Is fracking the ‘old growth forests issue' of the 2017 election?

Is fracking the ‘old growth forests issue' of the 2017 election?

At the 2001 state election, Geoff Gallop and Labor swept to power, picking up a record 14 seats to end two terms of Liberal-National government.

The Court Government had been accident-prone in its second term, and the state’s economy had slipped into recession.  One Nation had arrived in WA, with an anti-establishment policy of preferencing against sitting members.

Each of these factors contributed to Gallop’s win, but the contribution of Labor’s policy agenda should not be underestimated.

One of the centrepieces of Labor’s platform was a commitment to end logging in the state’s old growth forests.  This was a Labor policy that had been fought for, and won, by Geoff Gallop through Labor’s policy processes.  It came to define him, and the election.

With the nightly news full of ancient trees being felled, activists trying to save them and timber communities worried about their futures, the old growth forests debate was highly visible.  The political benefits to Labor were both direct and indirect.

Labor benefited directly, in being seen to have a strong and principled position.  However, the issue also split conservatives, with the splinter group (unintentional pun noted) Liberals for Forests standing candidates in safe Liberal seats, and having some success.

The splitting of the Liberal-vote was important to Labor’s success.  With environmental issues elevated, conservative voters who wanted to end logging, but could not bring themselves to vote Labor, parked their vote with the Greens, who were similarly committed to the policy.  This resulted in a flow of preferences to Labor from voters who usually voted Liberal.  This indirect benefit was critical in key marginal seats.

Fast forward to March 2017, where Labor is again looking to oust a two-term Liberal-National government, and there are many parallels.  The state’s economy is again in recession, and the Barnett Government has had its fair share of second-term mishaps.  One Nation is back in town, with renewed speculation over where it will direct its preferences.

But, in any comparison with the 2001 political landscape, what appears to be missing in 2017 is a high profile environmental issue with the potential to capture the imagination and split the conservative vote across the state.

The results of an exclusive Campaign Capital ReachTEL poll indicate fracking may have the potential to fill this gap.

On 23 November, we polled 876 voters in the Barnett Government’s eight most marginal metropolitan electorates of Belmont, Forrestfield, Morley, Mount Lawley, Bicton, Swan Hills, Balcatta and Perth.  We asked voters whether they supported the use of hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) by the unconventional gas industry in Western Australia.

The number of people who indicated they opposed fracking (59 per cent) outnumbered the number of people who supported fracking (12.3 per cent) by almost five to one.  Opposition to fracking was strong for both men and women, across all age groups, and among the supporters of all political parties.

When looking for the potential for fracking to be the ‘old growth forests issue' of the 2017 state election, it is worth noting that almost twice as many Liberal supporters oppose fracking (41.2 per cent) than support it (23.3 per cent).

 Do you support the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, by the unconventional gas industry in Western Australia?

fracking and the state election

fracking and the state election

On the policy front, the Greens would like to see fracking banned completely, while the Nationals support veto rights for landholders, if they object to gas companies accessing their land.

Earlier this year, Mark McGowan promised to make Perth, Peel and the South West of WA frack-free zones.  WA Labor’s platform includes a commitment to place a moratorium on fracking around the state, until an inquiry is held to determine the impact of the industry on groundwater, public health and climate change.

In sharp contrast, the Liberals appear happy for the unconventional gas industry to continue as is.

With sharp policy differences between the major parties, and strong public opposition to fracking throughout the Barnett Government’s most marginal metropolitan electorates, it is clear that fracking has the potential to be a major election issue. 

What could be holding the issue back, in a political sense, is that the industry is in its infancy in WA.  Unlike other Australian states, where gas extracted by fracking is flowing and community sentiment has solidified, there is no fracked gas flowing to market in WA yet.  In 2001, political parties were debating the future of a 175-year-old industry that had decimated much of Western Australia’s old growth forests.  In sharp contrast, fracking is an emerging issue in WA, with the industry largely in an exploration phase.

That said, there is no doubt that strong local community campaigns are having an impact in the regions exposed directly to the industry, including the South West, Swan Valley, Mid-West and Kimberley.  These campaigns argue that the fracking industry should be stopped now, before it has the chance to devastate local landscapes and water supplies, as well as industries like farming and tourism.

The question is, will this issue move beyond the local to have state-wide significance, like the 'old growth forests issue' did in 2001?

Our polling suggests it has the potential to.

For more political analysis and government relations advice, please contact Campaign Capital.

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