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Age columnist Martin Flanagan’s big picture warning about Tasmania becoming the Greece of Australia ( TT here ) could be worth considering. If our country operated as a bank, rather than as federation of states and territories, Tasmania would have been shut down long ago.

More disturbing is Flanagan’s dismissal of Professor Jonathan West’s comments on Tasmanians’ attitudes towards education, published in the Griffith Review’s Tasmania; The Tipping Point? ( TT here )  While West’s essay lacks the persuasive charm of Martin Flanagan’s subjective literary stylishness, there is much to be heeded from his urgent insight, especially when it comes to too many Tasmanians’ educational outlooks. Martin Flanagan disagrees.

In his 23rd of February Age column, Flanagan quotes West as below;

West: A recent study undertaken by an education foundation unearthed the startling conclusion that a large proportion of Tasmanians specified not being educated as an important aspect of a “true Tasmanian”.

Flanagan:  “Really? I was born in Tasmania and lived there for 28 years. I never encountered this attitude. West continues: “Educated people were regarded as less Tasmanian and probably worse people.”  “Never met that one either”, writes Flanagan.

Evidently, Martin Flanagan hasn’t come across the anti-educational fatalism still prevalent here. But while it might be assumed from Jonathan West’s analysis that these attitudes arise mainly from within Tasmania’s burgeoning population of welfare recipients, in truth the island’s tribally differentiated elites are as much to blame for negative attitudes towards higher learning, not to mention its positive outcomes. 

Tasmanian political tribes often send mixed messages, particularly on the subject of educating our young. In recent years, rural communities have passionately argued against the closure of small country schools, while their opponents accuse them of having a horse and buggy mindset in not wanting to drive the extra distance to schools in larger centres. We’ve heard jeers at the elaborate celebrations year 10 Tasmanian school leavers enjoy because the milestone may discourage higher school retention rates. This is little more than an example of provincial classism to me; a misguided distain for a ritual of teenage arrival occurring annually throughout the developed world. At policy level, we’ve been damned by a series of state government incursions into the island’s education system, from the unaccounted for wastage of the Intelligent Island initiative, to the ill fated Essential Learning Curriculum, to Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap, clap clap.  More chest thumping over Tasmania’s dismal OECD educational ranking from a government that habitually casts aspersions on the messenger rather than to take responsibility for the damning facts.  Jonathan West himself has been a casualty of this type of intellectual knee-capping. Tribalism lies at the heart of these discouraging outbursts of protective ignorance. Public accountability and educational attainment are the biggest casualties.

At a private Hobart gentlemen’s club several months ago, I met young and old Tasmanians whose combined wealth could fund a small state government department. All were complaining about the current business climate, but as impressive as their financial worth may sound, the attitudes expressed in conversations that evening illuminated a deep seated hostility towards higher learning.

In Tasmania’s current difficult economic climate, I couldn’t help wondering if a little more education would have guided more sustainable solutions for these well dressed diners’ struggling companies.

My questions about their children’s futures were met with a unified chorus of foregone conclusions. Private single sex schools would continue family traditions and admit arrivistes; suitable marriages would be more likely just as school connections would enhance advancement in business life. All present insisted their kids have above average IQs, but their children’s vocational futures were of little interest. One man said his son is so far ahead of his year one primary school class, he’d rung the headmistress to demand the child be put up a grade, threatening to withdraw his support for the school if she didn’t oblige. 

By far the preferred conversational topic amongst my fellow diners was their own school days. It’s no secret that many Tasmanians prefer to live in the past. In a discussion about resuming tertiary studies, one guest commented that being on a university campus was risky, because you’d be forced to meet “those kinds of people”. This is an admonition Tasmanians can no longer afford to accept.

Interestingly, while most had visited MONA at least once, none cared for the art within, or for the impact this art might be having on the wider Tasmanian community. Not for the first time it struck me that while Tasmanians continually tell you how MONA is “world class”, they themselves rarely if ever visit museums or galleries when travelling interstate or abroad. Unsurprisingly, my fellow diners’ views on human rights, gay marriage, refugees and immigration were predictably laced with the kind of “them and us” assumptions that continue to lock Tasmania out of mainstream Australia’s many 21st century culturally inspired commercial opportunities.

While education in this particular Tasmanian circle is evidently not the commodity many of us value so highly, access to and the exercise of provincial power in the face of perceptions of their own global helplessness, is in fact a vigorous life theme. Ideals of inclusion and exclusion are fostered by fresh and ancient tribal injustices, from the current premier’s feat of having her father given an Australia Day award, to fatal anomalies in both political parties’ pre-selection processes, to a near hysterical resentment of the Greens, to the anti-business administration of local planning laws.

