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Sunday, 8 May 2011

My Island Home

It is now almost 12 months since we departed the fair shores of Western Australia to set up home on the Apple Isle.
Before we left Perth and dragged ourselves, three cats, two dogs and a container load of useless clutter we didn't really want across the country we encountered a lot of puzzled stares from people who could say little more than ‘why?’
Buggered if I know, would have been the honest answer, but we usually settled for “lifestyle choice”, which seemed to satisfy most people.
Looming large in the thought process was a desire not so much to get into Tasmania, but to get out of Western Australia, if only because our policy of never returning to businesses that provided awful service had eventually left us with nowhere to go.
Tasmania just seemed the right place, though what it offered beyond historic buildings, fresh air and a sister already ensconced there was harder to define.
It certainly wasn’t the employment prospects and booming economy because if anything the State is even more moribund than usual with the outlook so poor businesses large and small are frantically jostling for a place in the lifeboats before the whole place goes down by the bows.

According to the latest statistics 70% of Tasmania’s total income is begged off Canberra and 50% of total State expenditure goes on keeping a heavily unionised public service employed.
More than 20% of the total workforce is employed by the State, a mystifying figure to anybody who has tried to get a Government department to actually do anything.
And that figure only covers State employees. The Feds employ quite a few Tasmanians too to look after the 34% of the State’s population that is totally welfare dependant.
It is only a guess, but you can probably assign another 5% or so to the 29 local councils operating in Tasmania.
(If you think that sounds a lot you would be right. Based on population and area, there is a local council for every 17,000 Tasmanians or every 2358sq km. If metropolitan Perth used the same population ratio it would have 100 local councils instead of 16 and if WA as a whole used the same council/area ratio it would have 1071 local councils instead of 130.)
The rest of the working population seems to be divided between the forestry industry, the building and trade industries and everybody else.
The forestry industry workers seem to spend most of their time fending off Bob Brown-inspired protestors with one hand while grabbing for compensation for looking job losses with the other.
First-hand experience suggests that the builders and tradies spend most of their time not turning up when they say they will, or turning up roughly about the time they say they will – ie; in the same week - but only to tell you that the job is too big, too small, too difficult or they are booked out until 2018.
What is left – about 27 people as best I can figure - are the ones that do the actual work that keeps the State afloat.
Essentially, Tasmania is like one of those small not-for-profit Immaculate Little Sisters of The Conceptually Poor charity shops run by well-meaning retirees with no business experience who spend most of their days drinking tea, dusting and discussing important issues like whether they should stack the second-hand paperbacks in alphabetical order.

Given all of that, it would be easy to assume that moving to Tasmania is akin to an incontinent dog leaving a lamp-post plantation for the Nullabor Plain, but as long as you don’t mind non-existent jobs and third world wages the Apple Isle has a lot to offer, not least the free reality show that is State politics.
Coming from Western Australia, the State that gave us Brian Burke’s WA Inc. Mob, Eric ‘the Hapless Hamster’ Ripper and the chair-sniffing Troy Buswell – the only juvenile ever elected to a State parliament – I’m hardly in a position to throw stones and to be fair I haven’t been here long enough to understand all of the issues, but I’ve seen enough to be able to fashion a rough summary of the key points.
The ALP has had the keys to the treasury for 13 years, long enough you would think to get the place sorted and ticking along smoothly.
Instead the State is an economic basket case, Premier Lara Giddings is forecasting a slash and burn budget next month and people are stocking up on tinned food and checking their ammunition supplies.
Giddings inherited the job from David Bartlett, who inherited it from Paul Lennon, who inherited it from Jim Bacon. As far as I can determine Bacon was widely admired, Lennon widely loathed, Bartlett widely ignored and Giddings widely patronised.
Given the job under the nationwide ALP policy of going for the sympathy vote by putting an ALP apparachick in charge only when the men have made a complete hash of things, Giddings has all the gravitas of a five-year-old who clomps around the house in her mother’s high heels, announcing to all and sundry that when she grows up she’s going to be a princess.  
On current evidence Giddings would be out of her depth in the toddlers pool, but she has survived the shark infested waters of ALP internal politics so she may surprise yet.

Giddings remains in power courtesy of a coalition agreement with the Greens, led by Nick McKim who provides sartorial evidence that he is above the sordid, petty world of party politics by refusing to wear a tie, a trait he shares with Iranian president Mahmoud Imadinnerjacket, who also refuses to indulge in petty party politics.
A man of the people, and a ruthless political operator in his spare time, McKim snared himself and fellow Greens MP – and girlfriend - Cassy O’Connor seats in Cabinet when Bartlett turned up cap in hand after making a mess of the election last April.
As part of the deal, McKim won the right to opt out of Cabinet discussions about any topic that may have forced him to compromise his principles, apparently unaware that he had already sacrificed any principle worth having the day he climbed into bed with the ALP.

All of this was pretty standard ALP/Greens cross-pollinating to hang on to power and if it ended there it would all be a bit ho hum, but they do things differently down here.
As well as being a member of Labor Government, McKim (I love this bit) also held the Greens Party (ie: opposition) portfolios of Attorney General, Justice, Economic Development and Science and Technology
At the time he said with a perfectly straight face that there was no conflict of interest in being in Government and Opposition at one and the same time.
How did he manage it? Did his Cabinet Minister self cite Cabinet confidentiality when his Opposition self asked him what he was talking to the Premier about?
It took until March this year – when he finally got tired of being caught by surprise by questions without notice from himself and realised that people were staring at both of him in the street – for him to conquer his schizophrenia and give up opposing himself.
That’s the wonderful thing about politics here; just when you think it can’t get any more bizarre, somebody like Nick McKim comes along.
The current Government doesn’t provide the ‘in your face’ thrills of Buswell, but with an economic plan more Keystone Cops than Keynesian and a policy platform devised by the Marx Brothers the prospects for entertainment are good.

The Liberal Opposition leader, by the way, is Will Hodgman. I have a very clear recollection that Hodgman had a moustache, though I may be thinking of Kym Hodgeman, who used to play football for North Melbourne.
The worry about Hodgman is that thus far the only question about him that keeps me awake at night is; what happened to that moustache?
He seems a bit non-descript, but he has vowed to reform the Tasmanian Liberal Party, apparently because some of last year’s election candidates weren’t sure what electorate they were running for, which party they were representing and whether the socks went on before or after the shoes.
Previous attempts to reform the Liberal Party have generally produced nothing more than the formation of a committee to consider the vexed question of whether to use Pimm’s or Gilbeys for the branch meeting gin and tonics, so if he manages to go beyond that he might, like Giddings, surprise.

Finally, as an added bonus we also have the Denison Denizen Andrew Wilkie, an independent who campaigned on restoring integrity to Government then demonstrated his commitment to the concept by revealing details of confidential negotiations with Tony Abbott.
Wilkie, who has the permanent look of a man who has just found a suicide note from his dog, promises to provide hours of fun, if only because he takes himself so seriously. He so insists on portraying himself as the martyred innocent it wouldn’t surprise to see him turning up to press conferences wearing a crown of thorns and dragging a large wooden cross behind him.
I may never be sure just why we moved here, but if this is the standard of political entertainment we can expect, I’m glad we did.