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The aspirational Tasmanian: ready for the right kind of change

Tasmania has some of the best early childhood indicators in Australia - it’s a state ripe for innovation. Mike Rowe

Is Tasmania at a tipping point? Over the past two weeks The Conversation, in conjunction with Griffith REVIEW and the University of Tasmania, has published 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, challenged how Tasmania is seen by outsiders and illuminated how Tasmanians see themselves, down home and in the wider world.

Tasmania has developed a way of life, a mode of doing things, a demographic, a culture and associated economy that reproduces underachievement, generation after generation - Jonathan West


As I recovered from the shock of the less than flattering description of Tasmania and its people, I was forced to ask myself, could it possibly be true? And, how do my fellow Tasmanians feel about such accusations?

Trying to objectively reflect, I came to the stark realisation that perhaps there is a hint of truth in West’s description. I wasn’t alone.

This article draws on responses to the Jonathan West article (initially published in the Griffith REVIEW and subsequently online, including The Conversation), as well as other comments made by Tasmanians elicited by the author via email and social media.

“Extremely depressing because it seemed right” – Rose

“Truthful representation of situation within the state” – AT

“Nail on the head” – Andy

“I think Jonathan West is spot on in his dissection of the reasons behind our economic situation” - Leanne

“Initially, defensive, but now after reflection, I think it is spot on”- Philip

“Tasmania - the fish that John West Rejects” - Fred

“Thank you Jonathan West - you have hit the nail on the head about development” - Cornelius

Others think differently:

“Opinion reported as fact, no thanks” – Steven

“Awfully negative but raises some important issues” – Clare

“A cheap go at Tasmanians” - Anthony

“An example of how academics denigrate bogans in public”- Bill

“West’s article was written with the same tone of failure that he claims is endemic to Tasmania”- Emma

However, Emma also pointed out that “Tasmanians are not blind to the issues”.

I agree, I think Tasmanians recognise the need for change, want change and that the process has already started.

Much of the popular response to the article has suggested Tasmania is not unique in its situation, and that there are many other regions in Australia experiencing the same fate. (Of course, Tasmania’s predicament is highlighted as it is reported as a state, whereas other similarly performing regions are absorbed into the aggregates of their respective mother states.) This discourse suggests that because Tasmania is not alone it is okay for it to underperform. To me, this is not acceptable.

It is not just its problems that aren’t unique to Tasmania. The natural advantages bestowed to the island state are neither unique nor likely to be the island’s saviour. There are many other tourism destinations luring visitors to pristine wilderness experiences, gourmet food destinations, and cultural meccas. The world is competitive. Many places have similar environment, lifestyle and job opportunities.

We cannot afford to underperform.

West’s argument rests on the claim that Tasmania’s problems are inherent in its demographics – a substantial “underclass” and a “smaller, comfortable, government dependent middle class”. Due to the dependence on government, both groups lack an incentive to support private development. But is this correct?

The proportion of households with a primary source of income from public monies cannot be ascertained from the Census (as implied by West), but it can identify the proportion who derive an income from a government job (federal, state or local) from an individual rather than a household perspective. Regardless, it is true that there is a disproportionate number of Tasmanians employed in the public system. This is reasonable to expect given the small, widely dispersed, ageing population that is not in the position to benefit from economies of scale or centralisation of services.

West bundles into his definition of the “government dependent middle class” all individuals who work for a private organisation dependent on government contracts or funding, including research institutions (remembering West himself is employed by one. Sean even notes “I guess I was just a little taken aback at someone employed by the taxpayer writing a report saying too many Tasmanians are employed by government”.) Importantly though, many of these organisations may also offer services to the private sector.

Seb, a migrant, says he identifies “with West’s description of the Tasmanian middle-class: by virtue of my occupation and connections, I feel very much part of it, which did make my integration into the local society quite easy”. Even so, suggesting that it is only the small, traded private sector which has a personal stake in economic development - and that the comfortable middle class has no incentive to support economic progress as their secure incomes and lifestyles mean they won’t benefit - is not only unhelpful but largely untrue.

