Back again – an apologetic introduction.

According to our wise editor, there is no need for me to make excuses for a long silence. As he is fond of saying, Tasmanian Times is timeless and so it should be with me. It has been a wrench not to write but after some strange adventures, a sabbatical and a good holiday, when the wheels hit the tarmac in Hobart I thought I was home. Time away leads one to look at situations with a slightly different eye, especially when you have been somewhere and not wanted to leave. It used to be that way in Tasmania: I fell in love with this wonderful island in the 1960s when a Tasmanian friend of mine, now sadly seriously ill after a lung/heart transplant, brought me to the north of the state and I thought I had found paradise. For those interested, Tasmanian Times keeps a record of my previous writings (HERE) and one of the reasons I ceased contributing was because I was becoming too cynical and, I thought, hypercritical, to the point where my judgment was skewed and I didn’t think there was any point in pursuing my arguments because no one was listening. The Editor, bless his heart likes long articles, so do I but in order to be read, I have a slew of ideas and rants and will try to stay within the bounds of relative decency at least at the start. Those with an IQ larger than their collar size should have no problems.

For fellow pedants, the saying: “The Buck stops here” is the theme of my return. It is a saying generally attributed to Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the US and according to reputable sources it has its origin in poker playing and small plaque donated to the president, who kept it on his desk as a reminder and was left in place as late as the time of Jimmy Carter but it’s not known whether it’s still there today. When historians of a political nature look at Harry S. Truman they don’t remember much more than the fact that he was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president (a.k.a. the Veep) who found himself as an accidental president when Roosevelt died in office in 1945 just before the triumph of the Allied powers over the Nazis and the Japanese was realized. Most people would remember that Truman authorized the use of the atomic bomb on Japan and as is usual in academic circles, there is considerable controversy about the decision. Having seen the available documentation, it was a fearful responsibility and the decision was not taken lightly.

Perhaps because of the times, Truman’s legacy is not generally regarded as praiseworthy but he helped preside over postwar reconstruction, war-ravaged Europe, sustenance to the reconstruction of Japan, recognition of the state of Israel and the turmoil on the international scene in the immediate postwar period. Furthermore, he is more frequently recognized because his unpopularity was such that the Chicago Tribune had printed the headline: “Dewey defeats Truman,” before the votes had been counted. It is worth remembering that he was at one time very popular but post-war, so far behind in opinion polls that he was expected to be defeated in 1948, yet stormed home after using whistle-stop tours and his folksy Missouri manner across the country in the face of impossible odds. The other saying that Truman was fond of was the old saw: “if you can’t stand the heat, you’d better get out of the kitchen.” Somehow, somewhere, certain Australian politicians would be wise to learn more about Harry Truman and the benefits of taking responsibility and staying in the kitchen.

The buck stops here – right here.

Jim Bacon

Returning to Tasmania, it did not take long for disillusionment to set in – just driving from the airport was enough – potholes and hoons. Perhaps I had been thinking of things American and the line from the Negro spiritual that runs: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen…. Glory hallelujah.” I have long viewed the reduction in the size of the Tasmanian Parliament to have been one of the more foolish decisions ever taken by a kombinat of interested parties and vested interests. I can’t claim to have been a fly on the wall but popular folklore has it that Premier Bacon hatched the reduction in league with Robin Gray and the Liberal Party in an attempt to rid the state of those pesky Greens. Some say it worked leaving only Peg Putt as the sole representative in a House reduced to 25 members. I bear no personal malice towards Gentleman Jim but I knew him when he was younger and something of a trade union bully boy in Melbourne but we managed to exchange a few civil words after his election triumph and I would wish lung cancer on no one. It is a cruel and tragic illness from which very few recover and the life expectancy when diagnosed is generally fairly short. What follows should not be seen as a personal attack on former Premier James Bacon, only his policies and their legacy.

It is now abundantly clear that the reduction in the size of Parliament has been a catastrophic failure. Irrespective of where your political loyalties lie, it is difficult not to feel more than a scintilla of sympathy for whoever might be Premier or a minister in the system that resembles a revolving door. Fairly obviously, it would not be Tasmania if we didn’t have the usual crop (or crap – a new collectivity) of writers to The Mercury and other media suggesting that Tasmania should be part of Victoria and that it is too small and insignificant to govern itself. I have no time for that argument because Tasmania is an island and in many respects, if not unique, then sufficiently distinctive to try and retain its identity and reclaim its heritage. Whatever motivates people to consider a union with Victoria is more problematic – they either have lived there and enjoyed despotism (being ‘Jeffed’) or returned with stars in their eyes from maxing out on shopping, or being less charitable are out of their ever-loving minds.

