Lara Giddings – Tasmania’s saviour?


Tasmania may be Australia’s smallest state, but its Premier has made a huge impact on Australian politics. Lara Giddings was just 23 when she was first elected to the Tasmanian Parliament, becoming the youngest woman ever elected to any Australian Parliament. Since then – excluding four years out of parliament but still heavily involved in politics – her rise through the Australian Labor Party’s ranks has been both rapid and historically significant. Having held the positions of Minister for Economic Development, Minister for the Arts and Minister for Health and Human Services, she became the second woman in Tasmanian history to be appointed Deputy Premier in 2008. Three years later, she became the first female Premier of Tasmania.

Here, Juliet Langton speaks to Lara Giddings about her personal motivations, the challenges Tasmania faces, and what the future holds for both the state and her political party.

JL: HOW DID YOU COME TO BE THE YOUNGEST WOMAN EVER ELECTED INTO AUSTRALIAN PARLIAMENT?

LG: I’ve always been interested in politics – from the age of three! But it wasn’t until I finished Year 12 at school that I started to think of politics as an actual career. I had just visited Canberra and seen the Australian Parliament in action – that’s when I thought, “I want to be here, I want to be part of the decision making for the community”. I was drawn to the Labor Party by its commitment to the values of equity, fairness and social justice. I wanted to try to right wrongs and to give disadvantaged people in the community the same opportunities that had been available to me.

Also, I was conscious at that time – the mid-1990s – that there was a real push to encourage young people to get involved at all levels of society, including politics. I decided to ride that wave of interest into parliament, and in 1996 I was elected to parliament.

JL: DID YOU ALWAYS HAVE THE PREMIERSHIP IN YOUR SIGHTS?

LG: It wasn’t my primary goal. But I’ve always felt like that’s probably where I would end up. Although I lost my seat in 1998, I never moved far from politics and, since being re-elected in 2002, I’ve effectively been promoted every two years. I began as a parliamentary secretary; two years later, I became a minister; two years after that, I became a senior minister; two more years and I was Deputy Premier; and with another two years I became Premier.

By the time I became Health Minister, I was very satisfied with the career I’d had in politics already. I’d been able to drive change and reform in health and felt that I’d made a difference. I was made Premier at a time I was not expecting it at all – then-Premier David Bartlett decided he wanted to spend more time with his young children and his family, and I did not anticipate him resigning when he did. But I stepped up, and I’ve loved it. I really enjoy it. It’s a very challenging role, but it’s one I’m really enjoying.

JL: NO DOUBT IT’S CHALLENGING, PARTICULARLY AS TASMANIA HAS THE HIGHEST RATES OF UNEMPLOYMENT IN AUSTRALIA. HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?

LG: Tasmania has only about 512,000 people, so we’re a small population that’s susceptible to small changes. Before the GFC [Global Financial Crisis] hit in 2008, we had the fastest growing, strongest economy in Australia. We were labelled the Tiger Economy. But then the GFC hit and – being so small – that really hurt us.

Because of our challenges, because we are small, we have to export to create momentum within our own economy. Where they are international exports, the high Australian dollar has hurt. But we do have some niche industries that have survived all of that. One example is a company called Liferaft Systems here in Hobart, who has managed to deal with the high Australian dollar very well and have very strong forward orders.

So yes, it’s true that we currently have one of the worst-performing economies in Australia; but in comparison to other parts of the world, we’re still doing really well. And we’re now starting to see some of our bad luck turn around.

JL: WHAT IMPROVEMENTS ARE YOU SEEING?

LG: People are gaining confidence in starting to build new homes and we [the Tasmanian Government] have put some stimulus into the local economy as well – such as further help to first-home builders. We lifted that assistance from AU$7,000 to a $15,000 government grant.

We’ve also been driving some payroll tax changes to try to stimulate job growth here. We’ve now got the most competitive payroll tax threshold in the country, where you don’t pay payroll tax until you have a payroll of more than $1.25 million. New South Wales’ payroll tax threshold is almost half of ours; so we are certainly more competitive there.

