Image for A Night at the Burbury – Shaping Tasmania’s Future

I did not attend this forum – I think there was something more interesting on the telly – but I have watched the videotape, kindly provided by Mr de Little (On TT,HERE)

Whilst I missed the ‘in person’ vibe of the meeting, watching it on video gives you a better, up close, view of the panel, and you can rewind when you want to check something.

This is what happened –

Each of the panellists spoke for four minutes on the topic at hand – the future of the Tasmanian economy.  Questions were then taken from the audience.

This is what I learned –

• After spending most of her adult life in politics, Lara Giddings has truly mastered the art of flapping her gums – a lot – but saying nothing sensible or useful or relevant.  Everything she said was bland, generalist and instantly forgettable.  And, she seemed to find it amusing that the day’s weather had been marred by an excess of smoke from burning forest. 

She utters nonsensical statements like ‘Jobs are being created in Tasmania’, with absolute conviction.  I don’t know where she lives, but if you were to drop by, I’m pretty sure you’d find a crystal palace with fairies and unicorns cavorting in the yard.

• Will Hodgman made one of the most significant statements of the evening when he noted that about 50 per cent of adult Tasmanians are functionally illiterate.  This is possibly why they keep voting for politicians who are only marginally more competent.

I also observed that Mr Hodgman ties a brilliant tie – his knot was perfect.  So perfect, in fact, that I was wondering whether it might not be one of those pre-tied arrangements, with elastic around the neck.

• Nick McKim spun the essentially meaningless ‘economy in transition’ line, and looked to be heading down the same track as Giddings, but he did mention that Tasmania’s days of trading on its ‘clean, green’ image may be numbered if it doesn’t start living up to the hype.  According to McKim, people attracted to Tasmania by the clean, green brand will soon go elsewhere if the brand turns out to be a fake.

• Professor Jonathon West trotted out some very disturbing income and productivity figures, the bottom line being that only 10 per cent of adult Tasmanians are economically productive – everyone else is either on welfare, or dependent on the government for their livelihood.  Unsurprisingly, the good professor considers this to be an unsustainable state of affairs – Tasmanians need to boost their aspirations and drag themselves out of their economic funk. (Easier said than done with gormless politicians, and scary levels of illiteracy).

• Bruce Felmingham’s four minutes were four minutes nobody in the room is ever going to get back.  They could have ducked out for a pee, or a coffee, or even had a microsleep.  Mumbling incoherence and pointless platitudes don’t make for a riveting speech.

• Saul Eslake speaks well, makes a lot of sense, and also ties a mean tie.  He noted the impact of Tasmania’s poor educational outcomes on the state’s economy, and mentioned the insanity of a public secondary school system that has students ‘leaving’ school in Year 10 – it seems obvious that retention rates would be better if schools provided a complete secondary education, from year seven to year 12, on the one campus.  But, what’s obvious to most sensible people seems to be beyond the comprehension of the Tasmanian government.

Mr Eslake also made a somewhat bizarre reference to Catherine Parr, the sixth wife of Henry VIII, and the only one who survived him.  I’m not sure what he was on about – it wasn’t really relevant, and probably sailed right over the heads of most of the audience.  Perhaps he temporarily forgot the functional illiteracy figure Mr Hodgman had mentioned earlier.

• Dr Phill Pullinger was out of his depth and obviously nervous.  Like Ms Giddings, his contribution was instantly forgettable.

When the forum was opened up for questions from the floor, most of those who put their hand up rambled on for several minutes without asking anything. 

There was a question about subsidized electricity contracts for large scale businesses in Tasmania, directed at Ms Giddings.  She played the worn out ‘commercial in confidence’ card in response, and, boy, is it getting dog-eared.  How can a Premier (and Treasurer) not know how much a government entity is charging customers for their products and services? 

And yet she answers with a completely straight face.

The subject of soaring electricity prices raised the ire of one audience member, who got in a fair bit of heckling before he was attended to by security.  This was one of the best bits of the night.

Overall, the forum was a lifeless affair, and didn’t contribute anything new to the Tasmanian economic debate.  We know Tasmania has a bloated, inefficient public service, we know a third of adult Tasmanians and their families live on welfare, and we know that the public education system in this state is failing its students.

We also know that the best and brightest young people leave the state to seek work.  In fact, Mr Eslake encouraged them to do so – go away to work and gain experience, but come back and share what they have learned.  Unfortunately, Mr Eslake doesn’t seem to realise that there are no jobs available in Tasmania for qualified, experienced people who didn’t get on the government gravy train straight out of school.  Those jobs are all taken by the people who stayed.

I did learn, however, that Will Hodgman has some good ideas.  I know it’s a very, very, long shot, but if he could get out from under the influence of the conservative right wing of the Liberal party, and set his own agenda, he could do something positive in Tasmania.

And, the giant elephant in the room – Gunns Tamar Valley Pulp Mill – was studiously avoided by everyone present.  Ms Giddings economic ‘cake’ – the centrepiece of her plans for the state’s economic resurrection - was barely mentioned, and was certainly not discussed.

As for the organisers – you managed to source a good-sized venue, why couldn’t you find a table to fit all the panellists comfortably?  Or, was it your intention to make them uncomfortable?  Whatever was going on, I hope they all showered, deodorised and used breath freshener before they arrived.