Like it or not, we have to concede that governance is not an easy task, especially as many decisions have to be taken by politicians which were, are and will be unpopular and even spin doctors with comparable talents of Shane Warne or perhaps a certain Sri Lankan off-spinner are unlikely to be able to conjure much from the mess we’re in and make no mistake about it, Tasmania is in a mess.The question that really has to be asked is whether Victoria is any better off and the answer is firmly in the negative, beset by the politics of corruption, high rollers and plagued by societal tension and in all probability an untrustworthy police force. Short answer: if Victoria is so great, go live there. After all, the more cynical among us could regard Victoria as northern Tasmania rather than this island being an appendage of the Garden State or whatever they’re calling it these days. In many respects, Victoria is afflicted by equally bad government and it doesn’t matter which party is in power. The symptoms of decay extend beyond our borders to the greater whole. This is not a new problem and one of my favorite cartoons stems from the days of Neville Wran, sometime Premier of New South Wales. A biting cartoon in The Australian, which incidentally has become so partisan as to be impossible, contained a sketch of the Premier up to his neck and the caption said: “New South Wales – you’re standing in it,” and the ‘it’ was probably faecal matter and when the winds blew from the northeast, it was easy to believe.

So what the hell happened in Tasmania?

Remember the good old days (courtesy of The Mercury).

A good friend of mine, well acquainted with Chinese aphorisms states: “May you live in interesting times,” is a very subtle curse. It avoids affronting people and sounds fairly benign but it ain’t necessarily so. And we live in interesting times no matter whether you are looking at the national, international or state scene. I could write many thousands of words to add to those that I have churned out on various subjects at the national and international level. After all, I’m fascinated by geopolitics and rather reluctantly, I have come to a conclusion that the type of democracy enjoyed in the West is suffering from a possibly terminal condition. Its constituent elements – political parties in particular – suffer from organizational and institutional sclerosis and ossification. In the US, they call it “the beltway phenomenon“ referring to the actions of politicians isolated in Washington and seemingly indifferent to their voters. In the UK, it’s the Westminster syndrome, in New Zealand it’s Auckland paralysis (or Beehive blues) and perhaps in Australia it’s called Canberra-catatonia but it extends to state-level. It may well have something to do with the smell of leather and nice offices and great water views.

In all cases, politicians appear to be totally divorced from those who put them in the power and show a distinct lack of responsiveness to what is needed to govern. Strangely, Canadians, our North American cousins (and I have many relatives there) have shown a remarkably stroppy attitude to years of indifferent government by “kicking out the bums” as one of my cousins gleefully commented. The Americans regard Canadians as different and they are, historically, culturally and politically. The land mass of Canada is similar to Australia and remarkably similar also in population density. We have deserts and they have the Laurentian Shield, one of the bleakest and most inhospitable of geologic phenomena, a stark reminder of the former ice age. They are usually more easy-going than those to the South and at times they have a somewhat prickly relationship with the US as well as being the butt of much American humour. Not that the Americans are critical of the last Canadian election result – they love it!

The fact remains that Tasmania is not governed by the ALP-Green alliance among 25 members of the House of Assembly and the 19 members of the Upper House. Much more power lies with the army of advisors, spin doctors and ancillary staff, who have been engaged at exorbitant salaries to effectively run government. The reduced (or rump) Parliament has been left as a public circus in which minor issues usually transcend those that affect the everyday life of Tasmanians. The extra-parliamentary tyranny has led to duplication and triplication of services, which in turn, serves to obfuscate the identities of the major players and among some of the disasters are water meters (which I support in theory) the convoluted and farcical consultative process surrounding the timber industry and the total lack of responsibility for maintenance of crucial infrastructure especially roads and rail.

We are in a mess because the economy is headed downwards and the state is too dependent on Commonwealth money. Unemployment is higher than the national average but no one will accept the blame. The dreadful decade of the 1990s with the most bizarre economic policies ruined the whole country, not just Tasmania. Manufacturing was exported and jobs lost without any real consideration of retraining dispossessed workers. Because of its size, the impact is felt more deeply in Tasmania and it manifests itself in what certain people at the University refer to as “risk behavior.” Perhaps a certain university professor could spend time away from antiques to define the problem but you won’t find the answer on his mantelpiece. You have to get down and dirty and (ugh!) talk to people and it’s a long way down from the ivory tower.

