For much of the history of the Australian Commonwealth, Tasmania has been relegated to the rôle of the poor relation. Local author Jonathon West relates in this recent essay that, in nearly every metric of social and economic progress—investment, income, unemployment, welfare dependency, education levels, literacy, smoking rates, chronic disease, domestic violence, crime rates, life expectancy, the list goes on and on—Tasmania ranks a distant last among the six states. Newly-elected Libertarian Senator David Leyonhjelm, whom this site profiled recently, wrote recently in the Australian Financial Review (behind a paywall—reproduced at Catallaxy here) that Tasmania remains a mendicant state, reliant on the Federal Grants Commission to keep it afloat. For each dollar Tasmania contributes in federal taxes, it reaps over $1.50 in grants, subsidies and welfare payments. West writes in his essay above that Tasmanians have grown addicted to the lifestyle afforded by this inequity, which had resulted in an underclass, the largest per capita in the country, with minimal education, welfare dependency and all the other social problems enumerated above, and little incentive to change.
And yet, we have so much going for us. We remain one of the most unspoilt islands of natural beauty left in the developed world. Tourists flock from around the globe to marvel at the Tarkine forest, the Huon, the wild West Coast, and the ever-present relics of our convict beginnings, not to mention the rapidly growing and internationally-acclaimed restaurant culture that takes advantage of some of the freshest gourmet food and finest wine to be found anywhere on earth.
But as we now know, tourism on its own cannot support a growing economy such as ours. We need a mix of manufacturing, education and high-tech, as well as the traditional Tasmanian primary industries of farming, fishing, forestry and mining. Yet the newspaper headlines of the last few years are filled with tales of our largest private employers and flagship brands—Gunns timber, ACL Bearings, Blundstone boots, Simplot vegetable processors, the Triabunna wood mill—either going broke, selling up or moving out.
Our Hare-Clark electoral system is an inverted version of the system that operates in all other, mainland states, as well as federally. There, the lower house is selected by universal adult suffrage in single-member seats equal in population; the upper house elected by state-wide proportional quotas (except Queensland, which abolished its upper house a century ago). Here in Tasmania, while the upper house, the Legislative Council is elected from fifteen single-member electorates, the lower house or Legislative Assembly, where laws are actually made, elects its members from five 5-member electorates chosen proportionally. This means if I have an issue with the state government, I have to write to five different politicians, of wildly differing persuasions. Even those of the government’s political stripe may or may not have much influence, depending on the labyrinthine nature of how government works down here. No wonder inaction is the order of the day.
To be honest, I don’t have a lot of faith in any of the major parties contesting this election. Labor can no longer form a government in their own right, and are unlikely ever again to be in a position to do so. They therefore represent the path of permanent coalition government and policy incoherence. The Greens, given an actual hand in governing for the first time anywhere in Australian history, have almost single-handedly wrecked the Tasmanian economy. I will personally never forgive them for their policy of opposing all winter hazard-reduction burns, universally agreed to have been the ultimate cause in transforming the 2013 bushfires from a manageable conflagration into an out-of-control firestorm which devastated the lives of so many of our friends. Quite simply, they have to go. The Palmer United Party is a joke. Palmer himself is a buffoon, an overblown used-car salesman who bought his way into the Federal parliament, and thinks he can do the same down here in the state house in Hobart. And given the money he’s spending on electioneering, particularly saturation advertising on local TV, he’s probably right. Long on grand promises, but with no specifics on how they’ll be paid for, he has recruited a crew of local identities, tempting them with promises of seats in parliament and petty local power.
But I’ve yet to see much evidence that the Tasmanian Liberals are a whole lot better. Sure, they have a coherent and modest plan to bring the budget back out of defecit. They have some worthwhile policies in education and infrastructure. I’ll be voting for them in the absence of anything better. But to me, they seem fundamentally wedded to the status quo of financial dependency on the mainland states, and little of the “vision thing”.
Myself, I see the potential for Tasmania to become a high-tech industry hub in the next twenty years. Many businesses in Sydney, Melbourne, and even Canberra, Brisbane and the Gold Coast struggle with high costs and taxes, not to mention wages that must keep pace with some of the most expensive residential real estate markets in the world. They and their employees could easily be tempted down to Tasmania by attractive terms of business, the relaxed lifestyle, fresh air, superlative scenery and cheap housing. Shipping costs, always a competitive disadvantage for Tasmanian heavy industry and primary production, aren’t really a factor in high-tech. And we have regular airline connections to the east coast capital cities, as well as access to 4G broadband throughout Hobart, Launceston, Devonport and several smaller towns. It would just take a government prepared to engage at a one-on-one level with industry and make the right sales pitch.
Will Hodgman’s Liberals are likely to claim victory in tomorrow’s election. The Murdoch-owned Hobart Mercury today endorsed them, in the traditional election-eve editorial. South Australia, which also goes to the polls tomorrow, faces a closer contest, but a Liberal government is also tipped there, meaning that Tony Abbott will be dealing with like-minded governments in every state and territory except the government-addled Australian Capital Territory (think of the District of Columbia as a comparison there, with federal government being about the only industry in town). I’ll be here live tomorrow night from 1800 AEDT (0700 GMT, 0300 EST, 0000 PDT) for the tally room count, and we will see if the polls are correct.
Who knows? Maybe we’ll finally get something done.