State Labor dumps Great Forests park plan ahead of Victorian election

State Labor has dumped a plan to create a new national park in the central highlands to protect the endangered Leadbeater’s possum following an intervention from the CFMEU.

It is understood Labor remains riven by internal debate over whether to back a proposal to create a Great Forest national park stretching from Kinglake to Mt Baw Baw and north-east up to Eildon.

The idea was given added prominence this week after being backed by naturalist and wildlife documentary maker Sir David Attenborough, who said it was needed to protect the possum.

Although the proposal has support across the party, The Age can reveal it was abandoned after discussions with the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, which warned it would threaten jobs at Australian Paper, one of the largest employers in the Latrobe Valley.

CFMEU national secretary Michael O’Connor said he was confident Labor would put jobs ahead of the concerns of environment groups.

“We are confident that the Labor Party supports regional blue collar jobs and we are confident that they will not be pressured by environment groups who don’t care what happens to regional employment,” Mr O’Connor said.

Labor is understood to have spent weeks debating the idea as part of its policy review process ahead of the November 29 election. The plan was thought a vote winner in key marginals such as Monbulk and Eltham and more broadly as an antidote to the Greens vote in the inner city.

But the concern from party strategists is that it could compromise Labor’s message about jobs, with state unemployment now at the highest level since 2001.

The environment has so far been largely absent as an issue during the state election campaign.

A senior party source said there had been “active debate” within the party.

“There has always been green and brown debates in the Labor party. We have a good track record on marine and national parks, but this was a big ask.”

Labor’s environment spokeswoman Lisa Neville said the ALP had been consulting conservationists and industry about the natural heritage of this area and would “get the balance right”.

She also confirmed Labor will have more to say on the environment and national parks before the election.

“The Napthine government is the first government since Bolte which failed to open a new national park, while loosening protection that prevented mining, development and cattle grazing in national parks,” Ms Neville said.

The Coalition too is divided over whether to release an environment policy. In the seat of Euroa an active group of locals are campaigning about logging in the Strathbogie ranges.

Josh Gordon State political editor for The Age.

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