Does Tasmania need an intervention?

Tasmania’s consciousness is littered with dark incidents, and it’s not getting better. How can we shine a light? Hani Amir

Is Tasmania at a tipping point? While it is known to many of us through seductive tourism brochures showcasing the state’s pristine wilderness, gourmet magazine articles celebrating its burgeoning food culture and newspaper stories gasping at a world-leading art museum, the recent devastating bushfires serve as a stark reminder that all is not as it seems. For most Tasmanians, a darker reality lies beneath the glossy surface.

Over the next two weeks The Conversation, in conjunction with Griffith REVIEW and the University of Tasmania, is publishing a series of provocations. Our authors ask where does Tasmania’s future lie? Has it reached a “tipping point”, politically, economically and culturally? We serve up strategic slices of Tasmania’s past, present and future. Thinkers, writers and doers from Tasmania and beyond, including members of its extensive diaspora, challenge how Tasmania is seen by outsiders and illuminate how Tasmanians see themselves, down home and in the wider world.

I visited Tasmania at the end of 1933. There one golden day on the Derwent, near New Norfolk, under a gentler sky than I had known in Melbourne and Sydney, with Mount Wellington as a gaunt, majestic back-drop to the scene, I sensed that here was a society haunted by ghosts from the past – a society of people in which many things they had inherited from the mighty dead live on in them. I sensed then some contradiction between that gaiety in the very air, and some darkness in men’s minds. - Manning Clark

In Tasmania, the “darkness in men’s minds” identified by Clark has translated into some very bad attitudes and interactions indeed. Recall the coffin-like wooden dunking boxes for punishing disobedient convicts on their banishing sea voyage to Van Diemen’s Land, on display in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery throughout my childhood; the “panopticon” for surveying and regulating convict behaviour, a theory of philosopher Jeremy Bentham which underpinned penal practice at the colonial gaol at Port Arthur, until its closure in 1877; and the fate of Nuenonne elder Truganini, whose husband-to-be was killed by timber-getters who cut off his hands and left him to drown before raping her repeatedly, on the stretch of water I now cross on the ferry each time I head to Bruny.

Twentieth century low-lights include reports – all mainland muckracking, many locals believe – in the 1930s of families riven by incest at Black Bobs in the Derwent Valley, notoriously involving children with congenital disabilities tied up in the back yard, and reputedly featuring an intervention by a social worker insisting the boys and girls needed separate sleeping areas, after which their father erected a barbed wire fence through the bedroom.

Consider too the barbaric “treatment” practices at the Royal Derwent psychiatric hospital at New Norfolk, some of which are recounted in Hobart poet Karen Kinnane’s collection Postcards from the Asylum (Pardalote Press, 2007). This describes her incarceration at age nineteen for being the kind of rebellious teenager of the 1960s who in other Australian cities would have passed without notice, or been hailed as a minor heroine of the counter-culture.

In 1983, our TV news filled with scenes of police picking chunks of human flesh out of a West Hobart drain, today a stone’s throw from the high-end provedore Hill Street Grocer. American CSIRO marine scientist Rory Jack Thompson had murdered his wife Maureen, cut her into ninety-one pieces and flushed these down the toilet. Then there was flamboyant, kaftan-wearing medical practitioner Geoffrey Boughey, an English immigrant, who in 1985 killed his playmate du jour, Fijian woman Begum Majabi Ali, by pressing too hard on her carotid arteries to heighten excitement during sex.

Most notorious was the tragedy of Tasmanian-born Martin Bryant’s shooting massacre of thirty-five men, women and children on the Port Arthur site in 1996. Bryant is serving thirty-five life sentences plus 1,035 years without parole in Risdon Prison, and everyone with long-enough connections here knows someone who was killed, damaged or who mopped up on the front line after his rampage.

Bryant controversially appeared as a figure in Sydney artist Rodney Pople’s painting Port Arthur, which won Tasmania’s 2012 Glover Prize for landscape painting, the richest purse in that genre in Australia.

I recall the pained catch in the voice of the ABC Tasmania radio presenter covering the prize when she realised the identity of that blurred figure – and my own searchings of soul as I wrote a speech to open a connected exhibition of Tasmanian landscape art at Hobart’s Handmark Gallery, articulating a right to respect this contemporary manifestation of freedom of expression.

David Walsh’s spectacular Museum of Old and New Art. samgranleese/Flickr

Bad behaviour is part of the human condition. Look at any schoolyard. Or the Balkans. Or Canberra – recall the aspersions cast deliberately on the personal and professional probity of Andrew Wilkie in the parliamentary triangle when he blew the whistle about weapons of mass destruction in 2003, arguably an experience that trained him well for Tasmania, where he currently serves as the independent federal Member for Denison.

One point of Tasmania’s difference, however, is that when abuse manifests in this small, tight and “sticky” community, it can be unusually visible, intense and damaging to those on the receiving end. As expatriate Tasmanian and Bank of America Merrill Lynch chief economist Saul Eslake puts it, “In any small place you’re bound to have these ‘clubby’ networks…a small place is very vulnerable to capture. It’s happened twice in Tasmania, first with the Hydro Electric Commission and in the last fifteen years with Gunns.”

The fragility of the Tasmanian economy is clearly an exacerbating factor here – when you lose a gig or a job, there can be few or zero downhome alternatives. This in turn bleeds in and out of Tasmania’s low levels of post-Year Ten educational retention and attainment, high levels of teenage pregnancy, high levels of unemployment and welfare dependence, high levels of public sector employment, underdeveloped private sector, and remote geographical location.

