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Forest stoush helps Abbott

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This article first appeared in The Australian, 22 February 2013.

It is likely that many Australians haven't heard of the Tarkine wilderness in northwest Tasmania.

A vast region notable for its extensive stands of myrtle-dominated rainforest and a stunning coastline, the Tarkine has become a trigger for an escalating war of words between Labor and the Greens.

This war will have only one winner: Tony Abbott.

The seeds of the Tarkine dispute were sown seven years ago when then environment minister Malcolm Turnbull recommended that the independent Australian Heritage Council assess the Tarkine region for a possible National Heritage listing.

In December, the Heritage Council reported that more than 400,000ha of the region contained National Heritage values. In response, two weeks ago federal Environment Minister Tony Burke decided to list only 22,000ha. This ill-considered decision surprised even strident opponents of conservation and sparked the firestorm of fear, loathing and vitriol that has engulfed the Greens and Labor over the past week.

So why did National Heritage listing spark such a meltdown? It is not permanent like a National Park gazettal or a World Heritage declaration but it does trigger more rigorous assessment of the environmental impacts of major developments. From a conservation perspective, it is welcomed, but it is not the end to development.

Burke's decision, driven by pressure from the AWU and the Tasmanian government, is out of character. From past experience, environmentalists expected a robust but pragmatic decision from Burke.

Despite claims by some, he has been a reformist minister who has tried, sometimes successfully, to deliver credible environment policy and reconcile the schizophrenic impulses of his party, which is one minute the friend of the planet, the next the friend of the workers, but never a friend to both at the same time.

His support for the still-fragile Tasmanian forest peace agreement has been decisive; his marine protected area decisions are neither as good as he claims nor as bad as his opponents say and for the first time in a very long time, the Murray-Darling is not a political football.

But with his Tarkine decision, he played into the hands of his opponents both within his party and outside.

There is no doubt that the Tarkine decision is a huge win for Paul Howes and his campaign to further move Labor to some mythical centre.

In the course of his campaign, he has played hard ball and been loose with the truth, claiming in September 2012 that possible Tarkine National Heritage listing was simply "the latest battleground in the green movement's ideological quest to destroy resource-based industries across Australia", and claiming that National Heritage listing would lead to the closure of existing mines. He's talking rubbish.

Nor have the Greens been adverse to flights of fantasy, with leader Christine Milne slamming the decision as a "crime against the environment".

For Labor, the Tarkine misadventure highlights that the internal culture war over the Greens and environment policy continues unabated and unresolved.

Howes and others seem to believe that Labor can rebuild an election-winning constituency without a credible environment policy. He is dreaming

Meanwhile, the Greens seem to believe that they can form government with support from fewer than two in 10 Australians

And both seem to think that Australians will vote for a ramshackle coalition of interests rather than the relative stability of a Liberal-National Coalition.

And that leaves Abbott, with a pledge to repeal the carbon tax, to hand environmental decision-making powers back to the states and mutterings about overturning the Tasmanian forest agreement, with a rails run to The Lodge. Happy days.