Obstacles to progress: what’s wrong with Tasmania, really?

If Tasmania is broken, maybe it’s because Tasmanians have no reason to fix it. Gary Sauer-Thompson

Is Tasmania at a tipping point? 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? 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.

Tasmania’s underlying problem is simple but intractable: it has developed a way of life, a mode of doing things, a demographic, a culture and associated economy, that reproduces under-achievement generation after generation.

Everyone knows the problems; they are manifest, reported day after day. The reality is that Tasmania has bred a dominant social coalition that blocks most proposals to improve. Problems and challenges are debated endlessly, with no resolution. Most discussion avoids mention of the uncomfortable truths at the source of under-performance.

Ultimately, Tasmania doesn’t change because its people actually don’t really want to. They don’t need to change because their way of life is financed by the mainland. Far from helping overcome this pattern, the nation’s resource-boom prosperity is enabling and cementing Tasmania’s under-achievement. It’s allowing the government to pay an ever-expanding proportion of the population not to work. It’s driving up wages, materials, transport, regulation, exchange rates, and other costs that make Tasmania’s traditional industries uncompetitive. And it’s allowing government to subsidise non-performing industries.

The result is that Tasmanians face little incentive or pressure to change. Unlike New Zealand, which has no rich big brother and must find ways to earn its own living, Tasmania enjoys a permanent and ongoing transfer from mainland cousins that reinforces failure.

The difficulties are most obvious in the economy. Tasmania’s unemployment rate in October 2012 stood at 7.7%, by comparison to the Australian average of 4.9% – a rate of joblessness more than a third greater. In 2012, the poor performance of the Tasmanian economy was a dominant topic in local public discussion. It felt depressed. Traditional industries, particularly forestry and energy-intensive manufacturing based on hydroelectricity were in sharp decline, while tourism and service sectors were sluggish and appeared unable to pick up the slack.

The fate of the forest-products industry was emblematic of Tasmania’s challenges. Plunging global wood chip prices, rising Australian exchange rates, wages set by booming mining industries, tightening environmental regulation, and internationally effective campaigns by environmentalists, combined to lose customers in high-paying markets such as Japan and Europe and make the industry uncompetitive in growth markets such as China. The industry collapsed as revenue dived and costs spiralled.

Clearly the forestry industry had reached a watershed, and would need to change, or perish. But the industry appeared unable, or unwilling, to change, and most Tasmanian politicians’ response was to deny the need, blame the Greens, or delay the inevitable. The industry, strenuously backed by the Liberal Party and key Labor figures in Tasmania, essentially demanded the “right” to endless public subsidies. Any serious discussion of a new future for the industry was ruled out of bounds, for fear of offering succour to the conservation lobby.

It is important to understand what it is about Tasmanian culture and society that permits such an abrogation of responsibility, a refusal to confront reality.

The evidence suggests that opportunities abound in Tasmania. Economically speaking it should be easy to create these jobs. In fact, Tasmania enjoys natural and human-created advantages that offer sufficient potential to exceed these targets. But potential does not equal achievement, of course. Tasmania’s most important development and growth opportunities are not on track to meet these goals.

All Tasmania’s main fields of opportunity are effectively blocked from realising their true potential. Growth has been curtailed so it cannot even compensate for employment losses stemming from forestry. How the blockages develop, and why they are not removed, is the important issue.

But first the opportunities. My colleagues and I at the Australian Innovation Research Centre recently prepared a report for the Commonwealth Department of Regional Development that identified six main areas of opportunity: wine, dairy, aquaculture, horticulture, mining, and tourism, especially “experiential” tourism related to wilderness and the island’s gourmet products.

Conceptually, good opportunities are those in which a community already has a demonstrated strength and path to greater capability, and which combine strong growth prospects with good wages and wealth-creation potential. It is obviously not desirable for any community to deepen reliance on sectors with low wages, low growth, and weak capabilities.

A quick review reveals that even any one of these sectors alone would offer the potential to close Tasmania’s unemployment gap, if sufficiently harnessed. If Tasmania were to increase its share of Australia’s wine production, for example, from its present 0.5% to equal its share of Australia’s population (just over 2%), that increase alone would create more than two thousand jobs. Technically, such an increase should be straightforward. Tasmania enjoys probably the best climate in Australia for high-value wine production and its wine is in strong demand.

