Old Boys No Longer Run Tasmania


The bad news is that unemployment in Tasmania is down and consumer confidence is up. That’s bad news for the Liberal opposition, for whom any bad news associated with the state Labor-Greens powersharing Government is good news and vice versa.

But it’s especially bad news for those who can’t accept that, first: that Labor is in State Government with the Greens and second: that the Greens are in Government at all.

Former Labor State Premier Paul Lennon and former Victorian Liberal State Premier Jeff Kennett recently fronted a debate, as part of Hobart’s Festival of Voices. Lennon and Kennett spent much of the time hurrumphing and carping about the twin evils of minority government and the Greens. Never mind that 10 Labor MPs, 10 Liberal and five Greens was the result of the 2010 state election.

In the Nineties, the then state Liberal and Labor parties, ran the place as a back-slapping old-boys’ one-party state of two often identical Lib-Lab halves, untroubled by an inconvenient third party.

The reason there was no third party was because the two larger parties had conspired to reduce the number of lower House of Assembly MPs by five to cut the rising number of Greens MPs. One of the former architects of the plan, former Labor State minister, David Llewellyn admitted to the "conspiracy" on ABC Tasmania last year.

After this bastard legislation was passed, the number of Greens MPs fell from four to one. Ever since, the Greens have campaigned to have the number of seats restored to its rightful 35.

The spectacularly self-interested and short-termist move failed twice-over. Not only are there now five Greens MPs but the parliamentary "talent pool" has been dramatically reduced, forcing ministers to hold far too many portfolios and leading to a threadbare backbench.

Labor can’t see that it is its policy failure to be progressive or ecologically responsible which is giving the Greens a leg up. Rather than address its policy failings, Labor in Tasmania is bravely adopting a business as usual approach — literally.

A new entity, reportedly called the Tasmanian Industry Group (TIG), has recently emerged to replace the ailing Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (TCCI), which recently announced it was $800,000 in debt.

The revelation from the TCCI, the state’s peak business body, followed an audit by its incoming chief executive, Neil MacKinnon. Its latest debt comes on the back of a $915,000 loss in 2009 and a near $200,000 loss the following year.

The ABC reported recently  that documents leaked to it suggest the TIG already has the backing of some of the state’s big business beasts, such as the state’s peak tourism, hospitality and retail groups. The TIG reminds me of another group, Tasmanians For A Better Future, whose legacy is now mostly forgotten.

This anonymous front group was set up in 2006 and was vociferously pro-development, anti-Green and was widely blamed for swinging the 2006 state election. Taking out ads in local newspapers, the group suggested the sky would fall in if the Greens increased their share of the vote, which resulted in a small swing against the Greens and a swing for the Liberals.

The group’s benefactors have never had to reveal themselves, a consequence of the state’s woeful political donation laws.

The one person to admit he was involved is Tony Harrison, a PR wonk and former chief of staff to Paul Lennon. The new TIG is fronted by another former chief of staff to Lennon, Daniel Leesong.

Lennon is not the only former Labor politico who is refusing to enjoy a quiet retirement on the golf course. Take Julian Amos, a Labor veteran and former state minister from the 1970s to the 1990s.

The poor old barkosaurus has, since his 1980s stint as Minister for Forestry, been a cheerleader for the State’s timber industry and its workers, both of which he helped sell up the river.

Tasmania’s timber industry works a lot like the Australian Wool Board did and has been bought to its knees for precisely the same reasons the Wool Board was: both organisations have been badly run by old men who wrongly thought they could game the markets with taxpayer help.

Amos is chairman of the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania. He didn’t mention this in his two most recent op-eds in Tasmania’s local rag, the Murdoch-owned Mercury. (Read them here and here.)

Amos’s most recent piece warned Tasmania Labor pollies that they needed to pull their socks up and ditch the Greens.

Amos’ grief at the demise of the State’s two-party system is clear when he talks about the upstart Greens’ ceaseless demands, pursuit of power and that "they [are]now not only offering environmental solutions but running campaigns on the major social issues as well".

