Thursday, 31 July 2014

Abbott, Abetz, Tasmania and the logic that isn't

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Amid the wreckage of the Abbott Government’s first Budget, and their increasingly tortured and desperate attempts to sell it, The Prime Minister’s recent trip to Tasmania went largely unreported. A fact for which he should probably be grateful. Tasmania’s manifold economic issues are not going to be solved by felling more trees or encouraging more young people to migrate to the mainland.

During his Apple Isle sojourn, Prime Minister Abbott was pressed on what solutions he had to address Tasmania’s chronic youth unemployment problem and the exodus of young people from the state. To put it mildly, his response didn’t inspired much confidence.

For hundreds and hundreds of years people have been moving in order to better their life.

People came to Tasmania in order to better their lives.

I don't think we should be necessarily heartbroken just because some people choose to move.

It was another example of Tony Abbott’s penchant for the glib, illogical, off the cuff statements that enrage his opponents and frustrate his supporters. Faced with the question of how to stop young Tasmanian’s migrating to the mainland – a key factor in the state’s ongoing economic malaise - Abbott’s response wasn’t to reassure the locals that his Government had a plan to address it, but rather to push them onto the next available flight. Unlike the wink however, this can’t be palmed off as a faux pas or mistake, because it’s effectively what the policies of his Government will do.

This week the details of one of the harshest features in a particularly harsh budget have been released; the changes to unemployment benefits . These changes will see the unemployed denied benefits for 6 months, during which time they’ll have to apply for 40 jobs a month in order to qualify. They would then be booted off benefits again if they haven’t found work or begun study in the next 6 months. Along with burdening the unemployed with an endless cycle of pointless job applications just to qualify for a barely adequate stipend, once they do qualify they’ll be made to work for the privilege, with the revival of the Howard Government’s Work For The Dole scheme.

Unsurprisingly these measures have appalled the welfare sector, who’ve claimed they will lead to an explosion in poverty, homelessness and crime. More telling though has been the response of some Coalition friendly groups, such as the Council of Small Business of Australia who are worried about the mountain of paperwork all these job applications will cause their members.

Even The Business Council of Australia, which represents the big end of town, have expressed concern, with the CEO Jennifer Westacott conceding on Budget Night after the measures were first announced, that they were ‘pretty tough’.

Tough they may be, but when applied to Tasmania - with a nation leading youth unemployment rate of 17% - they seem almost sadistic.

But it gets worse.

Another feature of the policy is to force young people to move to where jobs are available by denying them the dole if they refuse. With an economy in the doldrums, those jobs are unlikely to be in Tasmania, which will only serve to supercharge the existing problem of young Tasmanians fleeing to the mainland. This in turn will exacerbate what is already a nasty Catch 22.

While it’s fashionable in some quarters to regard Tasmania’s economic woes as a recent fad brought about by the previous Labor/Greens Government, the reality is they are long term, deeply ingrained and go far beyond partisan politics. They stem from the fact that Tasmania is a sparsely populated and isolated island, situated off the coast of a larger sparsely populated and isolated island. It doesn’t possess the natural resources that underpin the wealth of other far flung places like WA, and its low population base and isolation make service and manufacturing industries uncompetitive as well as deterring other investors who may spur economic growth. As a result it has a small, aging, low paid and unskilled workforce, which produces a small tax base that struggles to support the existing population with quality social services such as health and education. And thus you have the ongoing problem of young people wanting to leave which makes the existing problems worse.

It’s a witch’s brew that has confounded politicians and economists for decades and led to a variety of wacky proposals, including such gems as turning Tasmania into a tax haven – a sort of antipodean Cayman Islands. A slightly less fanciful proposal was to turn Tasmania into a giant airport departure lounge by declaring it a duty free zone, a proposal long championed by the late Tasmanian politician and father of the current premier, Michael Hodgman. Alas, both plans hit the fence, due to a not insignificant document called the Australian Constitution. It will also likely prohibit the more recent idea to have Tasmania become part of Victoria, something suggested by former Victorian Premier turned media tart, Jeff Kennett.

