THE biggest challenges facing Tasmania’s new Premier, David Bartlett, are expectations too high for him to meet.
This might seem counter-intuitive.
Surely Tasmanians will be pleased with anyone other than Paul Lennon after two years of government pugnacity, scandals and resignations.
But to assume Bartlett’s ascendancy will simply be greeted with a sign of relief is to misunderstand the hopes and frustrations modern Tasmanians share.
The Tamar Valley pulp mill will be Bartlett’s first challenge. Plenty of Tasmanians fervently hope he will scrap it.
Many of the mill’s opponents have a vision of a Tasmanian economy powered by small, diverse, sustainable industries attractive to the global “creative class”, a vision which Bartlett has frequently said he shares.
But the Government is simply too legally and politically entwined with Gunns’ project for Bartlett to sink it outright.
Even if the new Premier scales down the Government’s financial support for mill-related infrastructure, and imposes stricter environmental guidelines, the mill is too polarising to be anything but a political mire for him.
The dilemma is one which cuts across Tasmanian public policy.
The premiership of Jim Bacon, which brought a younger, aspirational generation of politicians like Bartlett to the fore, lifted Tasmania’s hopes to new heights.
Rightly or wrongly, Bacon’s name was associated with Tasmania’s early 21st century economic boom, population spurt, cultural flowering, cutting-edge social policies, and resulting global applause.
His approval rating was correspondingly high at 78 per cent.
Lennon also has some important initiatives to his name in areas like infrastructure, housing and Aboriginal rights.
But they count for little against the common perception that growth has slowed, that opportunities have been lost, and that the world is laughing at us (which is what Tasmanians hate more than all other indignities rolled together, and will change anything and dump anyone to avoid).
Under former strongman premiers like Eric Reece or Robin Gray a pulp mill might have masked all this.
Like dams and factories of old, a mill might once have been sold to a large slice of Tasmanians as a solution to our problems, instead of a cause.
But too much has changed. Too many Tasmanians have heeded the environmental message. Lennon had too little of Reece’s affability or Gray’s cunning.
As a result of this, the golden Tasmania we were promised under Bacon seemed to turn to lead under his successor.
That Lennon constantly invoked Bacon’s name to legitimise his rule only deepened the perceived contrast.
Lennon’s 17 per cent approval rating is Tasmania’s punishment for not fulfilling its raised expectations.
Bartlett’s task, then, is not simply to bring better standards to government through ethics commissions, as important as that is.
It is to quickly meet and exceed the high expectations that sank his predecessor.
It is to turn today’s leaden Tasmania back into gold.
Opposed, inseparable dreams
To understand the depth of the problem facing Bartlett, and its possible solution, it is important to understand the two opposed and inseparable dreams which flow through Tasmanian folklore, literature, history and politics.
One dream is in fact a nightmare of exile, tyranny and poverty, of grey mountains that forbid and dark forests that kill.
This Tasmania has many names, from “the Fatal Shore”, through Ned Kelly’s cursed “Dervon”, to the more contemporary “Loser-land”.
But they all describe the same hateful place of disgrace, failure and misery, so immune to betterment that escape or death are the only tolerable options.
The other Tasmanian dream is of paradise on earth, a place of peace and plenty where mountains stand for freedom, and forests for love.
This Tasmania also has many names; “the Grand Isle” of early Aboriginal activists, the sweet “Apple Isle” of our prosperous farmers, “the Heart-shaped Isle” of our sentimental writers, “the World’s Beacon” of environmentalists. All of these names speak to the hope that we can inspire humanity with the riches and accomplishments of our little homeland.
According to James Boyce’s recent history, Van Dieman’s Land, this sun-lit dream of a benign Tasmania is at least as old as its darker twin.
A quick survey of contemporary Tasmanian literature shows it remains at least as strong in our shared imagination.
Every political issue in the island state plays itself out on the stage set by these two dreamt Tasmanias.
Every political program is measured against our exaggerated hopes and fears, every dispute is intensified by them, and every new idea or vision becomes a metaphor for them.
Jim Bacon knew this.
For all his faults, particularly on forest policy, he was a popular leader because he told us a story about ourselves that gave voice and grounding to the dream of a greater Tasmania, or “the New Tasmania” as he called it.
For all his attempts, Paul Lennon could not tap the same vein of optimism and hope.
Too many Tasmanians feared he was instead leading us back to “Loser-land” and they deserted him.
The dream of Tasmania as “the Grand Isle” now awaits another champion.
If that champion is Bartlett, it will be despite his inexperience as a leader, and because he emulates Bacon at his best.
If it is the state Liberals, it will be despite their decision to sit still and wait for power to fall into their hands, and because they need to emerge from the shadow of the state’s far right.
If it is the Tasmanian Greens, it will be despite the dominant image of them as competent and necessary opposers, and because their environmentalism is inspired directly by the benign and fruitful Tasmania.
Whoever voices Tasmania’s bright dreams and banishes our dark nightmares will win the island for many years to come.
But beware; Paul Lennon’s fate shows that those who try and fail pay a heavy price.
Rodney Croome is a former editor of the Tasmanian literary magazine, Island.
First posted Fri May 30, as Opinion on the ABC website:
Under former strongman premiers like Eric Reece or Robin Gray a pulp mill might have masked all this. Like dams and factories of old, a mill might once have been sold to a large slice of Tasmanians as a solution to our problems, instead of a cause. But too much has changed. Too many Tasmanians have heeded the environmental message. Lennon had too little of Reece’s affability or Gray’s cunning. As a result of this, the golden Tasmania we were promised under Bacon seemed to turn to lead under his successor. That Lennon constantly invoked Bacon’s name to legitimise his rule only deepened the perceived contrast.