From: Michelle Nichols, Reuters
Published September 21, 2004 12:00 AM

Environment Grabs Australian Election Focus

CANBERRA, Australia — The fate of Australia's virgin forests and precious water resources won the attention of political leaders recently, as the environment emerged as a central issue ahead of the Oct. 9 federal election.


The conservative government and center-left opposition Labor, running neck-and-neck in the polls, are both mulling how to strike a balance between conserving ancient forests on the island state of Tasmania and keeping the jobs of thousands of timber workers.


Prime Minister John Howard and Labor leader Mark Latham have already clashed over how any potential multi-billion dollar compensation packages for the logging industry would be funded.


Howard has denied a suggestion by Latham that he might try to make a virgin forest conservation package dependent on a A$30 billion (US$21 billion) sale of the government's 51 percent stake in telecommunications giant Telstra.


Finance Minister Nick Minchin suggested the government could use some of the A$5.3 billion budget surplus forecast for the year to June 30, 2005, to fund compensation for the logging industry. Latham said that would be irresponsible economics.


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"In relation to old-growth logging, I think most Australians would like to see it stopped, but I do not believe it should be stopped at the expense of jobs of the timber workers and communities in Tasmania," Howard told Australian radio. "I'm giving some thought to a possible way through that could accommodate both of those objectives, but I am not going to throw the Tasmanian workers on the scrap heap," he said.


Latham has made a similar pledge to strike a balance between conserving the forests and preserving jobs.


While Australia's booming economy, national security, and the U.S.-led war on Iraq have been the major issues during the first half of the six-week election campaign, opinion polls show that six out of 10 voters see the environment as a key concern.


Campaigning in the state of Western Australia on Friday, Latham sought to woo those voters with a A$30 million policy to protect the state's beaches and coasts by improving monitoring of discharges from storm water drains and by reducing pollution.


Howard, also in Western Australia, was battling a revolt by Australia's six states and two territories, all governed by Labor, against a A$2 billion package unveiled this week to save rivers and improve water efficiency.


The states have pulled out of a national water initiative — agreed to earlier this year — after it was revealed the government planned to fund its water policy by using A$1.6 billion normally allocated to the states.


The states' withdrawal from the agreement came as Labor announced a A$1 billion plan to save rivers and improve water efficiency in Australia, the world's driest inhabited continent yet the world's highest user of water per person.


Source: Reuters


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