Oscillating wildly

by Julianne Schultz

TASMANIA OCCUPIES A unique place in the national imagination. It is different in so many ways to the vast, dry expanses of the continent that it has acquired an almost mythic status – a magical place where nature's power and beauty combine with the people who live there to test the limits of good and evil.

No other state in Australia has been subject to such intense historical examination, or had so many outstanding novels set in its distinctive locales, populated by the people who made their homes in the island state, or fled.

There is something about Tasmania that gets under your skin; that makes you want to understand more, to feel the stories of its past, its joys and anguish. In Tasmania the layers of history sit atop of each other, just visible, almost close enough to touch, a prism through which contemporary life is always refracted.

The contradictions and tensions continue to play out. Tasmania is small, both physically and in terms of population. It feels like everyone knows each other or is related by birth or marriage. The downside is that old enmities die hard, that in-clubs can exercise too much power. But the upside is a wellspring of possibility, creativity and tolerance that continues to attract and inspire newcomers, even if some later leave, frustrated that they could not impose their will and achieve their dreams.

There is something hard at Tasmania's heart, grounded in the extraordinary ancient landscape that endures, provides a firm foundation for experimentation and engenders passion.

Tasmania has been and continues to be the site of both extinctions and reinventions. The challenges it now faces are relevant to the whole nation. Its success in navigating these shoals will be important for the future of federation and the cohesiveness of wider Australia.

The warning signs are clear – about a third of Tasmania's population depends on benefits, a third is employed by the public sector, a fifth in the services sector and only a tenth in the private wealth creation sector. Ensuring sustainable growth and pathways to new industries will demand tough decisions. There is a need for continued economic restructure, to build Tasmania's distinctive strengths in agriculture, science, food production, forestry and fisheries, tourism and culture, while encouraging those people with the ability and determination to make it happen.

From the big island it sometimes seems that Tasmania is the beneficiary of special pleading, but ensuring its viability is essential to the nation. A state cannot be allowed to fail – and Tasmania won't – but this will demand reconsideration of the financial relations between the states and Canberra. It is wrong to dismiss Tasmania as a mendicant. Its citizens must be assured of the same basic level of support as every other Australian, wherever they live, but with incentives to use its abundant resources in new and responsible ways.

Preparing this edition in conjunction with Associate Professor Natasha Cica, director of the Inglis Clark Centre at the University of Tasmania, has been a joy and a revelation. In some ways the stories I heard reminded me of old Queensland, of an at-times closed and censorious community resistant to change; but then there were the tales of innovation and creativity, and the delights of a connected community that embraces change when its case is made persuasively.

I am confident that this edition of Griffith REVIEW will challenge what you thought you knew about Tasmania and make it even more alluring.

1 December 2012

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 39: TASMANIA – The Tipping Point? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.