Opinion Piece - Tasmania's Future

Tasmania’s economy has taken a hit with COVID-19. Earlier this month it was reported 27,000 Tasmanians had lost their jobs, and Treasury is predicting an unemployment rate for the state of 12.23 per cent by the end of June.

Few sectors have been spared and tourism has been particularly affected.

Normally supporting around 42,000 direct and indirect jobs and injecting $1.49 billion into our economy, tourism has all but ground to a halt with the closure of international borders and severe restrictions on interstate and intrastate travel.

For context, Tasmania normally attracts 1.3 million visitors a year who spend more than $2.49 billion. Over the past few months that’s all but dried up.

As a critical sector to my electorate, which hosts many of Tasmania’s most iconic tourism drawcards, the impact on livelihoods has been severe.

Even with the welcome lifting from this long weekend of travel restrictions within the state, it’s going to take time to recover.

Our international borders rightfully remain closed and interstate borders restricted: like many, I do not think we should re-open them prematurely.

When travel does become more possible, Tasmania will be competing with mainland tourism destinations arising from similar enforced hibernation, while also having to contend with the likelihood that many Australians will delay holidays in order to re-build depleted savings.

We’re going to have a job ahead of us convincing mainland tourists to head here in anything like the numbers we need to compensate for the longer-term loss of international visitors.

The awful fact is that too many people lose their livelihoods when tourism drops.

It is therefore important that we diversify regional income drivers.

I would urge that we need a national economic strategy, a comprehensive blueprint that outlines the nation’s goals and maps out a way to achieve them, including strategies for the development and enhancement of Australian industry. This should include what can be done on a state-by-state and region-by-region basis.

If achieving some of the goals requires government intervention and/or support, so be it. But let’s do it in a planned, consistent and transparent way. If we have learned anything from the pandemic, it is that we should never again allow the lowest bidder to determine our decisions on economic and national security.

A first step for a national economic strategy could be to cast an eye over what we currently do. In regional Tasmania, sectors like forestry, aquaculture, food production and mining should go under the microscope. What’s working, what isn’t, what can be done better and how.

Many already present opportunities in value adding that we are frankly being too slow to exploit.

For example, Tasmania’s specialty timbers are ideal for furniture, but furniture manufacturing in the state remains a cottage industry populated by a handful of dedicated craftspeople: it could and should be much more.

Timber from Tasmanian plantations can be cross-laminated, opening up a world of possibilities in construction and architecture. Again, this sector is a fraction of what it should be given the hunger for innovative building material.

With scores of distilleries across the state we should be a world leader in training up the next generation of distillers. Are we making best use of our world-class fruit – what are the value-adding possibilities? Ditto for agriculture more generally, aquaculture and commercial fishing. Tasmanian wool is world-class but we don’t make anything with it here of any real scale.

Bio-energy is another sector full of promise for Tasmania. The recently published Technology Investment Roadmap Discussion Paper highlights the benefits of investing in renewable products, including bio-energy and bio-economy technologies, presenting our state with more advanced manufacturing opportunities. But bio-energy and its potential is too often ignored.

Each of these sectors has smart, talented people in them keen to drive their businesses forward and it is time they were listened to, and for governments to be more responsive to the potential they offer.

As we recalibrate for a post-covid future, it is important that we not slip back into a “she’ll be right” mindset with an over-reliance on tourism and hospitality.

Instead, we must grasp this opportunity to forge a smarter, more diversified economy, one that harnesses the full potential of our state’s bounty and provides a secure and prosperous future for our children.

Brian Mitchell is the federal Labor Member for Lyons and Deputy Chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Agriculture and Water Resources.