Image for The Denison Debate – Another Night at the Burbury

Monday evening found us braving the chill of Hobart’s early winter to venture out and partake of The Denison Debate – ‘A new Tasmanian economy’ – at the UTas Stanley Burbury Theatre.

As expected, the ‘conversation’, moderated by an attractive woman with lovely grey hair, was both civilised and painstakingly highbrow.  All five of the speakers – some academics, a politician, a community sector manager and a high ranking public servant – agreed that the Tasmanian economy faces unique challenges, thanks mostly to its tiny population and geographic isolation.

So far, so good.  But, what do we do about it?

Mr Eslake paraded a series of now-familiar figures, letting us know, again, that Tasmania suffers the blight of an underperforming, overly costly public sector.  He says we need a ‘forensic evaluation’ of the public sector to track down the root causes of low productivity – the answer does not lie in offering voluntary redundancies to public sector workers.  But, who will conduct this evaluation, Saul?  Yet another bunch of extravagantly paid public servants?  And, how long will it take them?  Can we measure it in years or decades?

And we can’t forget that the public sector is, either directly or indirectly, responsible for the wages of a big chunk of Tasmania’s working population.  A successful rationalisation of its operations will inevitably involve job losses, and without a sturdy and varied private sector to take up the slack, all we’re left with is even higher unemployment and welfare dependency.

Everyone agreed wholeheartedly with Mr Eslake, and a number of explanations for the evolution of the giant, life-sucking public sector monster were offered.  Ms Ruth Forrest, MLC,  suggested that Tasmanian public servants were devoted to historically predicated paper shuffling, and Margaret Reynolds, State Manager, National Disability Services, agreed, referring to the public sector’s growing obsession with process, usually at the expense of the public they’re supposed to serve.

State Architect, Peter Poulet, claimed that Tasmania’s ‘silo mentality’ was ‘holding us back’.  I always thought that silos were big, tower like things where grains and stuff like that were stored, and I wasn’t able to make any connection between them and anybody’s mental processes.  How they related to the psyche of an entire public service, or government, completely escaped me.  I had to look it up.  According to Business Dictonary.com, ‘silo mentality’ is defined as –

‘A mind-set present in some companies when certain departments or sectors do not wish to share information with others in the same company. This type of mentality will reduce the efficiency of the overall operation, reduce morale, and may contribute to the demise of a productive company culture.’

Good call, Mr Poulet!  I can see how even a passing consideration of the antics of the Tasmanian public service, and, indeed, the Tasmanian government could lead to such an astute observation.  This state is run by experts in secrecy, with side specialities in morale annihilation and the rewarding of tragically poor performance.

Richard Eccleston, of the UTas School of Government, sees no problems with the underlying Tasmanian economy, but he did acknowledge that the government needs ‘to do fewer things, better’.  Also a good idea - in theory.  But what happens to the people doing the ‘surplus’ jobs – are they destined to join the dole queue along with those displaced by Mr Eslake’s forensic evaluation? 

A ‘new’ Tasmanian economy should be one where more people are employed, and the larger proportion of the working population is engaged by a creative, entrepreneurial private sector.  We wish.  Which modern economy doesn’t publicly espouse such an ideal? 

But, are any modern economies even coming close to achieving this glittering prize?  Or are they all stumbling over the tyranny of short term political imperatives – what Mr Eccleston describes as a ‘spend now, deliver now’ political ethos, even if that spending is clearly at the expense of the economic well-being of future generations?

In addition to this widespread political malaise, Tasmania must address an unhealthy familiarity between government and the island’s few corporate players, a ‘deep-seated apathy toward higher education’ (Eslake), an ageing population (Poulet), and the disengagement of the community from politics (Eccleston). 

As long ago as the 1970’s the prominent Canadian economist John Kenneth Galbraith recognised that rampant corporate growth, ever-increasing wages, and out-of-control consumerism would not ultimately benefit society.  He expressed concern at the effects of mindless economic growth on man’s environment, and despaired of a society where people could afford a range of expensive consumer goods, but were provided with sub-standard education, health care, transport systems, and other public services.  Nothing has changed.

The way towards a new Tasmanian economy will not be discovered by a bunch of well-educated individuals tossing trite ideas at an audience of equally well-educated persons, in a pleasantly stage-managed ‘conversation’.  The moderator of the Denison Debate, Natasha Cica, expressed delight that imported mainland ‘stars’ participating in such talkfests are invariably astounded at the Tasmanian community’s ‘engagement with the political process’.  This is complete bollocks.  Mr Eccleston observed that most Tasmanians are, in fact, totally disengaged from politics, and he’s right.

We noted that almost everyone who asked a question from the audience was addressed by their first name in reply.  Tasmania is a society of cliques, and those pontificating from their ivory tower on matters economic are every bit as insular as the residents of small, rural communities.  We seriously need to work on education, although I fear the government has a vested interest in maintaining a largely semi-literate voting populace – people who think an election is some sort of team game, and blindly vote for the team they’ve always supported.

More importantly, however, Tasmanians need to learn to value different ideas – to move away from what Galbraith refers to as the ‘intellectual torpor’ binding individuals and government alike.  Ms Forrest proclaimed that Tasmania ‘should not be run like a corner store’, but I respectfully disagree.  A well run, successful corner store has hardworking, innovative owners, and provides good, reliable customer service.  To survive, and compete against larger stores they offer their customers something special.  Tasmania can do this! I know the analogy is a bit twee, but it is truly disappointing for a ‘mainlander’ who has chosen to live in this state to observe the mind-numbing disinterest of native Tasmanians - in their spectacular environment, in their government, and ultimately, in their own welfare. 

And, next time someone puts on one of these wanky debates, perhaps they could go beyond the usual suspects for panel members.  How about including a teenage parent, or an unemployed person, or a farmer, or, god forbid, a forestry worker.  It was nice to hear from the floor that Madeleine Ogilvie has to watch every cent in her legal practice, but how relevant is that, really?  The Tasmanian economy should serve all Tasmanians, not just those with the benefit of education and employment who can afford to get together and bleat about the mess we’re in.

Ideas, anyone?