We’re trying to ensure that we’re investing in the infrastructure that not only provides jobs right now – in the construction phase of that infrastructure – but that will help create jobs well into the future. The biggest of those is our $400 million irrigation programme, which we have developed in conjunction with the Australian Government. In comparison with the rest of Australia, we’re 1% of landmass but have about 12% of Australia’s annual rainfall. With access to water being so important, it’s like liquid gold; however, we also have a problem in that the rain mostly falls on the west coast. With our irrigation, we’re finding ways of taking water from where it’s falling and bringing it to the more arid parts of our state. That’s helping to invigorate the agricultural industries in enabling them to shift from low-value products to much higher-value products as a result of water.

JL: I CAN SEE WHAT A DIFFERENCE THAT MUST MAKE, WITH AGRICULTURE BEING ONE OF TASMANIA’S LARGEST INDUSTRIES. WHAT ARE THE STATE’S OTHER MAIN INDUSTRIES?

LG: Mining is probably the most important industry in Australia, and we do export a fair bit from that. We have a very rich mineral resource. There is about AU$11 billion of resource still sitting in the ground that we want to be able to realise. Agriculture would follow from there and that includes a growing market in dairy – we see opportunity to double the size of our dairy industry over the next few years.

We also have a strong fishery industry that is well on its way to doubling in size. Then there are industries such as our wine industry, which is a smaller niche industry at the moment but we think it could quadruple in size over the next few years.

We’ve made major reforms in our forest industry, to modernise it to attract Forestry Stewardship Council [FSC] certification. That consists mostly of moving out of native forest timber and more into plantation timber.

Tourism makes up only a small proportion of our GDP, but it is an important and growing industry for us. We are pushing to increase our cultural tourism.

JL: HOW ARE YOU BOOSTING CULTURAL TOURISM?

LG: Our newest cultural attraction, opened in January 2011, is MONA [the Museum for Old and New Art], a private art museum here in Hobart. Its unique art collection is sparking interest all over the world; we’ve got a bit of a MONA phenomenon going on at the moment, which is helping attract people from across the globe to Tasmania. [Contemporary artist David Walsh has described MONA as a “subversive adult Disneyland”]

JL: WHAT ARE TASMANIA’S OTHER BIG DRAWS FOR TOURISTS?

LG: Our natural beauty is a big draw, as people love to go to places such as Cradle Mountain and Wineglass Bay, which is a beautiful part of Tasmania’s east coast. There’s the Tahune Airwalk, which is a walkway suspended over the treetops of the Huon Valley – it’s just gorgeous. We’re also very much known as the place to come for good food and wine.

We’re a small state in which, within a couple of hours, you can experience probably five different environments. This is a big departure from mainland Australia, where you have to drive hours just to see something different. We’re very lucky in that respect.

JL: YOU MENTIONED THAT YOU’RE MODERNISING TASMANIA’S FORESTRY INDUSTRY – ISN’T YOUR ENERGY INDUSTRY GOING THROUGH SOME SIGNIFICANT CHANGES TOO?

LG: Yes, we’re undertaking some fairly major energy reforms. Those are largely about bringing in more retail competition for the benefit of families, as well as small-to-medium-sized businesses. But we’re also bringing in a more regulated framework for energy generation and the cost of energy. When it comes to providing power to heavy industries, we tend to work with them directly.

JL: I UNDERSTAND THAT RENEWABLE ENERGY IS BIG IN TASMANIA AS WELL.

LG: Absolutely. The majority of Tasmania’s energy is renewable and comes from hydropower dams. We also have two major wind farms. I would say about 95% of our energy nowadays is renewable. The wind farms and the hydro are our main energy sources but we are also attached to mainland Australia through a gas link, which means we do sometimes import brown coal energy from Victoria at times.

