AMONG the many bewildering responses to former Tasmanian premier Jim Bacon’s funeral, few eulogies came more bizarre than that of Albert Langer and his colleagues (Age 2 July) presenting Bacon as ever “on the side of the oppressed against the oppressors”.
Unfortunately, history tells a less uplifting tale.
Under Bacon, Tasmania was given away to the rich at the expense of the poor. Typical was how millionaire Greg Farrell’s Federal Hotels group became the leading tourism operator in the state, bankrolled by its monopoly on pokie machines. (For links to tasmaniantimes.com’s analysis, see below).
While in Victoria and NSW gaming machine licences are tendered for and billions of dollars paid to state governments, in Tasmania a fifteen year monopoly on gaming machines, estimated by Citigroup to be worth at least $130 million, was inexplicably given by the Bacon government to Federal Hotels for nothing.
An even more disturbing example is the extraordinary rise under Bacon of millionaire John Gay’s Gunns Ltd into a billion dollar monopoly that is now the largest hardwood woodchip exporter in the world.
Too often misrepresented as an environmental story, this a dark tale of corporate greed and government connivance. In spite of the overwhelming majority of Tasmanians wanting the clearfelling of old growth forests to end, Bacon remained unwavering in his support of old growth logging and Gunns, the Tasmanian ALP’s biggest financial donor.
Under Bacon clearfelling of globally unique native forest accelerated; and no reform was made of an industry described in explosive evidence to a senate committee by senior forester Bill Manning, as corrupted and prey to a culture of cronyism, bullying and intimidation.
Gunns shares increased in value over 700 per cent
Under Bacon, forests disappeared, rivers began drying up, hundreds of thousands of protected native animals were killed with 1080, drinking water catchments poisoned, and Gunns shares increased in value over 700%.
Then there is Bacon’s record on democracy. In 1997 Bacon drove the deal with the Liberals that saw Tasmania’s highly democratic electoral system fundamentally altered in order to reduce minority representation that had seen the Greens twice previously have the balance of power. The result was an enfeeebled parliament.
Bacon had no tolerance of dissenting opinions, making no secret of his fury with those who differed from his point of view, no matter how small the difference, once having two of his own staff transferred out of his office for not voting for the Right faction in an ALP preselection ballot.
Hailed as a champion of the arts, it was Bacon who famously attacked Tasmanian artists and writers who spoke out against his policies as “cultural fascists”, (a term coined by Stalin), signalling clearly to his bureaucracy who was and wasn’t going to be part of Bacon’s much trumpeted New Tasmania.
Business consultant Gerard Castles echoes other Tasmanians when he says that Bacon introduced a climate of fear into Tasmania, with Tasmanians knowing that their jobs, careers, businesses would suffer if they spoke out against the Tasmanian government and its close relationship with certain big companies.
But Jim Bacon had one great political insight: that people did not want to hear bad news. In government, Bacon successfully coupled his selective charm to the largest team of spin doctors ever employed by a Tasmanian government, that alternately wooed and cowed a generally medriocre Tasmanian media, giving out an endless run of good soft stories and working hard and often successfully to quash hard bad stories.
Yet even many of Bacon’s most publicised good news stories ended up badly: the appointment of high profile Richard Butler as governor has been dogged with criticism; his support of Impulse Airlines a failure; his arts festival ravaged by controversy; his purchase of a third interstate ferry shaping up as a commercial disaster; the benefits of a heavily taxpayer subsisdised gas pipeline dubious; and Basslink remains controversial.
Jim Bacon did have good luck
When wrong-footed by history, Bacon was adept with being identified with the victors he once opposed. Though he later presented himself as a gay rights supporter, in cabinet Bacon strongly opposed gay law reforms being pushed by his own minister, Judy Jackson.
Jim Bacon did have good luck. The economic upswing that coincided with Bacon’s government and for which he ceaselessly claimed credit, had far more to do with national and international factors than his government’s policies.
The most undervalued housing market in Australia benefitted from a global property boom and low interest rates, while internal Australian tourism, from which Tasmania also benefitted, was a post Sepember 11 phenomenon fuelled by fears of foreign travel and a low Australian dollar. But the underlying weakness of Tasmania’s economic recovery has been recently highlighted by Access Economics, who describe present growth levels as unsustainable.
Changes that could have been built on under Bacon, often exerted a destructive effect. The housing boom saw many poor priced completely out of the housing market, leading to a homelessness crisis so bad that families are being housed by welfare agencies in tents. (for the tasmaniantimes.com analysis of this, see links below)
In the name of tourist development, Bacon unleashed forces that are transforming Tasmania for the worse, with large scale coastal developments such as a $400 million canal development proposed for the Ralphs Bay conservation area, and the ongoing destruction of national parks and Hobart’s heritage by inappropriate development which the government did nothing to reign in and everything to encourage. A typical deal saw an inner city CBD property sold by the government for $100,000. Within months, apartments were selling off the plan for the site for up to $3 million.
Myth of the Great Leader
None of this though was to interfere with the myth of the great leader being woven around the man whose nickname was the Emperor. Jim Bacon began as a Maoist and ended up a mini-Mao, his funeral replete with oversize imagery, overwrought testimonies, and apparatchik falling over each other to prostrate themselves.
Yet public men must be judged by public actions, and the genuinely human sentiment that greets any tragedy ought not be manipulated for political ends, for such is to be untrue to the past and create poisonous myths for the future.
The absurd eulogising of recent weeks, in elevating Jim Bacon to greatness, demeans his far more modest achievements as a competent, if flawed politician who had both luck and charm but achieved little substantial with either. Jim Bacon was astute enough to ride a resurgent sense of Tasmanian destiny, and fortunate enough to have it presented as his own accomplishment.
But for all the hype, the truth was that after Bacon’s premiership Tasmania remains the poorest state in the Commonwealth on almost all social and economic indices; its globally unique environment is being destroyed at the greatest rate in its history; its celebrated coast and world heritage areas are under attack from inappropriate tourist developments; while its democracy has been left debased and its civil society fearful.
Bacon’s legacy was to hand Tasmania’s economy and future direction over to a handful of big businesses with too much influence and too much power and too little concern for ordinary Tasmanians.
Some victory for the oppressed.
This article first ran in The Age, 22 July 2004, and on Tasmanian Times.
Link to the original posting (and the interesting additional links):
On the second anniversary of the article that sparked one of the more remarkable controversies in recent Tasmanian political history, we republish Richard Flanagan’s celebrated article about Jim Bacon, in which he argued that the Bacon-Lennon government had sold Tasmania out to big business in disturbing ways.
Attacked in Parliament by now disgraced former minister, Bryan Green, as “a traitor to Tasmania”; told by Premier Paul Lennon that he and his writing were “not welcome in the New Tasmania”, could it be two years later that Flanagan’s article — which most of the Tasmanian media refused to run and which many in the media then attacked — foresaw correctly the terrible cost to Tasmania behind all the spin and hype?
Two years ago the powers that run Tasmania crucified Flanagan for what he wrote. But now it appears that history on an almost daily basis is proving him to have been right, as Tasmanians begin to add up the staggering, ever growing cost — now estimated to be in excess of a billion dollars — of all the strange deals with mates, from Richard Butler to Basslink to the Bass Strait ferries, to which his article first drew national attention.
For Paul Lennon’s government, one hundred days into their hapless reign, who are in so many ways now merely paying the cost for the arrogance and sleaze of the Bacon years, this other anniversary is, no doubt, yet one more skeleton in the cupboard about which they would much rather not be reminded.
The Emperor’s New Clothes
By Richard Flanagan