men­tal groups first called on the state gov­ern­ment to cre­ate the Great For­est na­tional park, the need for it has be­come even greater and its po­ten­tial ben­e­fits fur­ther demon­strated.

“The Lead­beater’s pos­sum has been up­graded to crit­i­cally en­dan­gered, the moun­tain ash for­est ecosys­tem it­self has been in­ter­na­tion­ally listed as crit­i­cally en­dan­gered. And now we know that the pro­posed park will cre­ate more than 760 safe and sus­tain­able jobs.”

In Oc­to­ber the groups con­ducted a ReachTel sur­vey of 835 res­i­dents in North­cote that found more than one in five vot­ers thought pro­tect­ing forests from log­ging was the most im­por­tant out of five is­sues polled – rat­ing it above the tra­di­tional La­bor is­sues of job cre­ation, hous­ing and ed­u­ca­tion.

La­bor is fo­cus­ing on renters’ rights and cost of hous­ing in the by­elec­tion – both of which were not rated as im­por­tant as the pro­tec­tion of na­tive forests.

More than one in 10 of those vot­ers plan­ning to choose La­bor also rated the pro­tec­tion of na­tive forests as the most im­por­tant is­sue when de­cid­ing who to vote for in the up­com­ing by­elec­tion.

Just over 18% of vot­ers who said they were un­de­cided also rated pro­tect­ing na­tive forests as the top is­sue they would con­sider when de­cid­ing who to vote for.

Friends of the Earth for­est cam­paigner Ed Hill said: “La­bor’s two ma­jor by­elec­tion is­sues rate poorly as im­por­tant is­sues to North­cote vot­ers, with renters’ rights the most im­por­tant is­sue for just 14% of the elec­torate and hous­ing costs the most im­por­tant is­sue for just 15%.”

“It’s in the best in­ter­ests of all by­elec­tion can­di­dates to sup­port the great for­est na­tional park and cham­pion pro­tec­tion of our na­tive forests and wildlife , is­sues clearly favoured by this elec­torate,” said Hill.

Log­ging of na­tive forests has been a ma­jor is­sue in Vic­to­ria for years. Most re­cently, the state-

owned com­mer­cial log­ging com­pany VicForests was pre­vented from log­ging old-growth for­est in East Gipp­s­land by a court in­junc­tion sought by con­ser­va­tion groups. The groups ar­gued the area could not be legally logged, since the gov­ern­ment has failed to mark 60% of those for­est types as “spe­cial pro­tec­tion zones” as they are legally re­quired to do.

Last week the Vic­to­rian Greens said they would in­tro­duce leg­is­la­tion to the Vic­to­rian par­lia­ment to cre­ate a Great For­est na­tional park and end na­tive for­est log­ging in the Cen­tral High­lands of Vic­to­ria.

Lidia Thorpe, the Greens’ can­di­date for North­cote, said: “We’re very lucky in Vic­to­ria. We have some of the most beau­ti­ful old-growth and na­tive forests in the world, just a stone’s throw from Mel­bourne.

“Vot­ers in North­cote tell me they don’t want the La­bor gov­ern­ment to keep de­stroy­ing these pre­cious forests just to make a quick buck. They want these places pro­tected for gen­er­a­tions to come, and if I’m elected that’s ex­actly what I’ll fight for.”

Pho­to­graph: Ste­fan Pos­tles/AAP

Greens North­cote can­di­date Lidia Thorpe, pic­tured with fed­eral leader Richard Di Natale, says she will fight for old-growth forests.

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