Similarly, in the dairy industry – with arguably the nation’s best natural conditions for milk production – and horticulture, and aquaculture, production and employment could easily double.

But while opportunity is abundant, actual growth is retarded. Two obstacles hold back development across all these sectors. First, all these opportunities involve close interaction with the natural environment – demanding better use of land, water, and sunshine. But change in land use in Australia today almost always requires government approval, and in the context of bitter dispute over environmental issues, approval processes in Tasmania have become highly contested, politicised, and complex.

As a result, approvals for new projects in Tasmania are more uncertain, risky, expensive, and lengthy than elsewhere. And uncertainty, risk, expense, and length are all deterrents to new investment.

Second, all the opportunities require mutual co-dependence between growers and processors and coordinated investment: grape-growers and winemakers; dairy farms and milk dryers or cheese plants; poppy growers and pharmaceutical manufacturers; tree growers, harvesters and forest-product producers; fish farms and seafood manufacturers. Expansion in growing requires expansion of processing, and vice-versa. But with different owners and divergent interests, growing and processing participants are often unwilling to commit ahead of each other, and development-throttling standoffs ensue. Couple that with heightened suspicion between buyers and sellers, politics, and differential rates and forms of return, and what should take months, takes years; what should take years, takes decades.

These are not problems with which “market forces” can readily cope, or which private investors acting alone are like to overcome. Government needs to coordinate and facilitate development or it doesn’t happen. But in Tasmania government tends not to act and the obstacles remain.

I’ve become convinced that the underlying reason for this is that the Tasmanian community actually does not want government to overcome these obstacles – or at least, it does not want it enough to sacrifice existing amenity for those obstacles to be removed. In Tasmania, we’ve arrived at a situation in which if any interest group regards itself as disadvantaged by a development proposal – whether materially or in terms of its values – there is insufficient weight on the pro-development side to push through resistance to change.

The first source of this resistance is demographic. Only a minority of Tasmanian households derive their income from participation in the private sector, and few indeed are dependent on the portion of the private sector traded out of the state. The 2011 census revealed that over a third of Tasmanian households derived their sole or primary source of income from a Commonwealth government payment: old-age pension, disability, supporting parent, and, of course, unemployment.

While the census does not record the proportion of households that derive their income from a government job, almost another third of the Tasmanian economy was made up of public services (health, education, welfare, administration, policing) and government business enterprises. This includes everything from the ports, railroads, shipping, buses, three electricity corporations, forestry establishment, maintenance, and harvesting, gambling, horse racing, motor-accident insurance, irrigation development, and management of tourist and cultural sites.

On top of this, it is estimated that up to 10% work for a private corporation whose sole client is government: road construction, building maintenance, or outsourced government services in the welfare sector.

These numbers suggest that as little as a quarter to a third of Tasmanian households derive their livelihood from the genuine private sector. Of them perhaps a third gain their income from wholesale and retail trade and associated logistics, another third from residential and commercial construction and maintenance. The clients of both these groups depend largely on public-sector incomes, leaving only about 10% of all households making a living from the traded private sector.

Tasmania can afford this lop-sided economy only because for every dollar Tasmanians contribute to the national tax kitty, they receive back $1.58 in benefits and services.

The implication of these statistics is that only a small minority of the Tasmanian population has a direct personal stake in economic development. While most might broadly favour economic development, they will not personally benefit from it.

Not even the tax revenue that ultimately funds their government-derived income originates from Tasmania. Its security is not determined by the performance of the Tasmanian economy. Much more important is the far-away national economy, fuelled by the even-more-distant resource boom. Even without the boom, most government-backed incomes are regarded as solidly secure.

When a particular economic development is proposed and would necessitate some inconvenience or clash with values, which most ultimately do, few Tasmanians have an immediate stake in making a compromise. Little is lost personally by opposing the development or delaying its introduction. If government attempts to expedite the proposal, a large number of Tasmanians will oppose such action as improper. Instances of inconvenience mentioned by opponents of particular projects include more trucks on the road, difficulty finding parking, lights on the horizon from off-shore aquaculture developments visible from the twice-yearly-visited holiday shack, spoiled views of natural features, and, of course, environmental and humanitarian concerns.

