The Tasmanian microcosm - a post-resource test bed for sustainability

Industrialisation is an outdated approach to Tasmania’s problems - we need to look elsewhere. jayegirl99/flickr

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.

Flying back to Tasmania on a winter’s night I imagine the pilots as they aim for a dot of light in the darkness. I am reminded that despite all the communication capacities of the 21st century the plain fact remains that Tasmania sits at the end of the world – a terminus of global civilisation. That was how the whole of Australia was 200 years ago when it was anyone’s guess whether Sydney or Hobart would become global cities. Since then there has been a great divergence, with Hobart becoming an endearing backwater.

Tasmania’s remoteness and economic stagnation are also the isle’s greatest potential assets. Tasmania has retained much of its urban and rural colonial heritage. The island has one of the largest national park systems of any jurisdiction on Earth, disproportionally contributing to Australia’s conservation estate.

The puzzle is finding a pathway for Tasmania around some formidable barriers, yet using wisely constitutional legacies that give Tasmania substantial political leverage.

The most apparent problem for Tasmania is its very poor socio-economic indicators. On any measure, Tasmanians lag behind other Australians in terms of education attainment and health, with an extraordinary dependence on welfare and less obvious government handouts.

The orthodox Tasmanian political response to this situation is industrialisation. This logic underpinned the hydro-schemes that systematically dammed nearly every great river on the island until the Franklin was saved in 1983. It is true that industry followed the building of hydroelectric infrastructure in Tasmania – but the scale of industrial investment was never enough to solve the state’s economic problems. The environmental costs were great, such as the loss of Lake Pedder. And there is an enduring legacy of debts and maintenance costs of the post war surge in public capitalisation associated with hydro-industrialisation.

The more recent vision of industralisation was based around the state’s highly productive forests, culminating with the ambition of a truly global-scale pulp mill. While there were local resident protests around the proposed mill site and national environmental activism about forest conservation, a forest-led recovery was eventually killed by changed economic realities, particularly the stubbornly strong Australian dollar.

The Tasmanian forest peace deal process, which still wobbles between tragedy and farce, is a clear demonstration that the power of the weak does not necessarily make anyone strong. There remains a real risk of a lose-lose outcome, leaving both the Tasmanian forest estate and the forest industry a smoking crater.

The post global financial crisis collapse of GST revenues has forced many to ask the most difficult questions about Tasmania’s future. Fundamentally, how can half a million people on an island at the end of the world provide the tax base to support a modern state?

On answer is to ramp up exploitation of the natural environment. Unfortunately, the island passed through a substantial mineral boom in the late 19th century so the rich pickings are gone. Worse, the wealth from the western coast mines never really stayed in Tasmania, being lost to Melbourne and the UK. There are going to be a few more mining projects in Tasmania, but the Pilbara the Tarkine is not.

Agriculture is another option. Some suggest making Tasmania a food bowl, exploiting the region’s mild climate, abundant water supplies (that potentially could be directed to irrigation), and comparatively fertile soils.

There are tensions in this domain. Reckless irrigation could release the salt in large areas of drier agricultural lands with disaster consequences. Poor agricultural practices have already degraded some of the more fertile soils in Tasmania. And there remain unresolved tensions between large-scale industrial models of agriculture, and the more family owned “clean and green” kind.

Finding new and better ways to exploit the Tasmanian environment cannot get around the small size of Tasmania. The limits to growth are abundantly obvious. For instance, the yield of the fisheries are bounded, regardless of whether the fish stocks are harvested by one super trawler or many smaller boats.

These manifest limits to resource exploitation and the environmental costs no doubt contributed to the establishment of the first environment-based political parties in the world.

A crushing constraint to economic development is the poor educational attainment of many Tasmanians. Each year this is highlighted by Tasmania’s high school year 10s celebrating their attainment of the absolute minimal level of education. Where do such grossly uneducated people fit in a modern and technologically advanced society? The current default answer to this question is multi-generational welfare dependency and a growing underclass with growing social dysfunction. Even though many Tasmanian politicians promote the idea that industrialisation is a pathway to prosperity, globally competitive industries cannot employ uneducated and unskilled people.