This picture darkens when you factor in rates of child abuse that are a national disgrace – the number of proven cases of child abuse or neglect in Tasmania in 2010-11 was an astonishing 56% higher than the national average, most cases involving children aged under five. These rates are second only to those in the Northern Territory, whose population (unlike Tasmania’s) includes a substantial Indigenous component. Take the case of Gary John Devine, who in 2010 was gaoled for prostituting a twelve-year-old Hobart girl to around one hundred men, assisted by the girl’s mother who shared the financial proceeds. Only one of these men has been charged and convicted, Terry Martin, who was the only member of the Tasmanian parliamentary Labor Party who crossed the floor to vote against legislation fast-tracking Gunns’ proposed Tamar Valley pulp mill project in 2004. I’m not saying that’s why Martin was targeted for prosecution, but I am saying it’s all been a very bad look, not helped by the tone of much discussion surrounding the failure by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Tim Ellis, to prosecute any of the other men. Ellis has proffered a legally tenable argument in his own defence, based on the likelihood of successful prosecution – Devine and the girl’s mother sold her as being eighteen years old, and Tasmania is the only Australian jurisdiction without a no-defence age restriction for alleged child sex offenders. But the debate’s danced around some deeper issues about power and process in Tasmania – including their relationship to gender.

Soon after becoming Tasmania’s first woman Premier in early 2011, Labor’s Lara Giddings spoke at an Inglis Clark Centre forum, “Do Women Leaders Make a Difference?” This question was posed because I sensed things hadn’t changed enough in Tasmania since the 1950s, when one of my mother’s contemporaries (the daughter and eventually the mother of Rhodes Scholars) graduated from the University of Tasmania pretty much top of her class, and no one here would employ her.

I’d been surprised, for example, that after several years in Tasmania Sri Lankan entomologist Varuni Kulasekera, whose graduate qualifications are from the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History, and include specialist training in geographic information systems, seemed unemployable in Hobart, a city chock full of science research bodies. Indeed, she was known here mainly as the Wife of Brian (Ritchie), ex Violent Femme and curator of MONA’s music festival, MOFO. Had I stepped onto the set of Mad Men? No, the clothes and ideas here weren’t quite as sharp – except at Chado, the North Hobart tea emporium opened by Kulasekera to hold her own professional traction.

My instinct proved correct. The venue was packed, and the Premier threw away her notes to deliver a candid account of the difficulties she’d encountered as a woman in Tasmanian public life, by virtue of being locked out of key discussions that set agendas. “I knew somehow that I was not there when it counted, but didn’t quite know where that was,” she said. Where “it” was turned out mainly to involve sport, including the invitation-only Chairman’s Lounge at Bellerive Oval. Her pragmatic response was to telephone Cricket Tasmania and ask to be included. “I stood and deliberately included myself in those conversations with the men,” Giddings said. Fortunately, in this instance, the door swung open.

So here’s the wishlist. First, name up the worst behaviour, and shame and strategically remove recidivists. Italy’s Red Brigades didn’t get much right, but had an effective slogan – “strike one, educate a hundred”. If we don’t, that behaviour will emasculate current and concerted efforts to improve options for the worst-off Tasmanians, and cruel our chances of making this the best place in the world to do a number of things of great value. These most obviously include marine, Southern Ocean and Antarctic science; leveraging productivity and social improvement from broadband; high-value agriculture and aquaculture; high-end tourism; and creative economy and cultural initiatives; there may prove to be more.

Second, encourage and reward best practice. To do that, Tasmanians need to recognise it when we see it, so we need to get out more. All Tasmanians should spend a slice of their life finding a way and earning a living offshore – without the special entrée of family connections, government subsidy, and exemption from the kind of checks and balances that apply in larger ponds. Coming back, more of us will be better equipped to constructively challenge outsiders who want to tell Tasmania what’s what. And to stand up more effectively to the Little Britain-ish “computer says no” attitude that’s prevalent here, which can squash innovation with all the charm and efficiency of a Soviet department store.

More of us will also appreciate grace when we find it locally. As MONA’s founder David Walsh suggests, despite Tasmania’s persistent national reputation as backward, ignorant and redneck – a stereotype Tasmania shares with many other “edge” communities nationally and beyond, and here supported by the tough socio-economic portrait I’ve sketched above – its inhabitants are characterised by tolerance as much as uncertainty, “which could be employed to make Tasmania a place of gracious debate.” That could lead to a revival of Tasmania as a leader in democratic dialogue and indeed civil society, faithful to the spirit of the legacy of nineteenth century Tasmanian democrat Andrew Inglis Clark, a founding father and drafter of the Australian Constitution.

Third, correct all those corrections by cultivating an attitude of generosity, that keeps space open for the human quirks that do make this place different and special. As Leonard Cohen wrote, “there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” I know no other place where a pillar of the establishment takes such delight at reciting James McAuley poems by heart over lunch; where a university professor rings around every bookshop in town to locate a rare-as-hen’s-tooth copy of Lloyd Robson’s A History of Tasmania (1983) just so I can fix a footnote; where American punk cabaret performer Amanda Palmer performs her song “Map of Tasmania” (referencing “vajazzled” female genitalia) on the MOFO stage and YouTube, without anyone here necessarily blanching, now; and where I can rely on my neighbours to take the time to chop my wood, bring me homegrown flowers and cook hand-caught squid for dinner.

When I ask award-winning tourism entrepreneur Brett Torossi, who grew up in western Sydney, why she keeps bothering with and investing in Tasmania, she answers with simplicity: “I love this place and all the gentle, crazy, and amazing people.” At the end of even the darkest and most difficult Tasmanian day, I have to agree.

You can read the whole series here.