Rhetoric and reality in the New Tasmania

Unlocking Tasmania's economic renaissance

Stewart Prins

Tasmania has undergone an undeniable economic transformation over the past six years. The state has its lowest unemployment rate in 23 years, the population is steadily increasing (after declining during the 90s), real estate values have gone through the roof and over $1.5 billion has been wiped off government net debt. Even Access Economics, usually considered a habitual sceptic of Tasmania's economic resurgence, has now declared that the future for Tasmania looks bright.1 In its September 2004 Business Outlook, Access Economics stated that "Tasmania is laying to rest the demons of a decade ago, when structural change sent many of its service sector jobs elsewhere."2

Other indicators show that, economically, Tasmania is moving ahead at a faster rate than the other Australian states - albeit from a starting point well behind. For example, the August 2004 quarterly Sensis Business Index found Tasmanian small and medium sized businesses had the highest level of confidence in the country.3 Furthermore, the survey marked the 16th time out of the previous 18 quarters that Tasmanian business confidence exceeded the national average. The survey also found that of all the states and territories, Tasmanian businesses were the most supportive of their respective government's policies. The main reason cited by businesses for supporting the state government was 'getting the economy going'.4

Tasmania's economic resurgence has come at a time when the state also has experienced significant cultural changes. In particular, Tasmania has gone from a noted bastion of homophobia, where sodomy was still illegal until the early 90s, to a world leader in the legal recognition of same-sex couples (under the state's ground-breaking Significant Relationships framework). Indeed, the late former Premier Jim Bacon argued that the economic and cultural changes taking place constituted the creation of a 'New Tasmania' - a Tasmania that could no longer be dismissed by the old clichéd stereotypes. In essence, he argued that the images which previously defined Tasmania as socially, culturally and economically backward had been replaced by new images in which Tasmania was represented as confident, sophisticated, and mature.

The economic indicators, and the changing tune of the economic forecasters, suggest that there is something special going on in Tasmania. But what? How much of the New Tasmania is real, and how much is rhetoric? And perhaps most importantly, what came first - the rhetoric or the reality? This last question can be something of a chicken and egg problem, but finding the answer may be the key to unlocking the secret of Tasmania's success.