However unlikely and unsuccessful these thought bubbles are, at least they involved some vision and imagination, something entirely absent from the plans both the new State and Federal Liberal Governments have for Tasmania.

After Tony Abbott won office last September, the Tasmanian Liberals followed suit in March this year, making Will Hodgman Premier and ending 16 years of Labor rule in the state. As with many incoming governments, hubris abounded and both the Federal and State Libs made all sorts of wild claims about how a change of administration would be the magic panacea for Tasmania. Instead all we’ve seen is the aforementioned Ayn Randian fantasies of the Federal Government and a State Government who seem to think the only way to revive the Tasmanian economy is by jump starting the moribund forest industry.

A common denominator in both these approaches is the redoubtable Senator Eric Abetz, the most senior and influential figure in the Tasmanian Liberal Party and a key powerbroker on the hard right of the Federal Coalition. Along with being a significant factional player and a driving force behind the new Hodgman Government in Hobart, Abetz also happens to be the Federal Employment Minister and therefore has responsibility for the ‘earn or learn’ measures. One would imagine that, coming from Tasmania, Sen. Abetz would be aware of the damage his policies could have there. And surely, having been a Minister in the Howard Government, Senator Abetz would know that the previous incarnation of Work For The Dole did nothing to help the unemployed into jobs. But alas, as the Senator proved in a trainwreck interview on Lateline on Monday night, facts, logic and evidence based policy aren’t his strong suit.

It’s an approach which could also explain the bizarre attempts by the Hodgman Government to resuscitate the state’s forestry industry, despite little evidence that there remains an international market for Tasmania’s old growth timber and the importance of forestry to the state’s economy long being overstated. No, the State and Federal Libs ploughed on with their attempt to have vast tracts of Tasmanian old growth forest removed from World Heritage Listing, an unprecedented move which was resoundingly slapped down when put to a vote in Paris.

More successful has been their quest to rip up the historic Tasmanian Forest Peace Agreement, which passed through the Lower House of the Tasmanian Parliament and now only needs approval by the Upper House. This is despite resistance from various pressure groups, including the forestry industry themselves.

Both these moves have Senator Abetz’s fingerprints all over them. His dislike of the Greens and the environmental movement is legendary and it’s no surprise to see him using electoral victory to poke them in the eye. As for claims that this reckless forestry-at-all-costs approach could hurt Tasmania’s much larger tourism industry, which relies on its pristine environment to attract visitors, the Senator sees no conflict. When commenting on a proposed tourism venture at an old woodchip mill in Triabunna on Tasmania’s East Coast, he told John Van Tiggelen of The Monthly that he couldn’t see any reason why the two couldn’t co-exist.

A tourist would be interested to learn how we do forestry in Tasmania and learn that the woodchips are made from the leftovers... it’s a great story to tell.

This is the beauty of Government by ideology. Facts don’t matter. Evidence doesn’t matter. Rather than changing your policies to suit circumstance, you simply re-imagine circumstance to suit your policies. Thus the Liberals are now living in a world where having no income for 6 months will help you get a job and where tourists will travel to the end of the earth to see trees shredded into woodchips.

The trouble for Abbott, Abetz and Hodgman is they seem to believe their resounding election wins mean Tasmanians want ideological crusades. Which, of course, they don’t. Tasmanian voters turfed out Labor governments it felt were no longer listening or were incapable of addressing myriad problems that affect the state’s very viability. Early indications are that they’re unimpressed with the new governments who seem more interested in pursuing vendettas and dogma than solutions. Unless they change tack, a few Liberal MPs may soon be dusting off their resumes and making some pointless job applications.

Cade Lucas

Cade Lucas is a writer, broadcaster, delivery van driver and Tasmanian refugee now living in Melbourne. When not negotiating hook turns and riding elevators he hosts Wednesday Breakfast on 3CR 855AM

Follow him on twitter tweets @cadelucas