All are real concerns. But only a population whose income is independent of the performance of its private businesses will come to privilege such concerns, no matter how minor, above the need to earn a living.

Such economic independence provides fertile ground for the widespread commitment to environmental values and Green politics displayed by the Tasmanian community. Perhaps most importantly, independence from the performance of the private economy provides a weak basis for constructing a constituency for a coherent and agreed economic development strategy.

Progress is made only if no one disagrees.

Demographics and income sources have coalesced to create a specific culture in Tasmania. More accurately, it is two cultures – one of a substantial “underclass”, the other of a smaller, comfortable, government-dependent middle class. The dark side of Tasmania’s enviable emphasis on a laid-back lifestyle is a culture of low aspiration, especially among the under-class.

A recent study undertaken by an educational foundation unearthed the startling conclusion that a large proportion of Tasmanians specified not being educated as an important aspect of a “true Tasmanian”, and even a good person. Educated people were regarded as “less Tasmanian”, and probably worse people, not the sort with whom one would want to enjoy a beer: full of themselves, stuck up, and less reliable. (In addition, some parents don’t encourage their children to become educated for fear education would make them more likely to leave the island.)

In other words, not only did education undermine many Tasmanians’ sense of identity, which they greatly valued, and place them at risk of becoming separated from their community, but education was believed to make them less-likeable people.

One upshot of this finding is that much policy aimed at encouraging young Tasmanians to become better educated was founded on an erroneous assumption: that Tasmanians would want to be better educated if only they could, and their failure to do so must be due to lack of economic means. All policies therefore aim mainly to reduce the economic burden of education.

But if, as this research suggests, the targets of these programs actually believe that education is undesirable, the real focus ought to be cultural change, which is never easy. Wages for unskilled labour, among the world’s highest, make the choice to be uneducated in Tasmania even more feasible and sustainable.

The problem of the underclass is rarely discussed in Tasmania. It’s not even identified as such. We refer to the underclass as “disadvantaged”, as though their circumstances were something imposed from outside, for which the “victims” bear no responsibility. The fact that the Tasmanian underclass is white, not an ethnic minority, helps to make it less visible. Once the issue is defined as “disadvantage”, policy tends to be directed towards providing more resources, to overcome the disadvantage.

But if the source is ultimately cultural, providing more resources risks making the underclass’s under-achieving choices more feasible. The risk is that it reinforces and reproduces the problem.

In reality, that’s what we see in Tasmania. Supporting the underclass is an industry in itself. The mayor of one town hit by the decline of the forestry industry suggested that a refugee centre could be established in his district, which would offer the benefit of attracting more welfare services and boosting the local economy.

For the middle class – in Tasmania a much smaller group than elsewhere – education was seen as desirable, but only to a point. Valued above most other concerns was a modest, comfortable lifestyle, the kind that steady government employment guarantees. The ease with which it had become possible in Tasmania to reach this income level and enjoy material security meant that there was little incentive for more education. The introduction of the goods and services tax and the wave of new tax finance provided to Tasmania had facilitated this culture by driving a mini-boom in the early 2000s as the state government added thousands of new public servants and sharply increased their wages, to reach “parity” with the mainland. Flow-on effects raised housing values and precipitated a retail-consumption spurt.

The final source of blockage and failure to take advantage of opportunity is internal division. With prosperity seen to stem largely from government largesse, development in Tasmania is often regarded as a zero-sum game. If one sector or geographic region gains something, it is seen to come at the expense of someone (or somewhere) else. Hence, all opportunities are greeted with an outbreak of conflict over who should get what, usually between the northern and southern halves of the island. The mayor of Launceston famously stated that it was more important to him that rival Hobart not be the site of any AFL games, for example, than that more were played in his own city.

Challenging this self-reproducing pattern of failure has not proven easy. Because its origins lie so deep in the culture and population mix, change can probably come only from outside. Either the national taxpayer and federal government will declare “enough” – though there’s little sign of this – or Tasmania will be altered by new arrivals seeking opportunity and a better lifestyle.

Some voices within Tasmania do argue that a government-dependent way of life is not sustainable. They believe we can’t go on and will be forced to change. But abundant government finance fuelled by the resources boom and a local demographic and culture that blocks change has rendered that untrue. The ultimate problem is not that Tasmania cannot afford its pattern of failure, but increasingly that it can.

You can read the whole series here.