Canberra — A classic conservation-vs.-jobs struggle is dividing Australians.
At the heart of the dispute is a huge hydroelectric project in southwest Tasmania. Australia's conservation groups have threatened to work for the defeat of the federal government if it does not intervene to stop the construction.
Pitted against the conservationists are Tasmania's Liberal state government and its opposition Labor Party. Both are committed to construction of the $250 million project, which will provide cheap electricity and thousands of jobs during the construction phase. Tasmania is the country's poorest state and has the worst unemployment in Australia.
The conservation groups represent about 400,000 people. They have never before threatened to throw their weight behind or against any particular political party. But they regard the construction of the dam on the Gordon River in Tasmania as the greatest conservation challenge they have ever faced.
The area that would be flooded by the construction of the dam is in the center of a vast wilderness area that earlier this month was listed by the World Heritage Committee. It is one of only three areas in Australia that are on the World Heritage List. Archeologists have discovered important remains of aborigines in caves that will be flooded if the dam is built.
The federal government refused to enter the dispute over the dam, claiming it was a matter solely for the Tasmanian government to work out. Conservationists say the federal government has both the legal and financial power to stop the dam from going ahead.
Public opinion at the state level is divided over the dam issue, though in this year's state election both major political parties campaigned on the basis that they would go ahead with the dam.
In the areas near the dam, public support for its construction is very high and feeling against the protesters very strong. Police who have been on the scene to prevent protesters from hindering work have been equally busy protecting the protesters from the locals, who see the dam as the only likely source of work in the area for some years.
But on mainland Australia, public opinion is strongly opposed to the destruction of the wilderness areas that will occur when the dam itself is built in three years.
The opposition Labor Party in Canberra has come out strongly against the dam, saying that if it were in power it would subsidize construction of a coal-fueled power station instead of the dam, and the provision of money for work-creating projects in the state.
The Australian Democrats, who hold the balance of power in the Senate and are closely associated with some conservationist groups, have passed legislation to halt the dam's construction. The bill won't be considered in the House of Representatives until early next year.