Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings seeks to offer some insights today into the island’s future in her annual State of the State address.

She gets to her feet amid an increasing air of despondency about the state economy. There is low business confidence, the high Australian dollar and low demand threaten an already struggling tourism industry and two major power users, BHP’s Temco and Rio Tinto’s Alcan. As significantly, there is Tasmania’s structural dysfunction — too many public sector jobs, too few sustainable private enterprise jobs and too many of the population on welfare, as much as one-third.

All this confronts Giddings, a committed and competent politician who leads a minority government that includes two Green ministers who march to the beat of their own drum and not the government’s. One of them, Nick McKim, undermines international confidence in Tasmania’s ability to provide sustainably produced forest products at the same time as his Labor colleagues seek to save those markets; his colleague and life partner, Cassy O’Connor, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Affairs Minister, deeply offended local Aborigines by referring to them as “a vulnerable community” after it appeared they might get their hands on some of the forests she and McKim want locked up in national parks.

Veteran activist Michael Mansell bagged O’Connor’s ill-thought commentary as “patronising” and “condescending”, which bodes ill for future relations between that minister and her indigenous constituency.

As a former correspondent for The Australian here, I know how incomprehensible and therefore tiresome Tasmanian forest politics can be for the rest of the nation. We argue incessantly about forest policy and environmental outcomes; one villainous forest company disappears off the hit list to be replaced by another; stunts aimed at the media become more risible yet still the cameras turn up; meanwhile, Tasmania falls further and further behind other states economically.

Those states are again asking why, through GST revenue distribution, they should be made to subsidise a mendicant poor cousin whose major growth industry seems to be left-of-centre pressure groups who want not only to stop the clock but to wind it back to deliver a form of Tasmanian prehistory; this at a time when Western Australians get back 70 cents of each GST dollar they pay to the Australian Taxation Office while Tasmanians get back $1.60.

The challenge of painting a long-term economic vision for Tasmania eludes MPs. Far easier, it seems, to engage in tragic-comic sideshows, such as the doomed intergovernmental forest agreement with the Gillard government. The Upper House, the Legislative Council, will scupper it or an incoming Liberal government will shred it. It has no future.

Then there is the extravaganza spun by Forestry Tasmania, the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania and Michael Mansell’s Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC). The TAC is courting the forest industry to give Aborigines the forests that the environmental groups covet for national parks under the IGA, the attraction being that Forestry Tasmania would manage the forests for the TAC for conservation (and a suggestion of some logging access) while the rest of us can engage in hunting, shooting and fishing the local fauna. It is a deliberate “up yours” to the Greens but it has no future.

There is a flaw in the IGA concept and the land hand-back to the Aboriginal community. The use of Tasmanian public forests is not for environmental groups or the forest industry to determine. That environmental groups have been able to nominate another half a million hectares or so of public forest to investigate for lock-up is fundamentally undemocratic. That the forest industry can barter public forests with the Aboriginal community is delusional.

The industry does not own the forests. Forest use is rightly the preserve of Parliament and, in the end, the Legislative Council is where the action will be.

But the fiddlers at the sideshows play on, as the economy burns.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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