Underlying these comments is the implication that the comfortable middle class (West and I are both members), provide little contribution to the economy or community. This simply isn’t true. The majority of middle-class incomes are spent in the state. Many in the middle class provide valuable services to education, healthcare, and construction and are just as educated and skilled as those in the private sector.

In his article he implies that there is something wrong with enjoying a modest, comfortable lifestyle. But as Bill says, “We have nothing to be ashamed of. I am angry with the assertion that Tasmania is a basket case bludging on the rest of the country”.

There are many in this state who hail the virtues of life in Tasmania, the opportunity for meaningful employment balanced by the ability to engage in all aspects of life while raising a family. Are we supposed to feel guilty for enjoying the balance of work and life so many desire? Is this comfortable lifestyle bought at the expense of other Australians?

I wonder if any realise, or believe, that it is at the expense of the rest of Australians as suggested by West. I’d like to think it is ignorance rather than apathy. I am uncomfortable with the notion that the middle class may have a lack of empathy for the plight of those dependent on the traded, private sector. In fact, I think Tasmanians are quite knowledgeable (and defensive) of the state’s reputation as a “mendicant state”, particularly given it is not the only state or territory to be a net benefactor from the GST “carve up”. Both South Australia and the Northern Territory (and until recently, Western Australia) receive a greater proportion of GST receipts than they contribute.

This does not support the notion that Tasmanians willingly seek to continue its supposed pattern of failure and increase its reliance on the rest of Australia, but indicates that Tasmanians are cognisant of the challenges it faces, often constrained by factors out of its direct control (the high Australian dollar, freight logistics, access to the island and an ageing population).

West suggests that because the origins of the “self-producing pattern of failure” are so deep in the culture and population mix, change can only possibly come from the outside. I beg to differ, and suggest that not only is change occurring from within but that it has been a constant theme in our state’s history.

Tasmanians are resourceful and innovative people; they have to be, to continually adapt to the challenges presented by the makeup of our population, the diverse terrain and our isolation by virtue of our island status. It is thanks to this resourcefulness that Tasmania exists as it does today, even if under performing relative to “mainland” states.

West acknowledges that cultural change is not easy. But it has started, and it has started where it needs to, at the foundations of life.

Evidence demonstrates that interventions during early childhood are likely to be more cost effective and influence a wider range of health, social and economic outcomes than interventions later in life. In 2007, former Premier and Minister for Education David Bartlett (to whom Jonathan West was confidante), announced an extensive program to foster cultural change in education and health, including The Early Years Foundation, Launching into Learning and the Child and Family Health Centres.

Evidence of the success of these programs is apparent in the recently released Productivity Commission report into government services. Tasmania is the best performer in terms of the number of children in government funded pre-school activities, third in parents reading to or listening to children read between the ages of three and eight, and the best performer in the awkwardly worded “parents never telling stories or listening to children read”. These are signs of a cultural shift which needs to be continually fostered and nurtured.

West is adamant that change can only come from outside, that Tasmania will be altered by new arrivals to the place seeking opportunity and a better lifestyle. Seb agrees suggesting that “maybe only outsiders and the Tasmanian diaspora can feel the urgency of this happening because we have actively brought change to our lives on a personal level and know that the status quo is never permanent”.

I am reminded of a saying my mother still says: “Women marry men thinking they can change them. Men marry women thinking they will never change”. Perhaps the same can be said for people who choose to move to or stay in Tasmania. There are those that want to grasp the opportunity for change, while others prefer the status quo. Carol says “Please don’t change Tasmania!” as she loves the place because of the quiet pace of life, regarding Tasmania as a “getaway” from the hectic nature of life in cities on the mainland. Yet Cornelius rebuts with, “Tasmania is beautiful but is that enough?” Some agree, some don’t, torn by the need for “development” versus welfare dependence. Either way, often the decision to live in Tasmania is different to others; those who come (or stay) because they don’t want it to change, and those who come (or stay) because they see opportunities for change, complicating the challenges we face as a state.