Meritocracy deserves no place in this hierarchical view of Tasmanian life, in fact, other elites were cheerfully condemned; all guilty of the same kind of nefarious clannishness choking our chances for change here.

In my view, tribalism is the greatest obstacle Tasmania faces. Belonging is the blessing of conforming to historic assemblages built upon intractable factions, found within both mainstream political parties and public departments, university faculties, the legal industry and other professional fraternities, local councils and the union movement. Being ruled by a legal system that can at times sound downright hostile to cries for justice doesn’t help either. You must belong to one or another power clan to get anywhere on the island. No wonder Tasmania is struggling so badly. 

Elsewhere in my sacrificial immersion into Tasmania’s self defined upper class, local standards of gentlemanliness were a challenge I struggled to accept. When I complained about being referred to as my partner’s “Plus 1” guest, rather than by name, I was advised by a club official that I should understand that things moved slowly in such establishments. When I suggested that this was the 21st century and that speed is no longer an excuse for disrespecting women’s identities, he told me he didn’t like my tone.  Although younger than me by at least fifteen years, this immutable bastion of provincial propriety had the practiced authority of a 1970s headmaster, embodying the wall of Tasmanian negativity I fled from long ago. I can well understand why progressive educated Tasmanians like Martin Flanagan might choose to shun the state’s private clubs, although at the expense of empirical research this instance. I also agree with Natasha Cica’s view ( Natasha Cica’s full article, here ) that challenging these establishments has become an urgent cultural necessity. 

Martin Flanagan makes short work of Cica’s own essay in Tipping Point , ( Link on Flanagan’s article, TT here ) ( Natasha Cica’s full article, here )  which is a pity. His muscular narrative style has become something of a standard for telling the Tasmanian story, but this is bound to change. Cica writes from the heart and is an energetic editor; Jo Chandler’s “The Science Laboratory” is an intensively researched reportage on Tasmania’s scientific community, well worth reading, as is Kathy Mark’s account of indigenous politics on the island. Human rights lawyer Greg Barns explores models for solutions to many Tasmanians’ endemic poverty.  Scott Rankin’s Tasmanian Utopias begs a book of its own, while former TMAG curator David Hanson’s “A Raid” is art history writing at its finest. Matthew Evans’ fine food fight is a bit fatiguing; is it time Tasmania’s gourmet celebrities mounted a “fair food campaign” for a change? Elsewhere in Tipping Point, unexpected new literary voices have been unearthed. David Walsh’s candid optimism is becoming infectious, while his partner life artist Kirsha Kaechele’s “Eat the Problem” proposes creatively converting invasive species into taste sensations.  Yes change is about to become us.

What hasn’t altered in Tasmanian culture, but must, is the peculiar habit local politicians have of adding their own literary works to undertakings like Tipping Point. I am unimpressed with Minister for Infrastructure David O’Byrnne’s “right of reply” style article recently added to The Griffith Review’s website. The Member for Franklin initially lavishes Jonathan West with praise but discounts his views nonetheless. And just what is David O’Byrnne’s beef with the “art world” he claims MONA rejects? Elise Archer is if anything, even more brazen in her “Open for Business”. Seriously though, can we picture Campbell Newman being granted the same privilege in future issues of The Griffith Review?

My experience of Tasmania is bound to be different from Martin Flanagan or Jonathan West’s for that matter. I believe there is a need for an intervention. We need to open our minds and gain the courage to challenge our collective moral imagination. We need an empowering dose of creative irreverence shot into the veins of the island and a vigorous public challenge to the island’s tribal clannishness; assailing the symbolic negativism that excluding of women from its private clubs promotes;  unstitching the state Labour party’s rusted-on factionalism;  debasing the Opposition’s feudal electoral nomination system and administering an intellectual enema for the business elites I’ve described.  Tasmania’s many welfare dependents rightly feel excluded from these entrenched sub-cultural trading systems. The Lions Club hampers at Christmas just don’t cut it anymore. The rational for redundant strategies and protective decisions endlessly being hatched behind institutional firewalls is losing most of us. While our politicians are all too present, they’ve become morally aloof from the consequences of their actions.  To me, unless they are prepared to be held truly accountable, their views in Tipping Point are unwarranted.

To me, Tasmania’s intervention should take the form of a public piss take, parodying the hell out the self protective silliness you still hear so frequently from the mouths of powerful Tasmanians. Our intervention would reflect our many dated institutional and personal biases back at us, naming and shaming us into change.