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The road from Hobart

By Geoffrey Hills - posted Monday, 5 August 2002

Hobart has become a handy synonym for economic disaster. In a recent paper on the New Zealand economy by the Centre for Independent Studies, a prominent economist presented New Zealand’s position as a choice between the roads to Helsinki or into the abyss, to Hobart. Little will change in the Federation’s mendicant member, with the ascent of Jim Bacon’s Labor Government to a dominant position in a near one-party state.

In the 48 years to 1982, Labor held power for 45 years, until being defeated by the dam-building Liberal Robin Gray. The constituencies of Bacon, Gray and hydro-electric pioneer, Eric Reece, are one and the same. Saturday’s election landslide was less a victory for Labor than for the economic and social conservatism to which Tasmanians are so strongly attached.

Traditional sources of economic conservatism are increasingly buttressed by the support of the Greens, who advocate the Doctrine of Tasmanian Exceptionalism. This ideology, which melds politics with a magic-realist mystification of state icons, such as the Hydro-Electric Commission, holds that Tasmania is an exceptional bastion of decency, on a mission to preach socialist economic policies to the rest of Australia, despite its massive subsidization by NSW, Victorian and WA taxpayers under the fiscal equalization scheme.


Although they have taken four seats in the new Parliament, the Greens’ victory is not a victory for the environment, as the pro-logging Bacon Government’s increased majority will render it even more impervious to widespread concern over the clear-felling of old growth forests. The environment, along with liberalism, internationalism and open-mindedness are the perennial victims of Tasmanian elections. Not that liberalism was ever in the race, as the party bearing its name cowardly advocated a mix of illiberal policies, including restricted shop-trading hours, mandatory sentencing and a state-owned electricity company.

Tasmania has always been more acutely afflicted by what Greg Melleuish calls the paradox of Australian liberalism. Despite a widespread national identification with liberal values (signficantly more than in the United States or Britain), Australians who call themselves liberals have consistently stunted our development by implementing what is merely populist conservatism. Relying on a support base on the conservative North-West and West Coasts, Tasmania’s only long-lived Liberal Government under Robin Gray had more in common with its then Queensland National counterpart, under Joh Bielke-Petersen, than it did with its Liberal colleagues.

This year, the scraps of the Gray constituency that had stuck to the Liberal Party through the moderate Groom and Rundle era, deserted it, voting instead for stability, and bloating Bacon’s Labor majority. In turn, Labor’s squeamish Left, together with a much smaller number of small-l Liberal voters, migrated to the Greens, unconvinced by the major parties’ perfunctory presentation of green-leaning candidates, such as Hobart Alderman Jeff Briscoe (Liberal) and James Crotty, of the "Duncan Kerr Left".

The successful, Malaysian-owned pub in North Hobart that hosts a weekly East African food night, cooked by members of the city’s growing Sudanese community, offers a tantalising glimpse of an alternative Tasmanian future. To increase the quantity and sophistication of Tasmania’s labour inputs, a substantial sponsored migration plan should be coordinated by state and federal governments. Such a federal-state settlement must recognise Tasmania’s relatively low ability to capitalise on Australia’s normal immigration intake and identify opportunities to exploit the state’s unique intangibles, such as a community cohesiveness long since frayed in larger cities and its civilised climate, as well its high proportion of arable land.

Secondly, the state government should begin economic restructuring by retiring state debt with the proceeds of electricity privatisation, simultaneously seeking an agreement with the federal government for the release of the remaining Franklin Dam compensation, to be used for equipping Tasmania with an improved communications infrastructure and public education system. Although current suggestions for a duty-free zone are far-fetched, serious consideration must be given to the possibility of a constitutional settlement with the Commonwealth on investment and corporate tax liberalisation, perhaps, with a view to creating an off-shore financial services sector in the state. Modifications to the freedom of interstate trade and commerce pose less of a threat to the Commonwealth than the entrenchment of Tasmania as a suppliant at the bowl of Federation.

In the interests of Tasmania, the major parties must abandon their strategies of trying to out-conservative each-other. They must stake out new ground, embracing a moderate environmental agenda, economic restructuring and a radical population strategy of increased migration intake and foreign investment.  This agenda will be a hard sell to the suburbs of Devonport.  It will require courage and conviction to lead public opinion, rather than merely follow it. Such qualities are as yet invisible. Farewell for another four years, Tasmania, the road from Hobart is a confronting challenge long postponed.

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About the Author

Geoffrey Hills is a Sydney litigation solicitor.

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