There are many arguments that Australia cannot, and should not, return to the status quo prior to the pandemic. As the smallest and potentially most agile state, Tasmania needs to consider a viable post-pandemic path. After a slow start in quarantining the state, Premier Gutwein has shown a degree of determination that could lead to a new and exciting future.
One thing is for certain, business-as-usual will not work. The major industries of tourism, specialist farming and education have all been poleaxed with the shutdown. Even if these industries wanted to return to their 2019 business models, it is highly doubtful if this will be possible for what could be years, if ever. We must reset Tasmania.
The many variables in the lockdown exit equation have created a lack of any predictability regarding business forecasting. Businesses and markets abhor insecurity as planning becomes nigh on impossible.
What are the alternatives? What do we have in Tasmania that other parts of the world, and even the mainland, lack? With the conditional prefix of ‘mostly’, we have abundant clean water, clean air, excellent farm produce and a lifestyle that is desirable. How can these attributes and their relative advantages be maximised?
Tourism, a growing mainstay of this state, has numerous problems. First and foremost, it is unlikely to survive in its present form without overseas visitors. However, if the international border quarantine extends for a year or more, maybe we will see a boom in mainlanders wanting to sample Tasmania’s many delights. Secondly, depending on such an unstable industry is a precarious business model. There are also the conflicting aspects with forestry.
The increasingly aware eco-traveller does not want to see devastated forests that more resemble a WWI battlefield than the ‘clean and green’ pleasant land that is marketed. How long will it be before tourists decline to patronise a destination that shows such little regard for its prime asset?
Further, there is the stress mass tourism puts on infrastructure such as our still narrow roads. Logging trucks, farm vehicles with trailers, cattle trucks and tourists vie in changing conditions along damaged roads presenting exceptional challenges to the uninitiated. More traffic also increases the level of road-kill, which is already the highest in the world – mangled quolls, echidnas, pademelons and devils are regular features along every road in the state. This may be due to the plethora of wildlife, but it is an upsetting and unwelcome sight.
Too much of a good thing? reset Tasmania
It is also necessary to discuss the numbing effect of tourism. Tasmania risks becoming ‘loved to death’. Mass tourism can become tedious for locals, whether it is jostling on the roads or walking in hotspots such as Cradle Mountain. Furthermore, it is astonishing that councils should even consider wanting cruise ships to visit which provide little benefit apart from their docking fees. It is widely known that cruise ship passengers spend little on shore with so much provided free on board. Disgorging a couple of thousand people on to a small town, is a bizarre and unsettling experience. The health implications of cruise ships were well known before the current pandemic and are an added incentive not to welcome them.
The education ‘industry’ has been an unsustainable model for a long time. As Vice Chancellors build their empires with overseas student fees, universities have lowered their standards in order to graduate low-achieving high fee-payers. The argument is simple. If you are paying $50,000 for an MBA, you want to exit with a degree guaranteed. If you do not, new students will not come. This has led to large classes, stressed lecturers, rampant plagiarism and a general dumbing down.
The VCs’ business model now encourages increased online delivery which further enhances the factory-farming of degrees. A likely border quarantine period of one year or longer has effectively stopped overseas student income for the tertiary sector. Concentrating resources on secondary education instead of the nebulous benefits of the overseas tertiary market would strengthen educational levels.
Export-led farming has been a mainstay of the Tasmanian economy. How the pandemic affects the paddock crops is yet to be revealed, but the export of specialist fish farm products such as crayfish, abalone and salmon have stopped while their clients in Asia have been in lockdown. The expansion of inshore salmon farms is more of a threat than a benefit with contested environmental consequences. One further thing is for certain. We can no longer afford to subsidise the destruction of our forests. The financial and environmental costs have become intolerable.
It may well be asked if mass tourism, industrial education and specialist fish farming are unsustainable, what are we left with?
One blatant effect of the pandemic has been the problem of extended supply lines. Depending on ship-borne containers from Asia during a lockdown is a formula for failure. Outsourcing local production may comply with the low-wage high-profit economy-of-scale model but during the current crisis we have been short of vital medical supplies and equipment. There is much discussion on returning manufacturing to our shores but for that we need the trade-teaching infrastructure to support it. Government support of trade apprenticeships through employer grants would be a sensible long-term investment. Trying to find a metal turning course, or any trade course in north Tasmania is a waste of time.
With the crumbling of TAFE, the core trades are becoming an endangered species. This has led to the young and keen leaving the state while our work quality fails to improve.
Anyone who wants to have an engine serviced, whether large or small, has to choose their mechanic most carefully as skill levels are challenging, to put it mildly. We desperately need qualified tradespersons. And for an increase in tradespersons, we need the higher levels of secondary education discussed previously.
However, we have a problem in Tasmania that all ‘blow-ins’ meet sooner or later. The very keen and just graduated daughter of a friend in Melbourne was given a job at a North Tasmanian newspaper. She lasted three months, because for every suggestion, she was told ‘That’s not the way we do things here’ and ‘This is the way we have done XX for the last YY years’. Hence, we are stuck in a time warp that may be considered as part of our charm, but is not an incentive to those wishing to innovate. Tasmania desperately needs to change, and adapt to changing work and social conditions. Improved secondary education will promote this change.
Living near the NW town of Wynyard, it has been a mystery why local councils have not offered rate/rent/tax incentives to business startups. With the inevitable rush to online everything, what better place could there be to start a business along with the benefit of relatively cheap housing in a pleasant rural seaside town with good NBN? Why has Tasmania not become an IT hub?
Other changes are evolving: Waiting in a doctor’s surgery for your test results, alongside people suffering unspecified complaints, now seems archaic. Tele-health is here to stay. The long-forecast home office has become a practical reality, with only adequate NBN to all homes stopping its progress. Tasmania’s abundance of farm produce is mainly exported when there is high consumer demand for local consumption. Local deliveries by shops and producers is enabling a new approach: see the Eat Well Tas project.
The current crisis can be considered as a revolution. Returning to the previous way of doing things is neither probable, possible nor even desirable. This pandemic presents us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change our business, work, economic, learning and societal models. It will not be utopian but if we can rejig our lives and economy to a sustainable model, a brighter future beckons.
Short-termism and business lobby groups controlling government policy are failed models. The opportunity to reset Tasmania needs a leader brave enough to implement the necessary change.
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