Tasmania has long been an object of derision from the mainland states. The Convict State, the Mendicant State and so on. The myth of Tasmania as a gothic horror hell-hole began with For the Term of his Natural Life and continues to the present day with The Kettering Incident, the more than somewhat incoherent melange of UFOs and evil timber-products entrepreneurs that has recently baffled viewers of the Showcase Channel on Foxtel. Now, or so we have been assured, Australia’s very own Deliverance country is now about to be transformed into Silicon Valley.
According to the University of Tasmania’s vice-chancellor, Peter Rathjen, the $800 million dollars to be spent on his institution will change everything. Greater participation in tertiary education will lead to greater innovation which will, in turn, lead to economic transformation. That was the message of Julie Hare’s recent Australian piece, “How to educate underperforming Tasmania”.
Apart from the patronising tone, there is something of a cargo cult mentality about this line of thought. While increased investment in education may be welcome — allowing, of course, the money does not produce fresh drafts of graduates versed in gender fluidity, eco feminism and environmental catastrophism — it is only part of the story.
Innovation does not necessarily follow solely from better educational opportunities. One Tasmanian industrial success story, International Catamarans, was the brainchild of one man, Bob Clifford, whose drive to build and innovate suffered not all for his lack of tertiarty qualifications. I doubt if a university qualification would have made much difference to Bob. He has since been awarded an honorary DEng, an Order of Australia and was Tasmanian of the Year in 1988.
Every state in the First World is competing to attract new industry. For Tasmania to compete, new industries need to be linked to the state’s existing advantages — its topography, climate and soils, its forests, mines, low population density, even its geographic isolation. Fish-farming, alkaloids, wine, market gardening and tourism are industries which are already here because of such advantages.
The sleeper is the timber industry and its potential for new, cutting-edge technology. Skyscrapers are now being built out of new, wood-based structural materials include cross-laminated timber or “CLT” and “glulam”. In other parts of the world the opportunities presented by genetic modification of timber have often been foregone because of fears that the new genes could readily spread into wild populations, with unpredictable results. This is not an issue in Tasmania, where a timber species such as Pinus Radiata is literally half a world away from its nearest wild cousins. GM timber possibilities include breeding resistance to certain pests, diseases, environmental conditions, and herbicide tolerance, or the alteration of lignin levels in order to reduce pulping costs. There is also the possibility of downstream processing of eucalypt woodchips to produce high quality charcoal for use in rare-earth metal smelting, activated charcoal for chemical filtering, and even the production of diesel fuel via the Fischer-Tropsch process.
However, it seems that we Tasmanians are too backward to concern ourselves with such high-falutin’ ideas. Hare’s article quotes academic Jonathon West:
The underlying problem is simple but intractable: Tasmania has developed a way of life, a mode of doing things, a demographic, a culture and associated economy, that reproduces underachievement, generation after generation.
This is complete nonsense. This ivory-tower fatalism is a grotesque misrepresentation of the reality.
Consider a recent proposal to develop a barge trans-shipment operation on the Huon estuary as a way of reducing road transport costs to Bell Bay, the only currently available export port. The opposition to this low-cost, low-impact proposal has been little short of hysterical. The Huon Valley Council was bombarded with hundreds of letters in opposition to the project in a well-orchestrated campaign. Meetings had been held in various towns in the Huon, where the environmentally concerned were whipped into a frenzy by green zealots. Some, more reasonable, objections came from nearby residents on a NIMBY basis. Neither the the Greens nor the Nimbies can be regarded as “locals”. The former are largely tertiary-educated activists and the Nimbies are often Mainland retirees attracted by the tranquility and beauty of the place. It is likely that a majority of genuine locals would have supported this project. It is not the “Tasmanian way of doing things” that has stymied this operation, it is a bloody-minded anti-development lobby.
Apart from its supposed unpopularity, the project was also delayed by jurisdictional issues concerning the construction of new jetties. There has been the usual plethora of red tape and buck-passing between different authorities.
The barge trans-shipment project is a test case for future development in Tasmania. Antipathy to innovation is clearly not a local cultural issue, as Hare and West claim. It has more to do with a vociferous environmentalist lobby and Byzantine bureaucracy. If the Tasmania is to prosper, it is imperative that these issues are dealt with by government as a matter of urgency. While desirable for its own sake, revamping the tertiary education system is not the answer to Tasmania’s economic problems. Rather, the state government must create a commercial environment in which it is possible to get a new project up and running with a minimum of unnecessary compliance costs and delays.
John Reid PhD is a physicist, inventor and blogger living in Cygnet, Tasmania