What so-called risk behavior means in action is that people take chances and symptoms include increased gambling and society becomes more dysfunctional as people feel the pressure of increased costs and charges for services, which are not matched by wage increases or Social Security. The old idea of poverty as measured by various indices is currently being reviewed or at least that is what we are told. Mention the broad-acre public housing estates and you will be told that families live on pooled Social Security but they all have flat panel TVs, mobile phones and what some academics like to call consumer durables. Yeah, right but are ‘they’ human beings? The signs of apparent affluence somewhat unfortunately mask much deeper problems. Apart from significant pockets of unemployment, there are those who believe they can gamble what little they have in the hope of hitting the jackpot. I make no apology for being totally opposed to gambling and the monopoly by a certain group in the state means that various measures to curb the activity will be difficult to implement and sustain. Furthermore, government is dependent on revenue from gambling and the argument that if clubs are restricted, individuals will gamble on the Internet are very well-founded indeed. Quite often during my browsing on the Internet, I get hit with an unwanted page inviting me to gamble – various pages including poker, lotto and the like. Government is also dependent on revenue from drinking and cigarette smoking despite the massive campaigns to try to educate the public to give up tobacco and drink in moderation. Under current circumstances and being pelted with advertisements who decides what moderation actually means – half a scoop of museli at breakfast, one less Mars bar – yeech – it’s too hard.

If you have no job, nowhere to go and the weather’s lousy, what better than a slab and some smokes while you watch TV? I have said many times that government will only act on gambling smoking and drinking when the costs outweigh the benefits and then they will have to find some way to offset the loss in revenue. There is no panacea for these habits and social scientists know that they are associated with marital discord, alcoholism, domestic violence and quite probably lead to types of petty crime, which provide money for gambling and the overwhelming desire in some cases, to destroy the property of others and this can range from minor vandalism, such as stealing or marking cars through to torching empty houses. The government and the police will not reveal the full extent of car theft but I have been reliably informed that most cars are stolen late at night because there’s no public transport and someone wants to get home but for others, it’s a recreational activity.

The absolute fiasco over water meters, vicious and ongoing increases in heating costs far outstrip so-called compensation. Tasmania is self-sufficient in energy and yet by joining the national grid, it has worked to our disadvantage with increased price rises. Sooner or later, a pensioner will be found dead, suffering from malnutrition and exposure and the handwringing will start, followed shortly by Tasmania’s favourite sport – the blame game. Those who have experience with sleeping rough will have an advantage as they know how to keep warm with newspaper but it concerns me greatly that people will smoke drink and gamble ahead of buying food and keeping warm. I’ve worked every day of my life and paid tax and I don’t like what I’m seeing. Therefore, it’s especially gut-wrenching to see that some of the activities of Colony 47 will be cut, while at the same time a building in Murray Street is to be demolished, despite being a good example of its type. Could it not be converted for emergency shelter? It’s an absolute disgrace in a modern society if people have to live rough. Some do it by choice but others have no options. Surely, there must be some way of ensuring that disadvantaged people have a meal, shower, bed and a change of clothes if necessary but I have seen despair writ large among volunteer organizations. The symbolic act being undertaken of living for a day on two dollars is farcical. Try living for a month on two dollars per day and see where that leads to: the symbolic but farcical one night is just that and you know very well that the public figures who have joined forces to highlight poverty return to the comforts of home, which far exceed the necessary. If not a month, why not six or more – see how the other half lives.

As a conclusion to this part, can I urge those who can, to pressure the government and kick butt. Colony 47 must stay and with regret, I have to say that while welcoming the stranger at the gate – Ponteville to be precise – and Jeff Briscoe’s novel idea of inviting one or some into your home, such courtesy of is a charitable and worthy idea but not a long-term solution: surely we must consider long-range plans to deal with the problems of our own people as well as refugees. The sad conclusion is that government can’t afford the outlay and private philanthropy, while most welcome, is less simply because household income is being squeezed and costs are rising. In turn, we have become harder, less welcoming and everyone wants to blame someone, with apologies to the loved and departed Dean Martin – “Everybody wants to blame someone, sometime, somehow” guess that’s all there is for now. Older generations are familiar with what was once called looking for needles in haystacks – a formidable task but the only needles found these days carry a health warning and needle for which I’m searching is the locus of responsibility.

Part Two will follow shortly and examine the problems in more detail.