I am reminded too of a time in the not too distant past (the mid-2000s) when Tasmania was enjoying relative economic prosperity with widespread skill shortages. Employers would lament to me the challenges of employing an outsider. Tasmanians were better workers, they said: they would prefer to employ a lower-skilled Tasmanian and train them up than employ the appropriately skilled “mainlander”. Mainlanders had a perception that you didn’t have to work hard in Tasmania; that their idea of balance, was more life, less work.

The beauty of Tasmania is that it offers both meaningful employment opportunities (perhaps not in the same volume or breadth as other states) and the opportunity to also fully engage in life. Greg agrees, saying he has “the opportunity to catch trout in crystal clear waters just 20 minutes from the CBD. I have the opportunity to live and play on the coast without selling my soul to a bank. I have the opportunity to live in a place that still understands the concept of community. And I can do all this while working and contributing meaningfully to decisions on nationally and internationally significant issues”.

What West misses in his argument is the great number of Tasmanians who do aspire to great things, do strive for achievement and success. Some stay here to achieve it; many leave the island to pursue education, employment and life experience opportunities elsewhere. But importantly, these aspirations were ingrained in them as children in Tasmania: not necessarily as a desire to “get out” but to “return to”, to or as “JA” explains “bring home a wealth of professional and life experience and a willingness to contribute to the discussion”.

Greg agrees: “I returned to Tasmania early in the last decade optimistic that strong employment and economic prospects had now joined superior lifestyle as part of the Tasmanian value proposition. I was joined by many other 30-somethings who’d developed their skills and built their experience interstate and overseas but who now wanted to return to apply what they’d learned in Tasmania”. Emma suggests that “ it is convenient that so many Tasmanians are abroad, building skill sets, learning to be innovative thinkers and are passionate for change”. Given the strong sense of community and identity associated with being Tasmanian, it is likely that many want to, and will eventually, return home.

What of Tasmania’s future? West provides ample evidence of opportunity. However, many are frustrated. Greg says “Simply having more nuanced discussions about issues like forestry with a small cultural diaspora, which our new elites would have us believe is the ‘answer’, won’t take us very far”. Seb says that he “can see the obvious potential this State carries, exciting projects and the many bright minds living in Tasmania, but it is also true large scale societal change is needed to transition to a more sustainable development model for the State, one that carries excitement and purpose for the younger generation”. While there is opportunity, Clare suggests that “sometimes there seems a lack of awareness of its context in the world, especially environmentally, and its relatively low connectedness to other approaches may mean that it’s not using outside resources as effectively as it could”.

While all this finger-pointing is directed at Tasmanians and their self-destructive nature, Felicity raises the question, “In all of this talk about Tasmanian underachievement, has there been any consideration to the landmark ruling in 1983 that saw the Federal Government save the Franklin River, but also stifle a State’s willingness to progress an economic plan? Let’s see this Federal Government apply the same principles to the devastating mining industry in Queensland and Western Australia. Let’s see the same protectionism afforded the Murray and watch the fall out in those States”. Let’s not also forget the Commonwealth’s role in the recent supertrawler overrule, and the number of mainland “treehuggers” engaging in “economic vandalism”. If mainlanders are going to be active in deciding what Tasmania can’t do, perhaps it could play a greater role in assisting what we can do.

Overall, the consensus is that Tasmania is a land of opportunities constrained by a political system which kowtows to a vocal minority and “self-appointed elite”. While there are also reasons to explain our comparative underperformance, these should not be accepted as a justification for continued underachievement. But if all Tasmanians were anti-progress, anti-development, anti-change, the Greens would hold a majority, which they don’t. However, it will means making decisions that don’t please all the people all the time in the interests of progress and the majority. The inspiration can be found within, all that is needed is confidence and bold leadership.

You can read the whole series here.

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