Economists are a civilized breed. Unlike politicians and lawyers you don’t find them slagging off their rivals in the media. But media savvy ANZ Bank economist Saul Eslake was so riled last week by an Institute of Public Affairs report on the future of Tasmania’s economy, that he launched one almighty dummy spit at the report’s authors.

The IPA report written by Sinclair Davidson, Professor of Institutional Economics at Melbourne’s RMIT University, and Julie Novak, a former Commonwealth government economist, argues that Tasmania is still a mendicant state with a bleak future despite the economic growth it has achieved in the past decade. The Davidson/Novak report argues its case by reference to the usual standard tools of economists — figures and graphs.

This is all too much for the Tasmanian born and educated Eslake. I mean, how dare anyone suggest that Tasmania, despite a decade of Labor governments telling everyone the place is an economic powerhouse, is in fact still fundamentally an economic basket case, seemed to be the message from Eslake.

As is generally the case with Eslake and the media in Tasmania, he was given a platform to attack the professionalism of Davidson and Novak. This included an interview with the ABC’s Stateline program which did not even bother to interview Davidson and Novak.

Eslake’s critique was petulant and petty. He said Davidson and Novak could only have arrived at their conclusion about the state of Tasmania by “holding the charts upside down.” The report, he told Stateline, was of “poor quality” and was a “shoddy piece of work.”

Davidson and Novak are fighting back. Yesterday they sent Eslake a detailed response to his critique and accuse him of being “defensive” and “hostile”.

As to Eslake’s complaint made on Stateline that one reason he didn’t like the report was “because it provides ammunition to the NSW and Victorian treasuries which have long been seeking to reduce Tasmania’s share of federal revenues,” Davidson and Novak rightly observe that Eslake appears to be implying that Tasmania’s finances should not be scrutinised for fear of drawing attention to them, with the result that the state will therefore receive reduced federal funding.

There is no doubting Mr Eslake’s right to speak about the Tasmanian economy and the future of the place. He is a high profile, and engaged member of the Tasmanian community, and is chairman of the Tasmanian Arts Advisory Board, a post he has held since 2006, and earlier this year was appointed to the most high profile and prestigious government board in Tasmania – that of energy provider Hydro Tasmania.

But Eslake has monopolised economic commentary on Tasmania for years now, and the media has given him one hell of a decent ride. It appears that he now has competition on the Island and that is a good thing. No economist is a guru or gets it right all the time and Tasmanians deserve to listen to an participate in a decent debate about their economic future. Eslake’s dummy spit was anything but that.

Peter Fray

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