Conservationists lose fight on Australia dam

Australian conservationists have suffered a major blow in an election in Australia's smallest state, Tasmania.

In a state election last weekend that the conservationists helped to precipitate, proponents of a hydroelectric power project in the region -- instead of conservationists -- appear to have won power.

For more than a year, conservationists have battled to prevent construction of a hydroelectric project in southwest Tasmania -- an area of untouched wilderness and spectacular beauty.

They achieved considerable success in a state referendum last year, persuading more than a third of the people to mark their ballots ''no dams.''

Earlier this year they helped to split the state Labor Party, which held power, so deeply that the government was defeated.

Conservationists hoped to pick up at least five seats in the 35-seat legislative assembly and to hold the balance of power in the new state government.

But initial results suggest that only two or three independents will be elected, and that the pro-dam Liberal Party will be able to form a government with a clear majority.

The likely new premier, Robin Gray, said after the vote that his party had received a mandate to build the Franklin River Dam and would proceed with it as quickly as possible.

Conservationist leaders were despondent. They now hope that the federal government will refuse to fund the project.

The campaign for the state election was extraordinarily low key, thanks to a ruling by the state Supreme Court on the eve of the election.

The court said that under the state electoral act, no candidate could spend more than $1,500 on a campaign - and no political party could spend money on behalf of candidates.

This meant that there was virtually no campaign advertising on radio and television, and very little in newspapers. Candidates resorted to street meetings and door-to-door canvassing. They could not afford to spend much on handbills.

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