It feels a bit odd that someone like me, a native-born Canadian who has lived in Queensland for the last 13 years and before that lived for 11 in New Zealand, should be the one to write in defence of Tasmania when those like Charles Wooley and Graham Richardson writing in The Australian accuse it of being a mendicant state that brazenly lives off big money transfers from taxpayers in the mainland States (South Australia excepted). The charge sheet against Tasmania runs from its being dysfunctional, through a third of the State being on government assistance, over to its having the country’s lowest wages, with plenty more besides.
Well, I happen to think that a good deal can be said in Tasmania’s defence. And let me make clear that I say that not as some egalitarian pseudo-socialist but as a right of centre, small government, Hobbesian sort of guy. Sure, much of the ills that Wooley painted about his home State are perfectly true. Indeed his defence of Tasmania having 12 Senators just like NSW and all the other States is also true. In fact, if anything he undersells the point. You see Australia’s Constitution is the world’s biggest copy of the US Constitution going. Just like the Yanks we cut a deal for each State to get the same representation in the Upper House as every other – and as out of whack as it is here to have your Senate vote in Tasmania be worth about 15 times what it’s worth in NSW, that is dwarfed in the US by the value of Wyoming’s voters’ Senate votes being worth about 76 times what Californians’ votes are worth. As Wooley says, that was the deal to get federation through, here as there.
Of course, what was not part of the original deal is our idiotic STV voting system used for the Senate, which is all parliament’s doing. That could be changed back any time to what we had for the first half-century of federation.
At any rate, and conceding all of the above, here are a few things that those who attack Tasmania’s mendicant status virtually never go on also to point out.
Number one, Tasmania has been done over big time by awful High Court of Australia decisions driven by the national government in Canberra. (And indeed pushed by inner-city Graham Richardson types.) For instance, what happens if Tasmania decides it wants to build a big hydroelectric dam to make for cheap energy, entice in businesses and provide jobs? (And remember, decisions like these are made all the time by those who happen to control their own destiny, the way New Zealand does.) I’ll tell you what in fact did happen. A Labor government in Canberra passed legislation to stop Tasmania’s dam and then took the matter to the High Court arguing that its green/environmental legislation trumped Tasmania’s. And where in our written constitution, you might ask, does the national government have anything like the power to stop Tasmania? Well, I’d say the feds didn’t have this power, that it most certainly does not lie with the centre. Pure and simple it’s a State matter.
But back in the 1980s the feds go to the High Court and argue they can do this and over-rule Tasmania – wait for it – under the External Affairs power. You see Australia had entered into a treaty with environmental implications. And so this should trump Tasmania. But this is a nonsense, would be laughed out of any federalist dispute in Canada’s or the US’s top court, and at least in theory potentially eradicates federalism in this country and opens up any matter at all to being a federal matter to be decided by Canberra not the States as long as a suitable treaty can be engineered to be part of.
But here my point is just that when Tasmania tries to make decisions for itself that would expand its economy it is blocked by a NSW and Victoria dominated national government and by seven unelected ex-lawyer top judges, none of whom hailed from Tasmania. (Note to readers: Indeed, it is true that to this day there has never once been a single High Court of Australia judge appointed from Tasmania. Not a one! In my native Canada that would be grounds for insurrection. Of course, you might believe that in 117 odd years there has never been a single Tasmanian qualified for top judicial office, but I think a quick look at the quality of some recent High Court cases would disabuse of that view mightily quickly.)
The same sort of thing goes for when Tasmanians want to process their timber. A mainland funded Greens campaign blocks this at near on every turn. If Tasmania had stayed out of federation, as the Kiwis did, and so had to earn its own living, I can tell you that things would be very different there. Without the big welfare payments coming in they would be doing what the Kiwis do, namely developing their comparative advantage resources and working for their daily bread. The fact they’re not is hardly their fault, or certainly not just their fault.
Take another High Court case from late last year. The government of Tasmania wants to strengthen the law against protesters on timber land. Bob Brown and his like-minded environmentalists throughout Australia take a case to the High Court attacking these anti-protester laws that were signalled before the last Tasmanian election. What does the High Court do? 5-2 it strikes the key parts of the law down on the basis of an ‘implied freedom of political communication’ that is nowhere mentioned anywhere in our visible written constitution.
In fact here’s a nifty sidenote for you. In the entirety of this hugely long High Court decision with near on 600 footnotes do you know how many times there is a mention of any actual provision in the Constitution itself? If your guess rhymes with the fifth Roman Emperor, the pyromaniac, you’re basically correct. Judges citing judges citing judges without a mention of anything in the actual written constitution.
Again, it’s not Tasmania’s fault it is near on impossible to be anything other than some sort of outdoors museum for upmarket tourists. After all, this has been driven by the mainland – voters, activists, politicians and judges from the mainland.
So I have a fair bit of sympathy for Tasmania. Fact is, if you want to slag off a State for being a mendicant because of decisions it’s freely made, well, there’s a much better case for pointing to South Australia.
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