Australia — A year that began with a firestorm will end with preparations for a political tempest in Tasmania.
With 2013 just days old, catastrophic conditions fanned the state’s worst bushfires in 50 years.
Two hundred homes were destroyed, most near the Tasman Peninsula town of Dunalley, and terrifying images beamed around the world but, remarkably, no lives were lost.
An independent report found the state was unprepared for the disaster and the government promised to immediately implement 30 of former South Australian police commissioner Malcolm Hyde’s 103 recommendations.
Debate raged over whether Dunalley had been warned early enough and whether there had been sufficient fuel reduction burns across the heavily forested island.
Inevitably it spilled into pre-election sparring with a poll due early in 2014.
The cash-strapped Labor-Green government immediately committed $1.5 million and the Liberals a staggering $28 million for bushfire preparations but another summer will have come and gone before Tasmanians head to the polls.
Premier Lara Giddings has hinted at a March election, although the poll can be held any time up until May 24.
The date could depend on how the Abbott government is travelling and how much Tasmanian pain the state government can pin on it.
Most expect 15 years of Labor rule on the island to come to an end as the state’s fragile economy continues to throw up the country’s highest unemployment rate, 8.2 per cent.
A succession of manufacturing shake-ups and closures hit the struggling northwest the hardest, the latest mining equipment maker Caterpillar’s decision to shed 200 jobs.
The Liberal opposition led by Will Hodgman blames Labor-Green minority government and has ruled out a deal with any party to rule in the state’s 25-seat lower house.
That includes surprise packet the Palmer United Party (PUP), which delivered outspoken senator-elect Jacqui Lambie at the federal election and is considered a chance of winning a state seat.
Labor was decimated in Tasmania at the federal poll, losing three lower house seats and a senator, while the Greens’ vote also plummeted, pointing to more pain for the state government.
The latest EMRS opinion poll puts the Liberals on 49 per cent, the ALP on 22, the Greens on 19 and PUP on five.
Premier Giddings’ approval rating is on 22, Mr Hodgman’s 47 and Greens leader Nick McKim’s 12.
One of the state government’s achievements, an historic peace deal between the timber industry and conservationists, appears to have held but is likely to come under pressure if the Liberals win.
While the Abbott government has promised to release $100 million in job-creation funds promised under the agreement by the former ALP federal government, Mr Hodgman has declared he will rip up the deal.
Federal government tinkering with new World Heritage Areas threatens to reignite the state’s long-running forest wars.
With the current deal in place, the front line has moved to mining in the northwest Tarkine region, home to rainforest, healthy Tasmanian devils and a century-long tradition of minerals extraction.
Rather than chaining themselves to machinery, environmentalists have latched on to Federal Court action and were successful in having one operation halted before Labor environment minister Mark Butler re-approved it.
More action is pending and the Abbott government has vowed to remove legal impediments.
Meanwhile, Tasmanian Greenpeace activist Colin Russell spent 71 days in a Russian jail following his arrest for protesting oil-drilling in the Arctic.
Charged with “hooliganism”, he still faces a seven-year maximum sentence.
GAY ADMITS INSIDER TRADING
Also in court was the former chairman of collapsed timber giant Gunns, John Gay.
Gay eventually pleaded guilty to insider trading after he dumped around $3 million of the company’s shares while possessing information contained in company reports not available to the market.
The Australian Securities and Investment Commission said he gained $800,000. Gay was fined $50,000.
NAIROBI TRAGEDY HITS TASMANIAN FAMILY
Tragedy struck a Tasmanian family when 32-year-old architect Ross Langdon was killed with his pregnant partner in a terror attack on a Nairobi shopping mall in September.
Mr Langdon was farewelled in Hobart and remembered as “talented, idealistic, passionate” for his work helping African communities.
A state funeral for larger-than-life former Fraser government minister Michael Hodgman, known as the Mouth From The South and father of opposition leader Will, sent him off with all the pomp he’d loved so much in life.
Mr Hodgman, who lost a long-running battle with emphysema at 74, was recalled as one of that rare breed, a friend to politicians of all stripes.
PONTING FINALLY CLAIMS SHIELD TITLE
The state’s favourite son, Ricky Ponting, finally collected a Sheffield Shield title when Tasmania won the competition for the third time in March.
Ponting played out the season with the Tigers after calling time on his international career in a bid to add one of the few medals missing from his bulging trophy cabinet.
Part-time Taswegians Hawthorn won the AFL premiership, boosting Tasmania’s profile according to the state government, who paid out a $300,000 bonus under their sponsorship deal with the club.
There was plenty of action off the MCG turf as well, with deputy premier Bryan Green denying he’d punched a Tasmanian local counsellor at the game.