Education is therefore a key to improving the well being of many disadvantaged Tasmanians, giving them the chance to participate in the global economy by either leaving the island or possibly by working in a more digitally connected world.

And education itself could become a growth sector. The University of Tasmania is a mayor employer in the state, and is currently driving the local construction industry. The university also provides a substrate for other science-based organisations that have potential to grow. Currently, Hobart has global expertise in understanding the southern hemisphere’s ocean climates. This could be expanded to understand the southern hemisphere’s temperate landscapes, unlike those in the northern hemisphere.

There is enormous scope to grow the science and education sector. With stewardship, Hobart could become a globally renowned college town. But this would demand changed attitudes by locals who have never recognised university and research sectors as being the core to the Tasmanian economy. There is more political mileage in the Tasmanian Government funding Australian Rules Football matches than in beefing up research and education sectors that require much more investment – so where will this investment originate?

The global success of The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) demonstrates that private investment is not out of the question. The comparatively equitable climate will see more “climate émigrés” settle in Tasmania, escaping from the increasing intolerably hot summers. These people can bring much need ideas and capital to Tasmania to create a post-industrial economy. These “mainlanders” may become influential politicians – like the late Jim Bacon, Bob Brown and Andrew Wilkie – who can shape Tasmania’s destiny. The social impact of 10,000 smart and cashed-up people with a passion for Tasmania could be massively transformative.

But realistically Tasmania needs to make a bargain with the Commonwealth to get funding - but how?

The answer lies in savvy leadership that leads to political reforms recalibrating the political throw-weight of Tasmania. Currently, strong, imaginative leadership is lacking in Tasmania. There is really no vision beyond the historically safe option of “industrialisation”. What would a new vision for Tasmania look like?

An extreme vision, championed by Jeff Kennett, is to amalgamate Tasmania and Victoria. While that makes administrative sense in terms of economies of scale, it is a cultural impossibility - Tasmanians have a much too distinct identity to be absorbed into Victoria.

Another radical idea is to renegotiate the political status of Tasmania. Tasmania could give up its upper house, ceding the right of review to the Commonwealth in the same way the Commonwealth has the last say over Northern Territory legislation. Senate representation could be cut in return for guaranteed funding in perpetuity for running the state. This would turn Tasmania into a political entity like the NT. It would formalise the current de facto and ad hoc state of affairs - a new twist on federalism indeed.

But such radical political reforms are impossible dreams. A more realistic option for Tasmania is to volunteer to become an experimental test bed to explore new economic models to achieve sustainability. Fundamentally Tasmania is currently asking the same questions that Australia must answer once the resources that underpin our economy are exhausted.

Tasmania is an ideal place to experiment with sustainability, finding new ways to develop transport and energy networks and urban design in the same way Tasmania was used as a test case for the National Broadband Network (NBN) roll out. Sustainability expertise could be exported to the rest of the world. This is already happening with the export of innovative micro-energy production systems for remote areas that were developed in Tasmania.

Tasmania should become a special tax zone where any sustainable enterprise is exempt of relevant state and Federal taxes to drive investment and innovation. Tasmania sorely needs a vibrant private sector that breaks the “poor bugger me” dependency of welfare.

The sizable Green constituency in Tasmania shows there is an appetite for exploring sustainable futures. Recently Tasmania Together, a legacy of the late Jim Bacon, was recognised as a world leader in community planning for sustainability, and shortlisted for the Reinhard Mohn Prize awarded by a German philanthropic organisation. Sadly, the current Premier, Lara Giddings, scrapped the Tasmanian Together board, signalling her return to the stale orthodoxy of industrialisation as the key to Tasmania’s future.

There is no question Tasmania is at a tipping point. Right now is easy to imagine a colourful and culturally vibrant positive Tasmania or a bleak, depressed, and disturbing insular one.

Ten years ago the thought that Hobart could host a world-class private museum and art gallery would have been met with scorn. MONA has been an enormous success that has significantly changed the way Tasmanians think about their place in the world. So why not think boldly and envision Tasmania a globally renowned centre of sustainability, with a world-class research capacity committed to sustainability?

You can read the whole series here.