Tasmania: Not like the rest of Australia

Tasmania, or ‘Tassie’ if you are Australian, describes itself as ‘A World Apart’ and the ‘Best Place on Earth’ in direct reference to the large expanse of undisturbed natural forest and coastline that characterise the island. It has also been called the ‘mendicant state’ by politicians from mainland Australia and in the press as the land of the unemployed; rather different perspectives on the complex realities of Australia’s smallest state.

Looking at a map, Tasmania is the roughly heart-shaped island that dangles below the lower right hand corner of the continental mass of Australia. Separated from the mainland by the tricky waters of Bass Straight, the island sits squarely in the roaring forties that deliver cool winds and plenty of rain. The result is that Tasmania is very green and the western flank coated in dense temperate rainforest. Historically, this western part of the state generated considerable wealth and tens of thousands of jobs from logging and mining. The mineral endowment of the state is impressive. It is home to the mighty Mt Lyell and Renison Bell mines, both of which have more than a hundred years of production, and countless known prospects. However, mining and logging have declined over the last 20 years in the face of persistent pressure from environmental activists to preserve the integrity of the western forests.

Today, the mineral potential remains, but taking advantage of it has become problematic. Large areas of the west are covered by the infamous horizontal forest, a tangled mass of limbs and branches where geologists find themselves gingerly traversing five meters above the hard ground with not a rock in sight. If finding a mine is difficult, developing one is now both a bureaucratic and a political challenge.

With more than 40% of the state in parks and reserves, and most of these protected areas in the mineral-rich west, options are limited. Crucially, government has created multi-use conservation areas, which are the dominant form of reserve, in which mining is a permitted option. However, despite a population of only 500,000 people, there are 29 local councils, 31 planning schemes, various levels of controls and restrictions in the forests and multiple state agencies that potentially could become involved in permitting. Navigating the process can be confusing, slow and costly for a project proponent.

Politically, there is a very strong environmental lobby that opposes mining and has the declared objective of seeing the multi-use reserves converted into parks where no development would be permitted. The environmentalists are well organised and have strong support from mainland Australia, where many people see Tasmania as perhaps the last paradise in a country where mining otherwise runs riot. They also have an icon around which to promote their cause – the endangered Tasmanian Devil.

The decline in mining and forestry as a source of wealth and employment has not been replaced by new industries and although tourism has become a major activity, it does not create the jobs and cash flows of resource development. The result is a weak economy and a huge reliance on transfers from the mainland. Some 70% of government revenue comes in the form of transfers from the ‘have’ states such as Western Australia where mining is king: hence the epithet – mendicant state. The dire nature of the situation becomes even more apparent when you consider that almost 35% of the population is dependent on welfare payments from the state. Unsurprisingly, in this environment, young people leave for work in other parts of Australia and only an unusually healthy birth rate (source of further opprobrium from the mainland – unemployed and breeding like rabbits) hides the scale of outmigration.

Given the realities, the Tasmanian state government is faced with a dilemma. On the one side, it desperately needs to find ways of strengthening the economy and mining is an obvious option to support. On the other hand, the state has created a green, conservation image for itself, promoted a tourist industry on this basis and faces strong opposition to commercial development in the resource-rich but environmentally unique western forests. How the struggle will play out depends on politics as much as economics, but with the minerals industry slowing down in Australia, there is going to be a rethink of priorities throughout the nation.

Politicians and some elements of the national press in Australia have already started to question the future of Tasmania as a state. The argument goes that it is too small a population and too dependent on revenue transfers to be viable in a modern world. For these critics of the status quo, the answer is a merger with the state to the north across Bass Strait, Victoria. The result would be integration into a stronger economy, but the thought of losing statehood and, worse, being governed by arrogant, alien elites in Melbourne is not on the cards for the average Tasmanian. Local support for environmentally responsible mining as a way to create jobs and balance the state budget appears to be increasing.

The island has always been a place apart. During the early years of European settlement, it was a penal colony. Anyone familiar with Irish folk songs will recognise its original name, Van Diemen’s Land. It was, after all, the fate of the Belfast lad who fell for the girl whose ‘hair hung over her shoulder tied up with a black velvet band’ to be sent there for life after being found guilty of stealing a watch! His descendants are emphatic in calling the island their home and keeping it fiercely independent.

Ian Thomson is a Principal and Co-Founder of On Common Ground Consultants Inc., an international consultancy specialising in enhancing social performance and socially sustainable outcomes for the global resource sector.


Recent Posts