Last night a prominent Tasmanian, author Richard Flanagan, used the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards to again berate the Tasmanian forestry industry, and in particular the bete noir of the environmental movement, Gunns. And Flanagan praised The Monthly magazine for agreeing to run a story he had written on Gunns and forestry in Tasmania last year.

Flanagan, The Monthly and mainland newspapers like The Age and The Australian are perfectly entitled to focus on the problematic nature of forestry in Tasmania, but in giving so much prominence to the plight of the physical environment they are masking what is a national scandal — the crushing intergenerational poverty that bedevils this island state of 500,000 people.

Tasmania is Australia’s Mississippi or Alabama, a proposition neatly illustrated by The Hobart Mercury’s recent expose about a homeless family on Tasmania’s North West coast. This family was living in a car for weeks, unable to get accommodation from the resource stretched government and non government community housing and accommodation organisations.

This family’s situation is far from an isolated one as an statistical analysis bears out.

Consider these facts about Tasmania:

  • Tasmanian households have the lowest median income in the nation at $801 per week compared to a national average of $1027.
  • A staggering 37 percent of Tasmanians rely on some form of government pension — well above the national average of 27.7 percent.
  • The two poorest electorates in Australia are in Tasmania — Lyons has a poverty rate of 14.9 percent and Braddon has a poverty rate of 15.1 percent.
  • Tasmania has the second highest, behind the Northern Territory, teenage pregnancy rates in the nation.
  • The number of Tasmanians staying at school beyond Year 10 is 10 percent lower than the national average. It has the worst literacy and numeracy rates in Australia.
  • And life expectancy in Tasmania is over one year less than the national average. As the peak Tasmanian welfare body TASCOSS notes: “…rates of death by cancer are the highest in the country and Tasmania is second to the Northern Territory in death rates from diabetes and suicide. A higher proportion of Tasmanians dies from heart disease and has chronic diseases such as asthma and arthritis than the national average.”

This is the tragic real story of Tasmania — one of which mainland Australia is sadly rarely made aware.

Too many Australians see Tasmania as the nation’s environmental bell jar. They salve their conscience by giving money to Wilderness Society saving Tassie forests campaigns and when they head to the Island they are outraged when they see a clear felled forest, but are unaware that down the road is a community that is permanently economically and socially depressed.

Just as some genuinely great journalism and writing has been spawned in the US by lifting the scab off oppression in the Deep South — it is time that writers, journalists and other voices of influence began to give a voice to those thousands of Tasmanians whose daily lives are relentlessly harsh. Trees are but a small part of the overall landscape in the Island State.

Peter Fray

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