The Tasmanian Government has appointed ANZ chief economist Saul Eslake as chairman of the Tasmanian Arts Advisory Board. Saul, of course, is a Tasmanian boy made good, born and bred on the north west coast and a star graduate of the University of Tasmania.

On the face of it, it doesn’t seem surprising that Premier Paul Lennon – aka Big Red or the Big Chipper – has appointed him. Saul maintains links with his home state and takes a keen interest in cultural scene, and clearly, Lennon wants to hitch his wagon to the economist’s trajectory by appointing him the Government’s chief advisor on arts funding. But it might not be an easy union because Saul is not in bed with him on forestry policy – one condemned by most in the arts community.

Saul was in Hobart in October to deliver a lecture entitled “Poverty in Tasmania – An Economist’s Perspective.” Tasmania got a tick for economic growth in the past three years, although he found there was greater poverty in the state than in any other jurisdiction in the Commonwealth.

“It is too early to be sure this improvement in Tasmania’s economic performance is sustainable,” he said. “And there are things which I think Tasmania ought to be doing – in particular, reducing its reliance on volume production of essentially unprocessed commodities and increasing emphasis on the creation, design, production and marketing of goods and services embodying a high intellectual content for which customers are willing to pay premium prices – in order to make it more likely that this improvement in economic performance is sustained.”

Of course, the big “unprocessed commodity” is wood chips, a political minefield on which Saul has had to tread warily in order not to embroil the ANZ in the hot house of island politics. Especially when Gunns Ltd plans to build a mega pulp mill in the Tamar Valley, which is renowned as a scenic wine route. Sure, this is “processing,” but not of the kind that Saul has in mind.

Back in 2002, the late Premier Jim Bacon unleashed a furious storm by announcing Forestry Tasmania as a major sponsor of the state’s 2003 biennial cultural festival, Ten Days on the Island and then branded those who denounced the decision as “cultural fascists.”

The move split the arts community and led to a breakaway festival in Hobart with Nobel laureate Gunter Grass as patron: “Future Perfect: A Collaboration of Writers, Thinkers and Visual Artists.” Yes, Saul was among them.

And what did he write in the catalogue? “Tasmania’s future cannot possibly lie predominantly in the volume production of essentially unprocessed commodities…”