JL: WITH MINING BEING TASMANIA’S LARGEST INDUSTRY, WHAT IS THE GOVERNMENT DOING TO SUPPORT AND GROW IT?

LG: We’re encouraging foreign investment – I went on a trade mission to China last year, for instance, where I spoke to potential investors in the mining industry.

But for us, the most important thing has been to make sure that no decision by the Australian Government has gone through that would see the Tarkine in the northwest, which holds our richest mineral resources, put into any form of National Heritage-listed zone. We’ve managed to achieve that, in that the Australian Government has not gone ahead with a National Heritage listing that may have impeded any future expansion of mining. And all we’re talking about is leaving 1% of that area open to mining – so it’s not like we’re creating some big issue.

We’ve also put in place some incentives. For example, Grange Resources [Australia’s oldest magnetite producer] has moved its headquarters from Perth in Western Australia to Burnie in northwest Tasmania, and that’s thanks to us making some concessions on their mineral royalties that encouraged them to come across.

JL: MINING BOSSES HAVE TOLD ME THAT THEY’RE NOT HAPPY ABOUT SOME OF THE POLICIES EX-PRIME MINISTER OF AUSTRALIA JULIA GILLARD BROUGHT IN FOR THE INDUSTRY. DO YOU THINK THIS WILL HARM LABOR’S CHANCES IN THE UPCOMING FEDERAL ELECTIONS?

LG: It’s going to be a very difficult election for the Australian Labor parties. In regards to mining, I am aware of some of the concerns that the mining industry has had around the Mineral Resource Rent Tax [MRRT], as well as carbon pricing. But the fact is that the carbon pricing issue will not go away, no matter who is in power. It’s a move that’s happening globally. We’ve already seen that China is beginning to move towards implementing a carbon price. You have other parts of Europe that are ahead of Australia when it comes to carbon pricing. So on those issues, I think the mining industry just needs to accept that the world has moved on. Even if that policy were to change in the short term, in the long term it would be back; so we may as well get used to it and deal with it.

As for the MRRT – well, it was only ever a super-profits tax. And the fact that the mining industry has slowed in recent times means that the revenue the Australian Government thought they might get hasn’t materialised. So I don’t quite know why [mining companies] would be worried about that either, seeing as it was only if they ever achieved what could be known as ‘super profits’ that the tax would even come into play.

JL: HOW ABOUT TASMANIA’S STATE ELECTION NEXT YEAR – HOW CONFIDENT ARE YOU ABOUT HOLDING ONTO THE PREMIERSHIP?

LG: I will certainly be going into the next state election campaigning for a majority Labor government in Tasmania. Saying that, even as a minority government we have been able to provide stability in politics for almost four years now. And that is important – having stability in the political arena so that businesses have confidence to invest.

In the past four years, we have seen record levels of mineral exploration and growth in the number of mining jobs in Tasmania. We’ve also seen decisions taken that are not going to inhibit further mining in the northwest of Tasmania. So to the mining sector in particular, I would say that this government has delivered for them and they can be assured that, as Premier, I will continue to stand by their industry.

JL: HOW WILL YOU BE RALLYING SUPPORT IN THE RUN-UP TO THE STATE ELECTION?

LG: I think we just have to refer to our good record. When you look at what the opposition is saying, they’re either saying nothing at all, or what they’re saying is so full of motherhood statements, designed to make people feel good, that you have to question their integrity and question their ability to actually deliver.

I will continue to talk to people within business and the community, highlighting the fact that being all things to all people before an election is just cynical politics. You can see that already in other liberal states, where other Members of Parliament have taken the same approach – have promised everything before the election, only to back away from all those promises after the election. Campbell Newman [Premier of Queensland since March 2012] is a prime example of that. So you just need to look at the reality of what’s happening around you.

Nevertheless, we are in a challenging environment and it’s not going to be an easy election to win; but I’m determined to do everything I can to try and achieve a majority Labor government. 

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