A seismic shift has left Labor stranded. Labor has long been a cheerleader for growth and deregulation, often indistinguishably from the Liberals, but it has been silent on the environmental consequences of this position.

Hot on the heels of Amos’ latest pronouncement comes a poll from the Australia Institute which has found how overrepresentation by Tasmania’s timber industry has skewed Tasmanians’ perception of it.

The AI poll found most Tasmanians think the timber industry employs 20 per cent of the workforce. In reality, it employs about 1 per cent.

That misapprehension has political consequences. Millions of taxpayer dollars continue to flow into the timber industry black hole, largesse exclusive to the state’s one "special case" industry.

Public figures like Amos continue to harbour a 19th century pastoralist mindset that business-as-usual ‘development’ will see the State through.

As the state slides into a phony election footing, with an election scheduled for 2014, the Liberals are busy selling a rose-tinted nostalgia, perfect for troubled times. They are deceiving voters into believing that all will be well in the timber industry, if they vote Liberal — as if the troubles in the timber industry and strong Aussie dollar will just melt away.

The reality, which the AI findings hint at, is somewhat different.

Tasmania’s economy is actually broadening away from a few, monolithic old-school industries, and diversifying into an ultimately stronger but more composite economic base. The timber industry is, for a number of historic and political reasons, the obstinate child resisting the inevitable.

And inevitable it is.

The epicentre of the epic tug of war between the timber industry’s forces of regression and those trying to drag it onto a sustainable footing which doesn’t require taxpayer handouts, is the forest peace negotiations.

The hard-pressed representatives of the timber industry and conservation movement have been negotiating, to serially postponed deadlines, for the last two years, to try and nut out a deal to finally bring peace to the forests. D-Day is imminent.

If they succeed, and the timber industry becomes as sustainable and viable as its mainland counterparts, we could see a Tasmanian renaissance.

In a remarkable example of forward thinking, forestry expert Professor Jonathan West and Labor’s Federal Regions Minister Simon Crean earlier this year set out what Tasmania’s diversified economy could look like.

Their vision is worth $5 billion — the sum they suggested the state could reap if it were to truly harness the potential of the world renowned "clean, green, clever and creative" Brand Tasmania.

It was a billion-dollar carrot to get the timber industry moving.

This, of course, is anathema to the few dogmatic dinosaurs in the recalcitrant timber industry, Amos, Lennon and his cronies and their allies in Tasmania’s reactionary Upper House.

Amos argues that the historic power-sharing agreement between Labor and the Greens is failing.

He wishes. The reality is the opposite: the Labor-Greens relationship is stronger than ever. Following a tough budget, Labor needs the support of the Greens while the economy recovers enough for Labor to claim its austerity measures paid off in time for the next state election.

In fact, the Labor-Greens power-sharing agreement is working better than ever.
Take same-sex marriage. After years of Greens Leader Nick McKim and his colleagues campaigning for Tasmania to legalise marriage equality, Premier Lara Giddings announced the she and McKim would be co-sponsoring a bill to legalise it this year — as if Labor had been campaigning on it for years.

The voters know the Greens own the issue, with the Liberals painting it as a Labor cave-in, but there is no disguising realpolitik when there’s a good news story up for Labor to grab.

Some other hefty Greens policies which have since become Tasmanian Government policy include the country’s first Cost of Living strategy, a ban on Big Tobacco political donations, radical prisons reform and energy efficiency upgrades to thousands of Government housing properties. The Greens will be able to take an unprecedented cache of real-world, people-focused policy wins to the next election, which is why the likes of Lennon and Amos are gnashing and wailing.

The August EMRS poll (pdf)  of state voting intentions put the Greens on a remarkably strong 22 per cent, Labor on 27 and the Libs on 48. Given that it also has undecided at 25 per cent, who traditionally constitute leftish voters when it comes time to vote in 2014. These latest results suggest another power-sharing Government in Tasmania is not unlikely.

That really would be good news — except for the state’s political retirees for whom another bout of Greens in government could prove fatal. But then dinosaurs haven’t ever had much of a future.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.