Conditions in Australia’s southern state are on the up, but Tasmania needs to tackle the long-term challenges.

    Sometimes, it takes a maverick to galvanise us to seize new possibilities. Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) founded by gambler turned arts philanthropist David Walsh has done that. Seven years since MONA opened to global acclaim, there’s new life and energy in Tasmania’s capital and the creative spirit is rippling through other parts of the state.

    Hobart is sporting multiple cranes, a bunch of new hotels and restaurants have emerged, there’s growing investment in infrastructure, including a runway extension that offers better reach for international export markets and the agricultural sector is recovering, thanks to a weaker currency.

    Aside from being a magnet for almost half the state’s growing number of first-time visitors, MONA has curated increasingly popular festivals such as MONA FOMA (Festival of Music and Arts) and Dark Mofo.

    “MONA has changed the face Tasmania presents to Tasmania, Australia and the world,” says economist Saul Eslake GAICD, Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Tasmania.

    Professor David Rich GAICD, chair of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and president of Launceston’s Theatre North a former provost of the University of Tasmania says MONA has lifted expectations amongst Tasmanians of what’s possible and that is stretching to the north.

    “Organisations have become more ambitious. We are seeing a more vibrant arts and cultural community as a result. There is no doubt that Tasmania has struggled, particularly with the loss of forestry and the mining industry. Construction was heavily down, and one of the key drivers, the agriculture sector, so the whole economy struggled. That has changed.”

    Eslake, who like an increasing number of Tasmanians has returned to his roots, sees the shift reflected in his annual economic report for the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “The fall in the exchange rate is important for agriculture and has helped propel the upturn in tourism. Agriculture, tourism, healthcare, IT and aged care services are doing well and business confidence is high,” he says.

    Tourism directly and indirectly contributes about $2.79 billion or 10.7 per cent to Gross State Product and around 37,400 jobs, around 15 per cent of total employment.

    Increased investment in irrigation, larger-scale for dairying has helped boost the agricultural sector. It is a visible change to the landscape as you drive down the Midlands highway between Launceston and Hobart.

    Less visible has been the work of the Office of the Coordinator General, led by John Perry, co-founder of Tasmanian Leaders and another Tasmanian who has returned home. Based in Launceston, the office is an initiative of the Hodgman Liberal Government, responsible for attracting investment, facilitating major projects and reducing the regulatory burden for business in the state and a data centre action strategy.

    In Launceston in the north (population 106,000), expectations are rising of a revival with plans by the University of Tasmania to build a new $260m riverside campus at Inveresk, adjacent to the CBD. It is estimated it will create 430 jobs during construction and attract up to 10,000 students, and hopefully increase opportunities for the region through education.

    We wanted to support the farming community and buy local produce...we had no idea of the power of bringing all these people together on a weekly basis.

    Kim Seagram MAICD

    The city’s award-winning Harvest Launceston farmers’ market has also spawned a growing cluster of food, wine and produce businesses. The market began in 2012, following the collapse of the Gunns timber company and big job losses.

    “We wanted to support the farming community and buy local produce,” says Harvest co-founder and vice-president Kim Seagram MAICD. “We had no idea of the power of bringing all these people together on a weekly basis.”

    Out of this has emerged Fermentation Tasmania, a not-for-profit company that aims to facilitate new product development, carry out research on fermentation, work with education establishments on skills and training and facilitate tourism on a fermentation trails. The organisation has a board of six including Seagram, executive director Dr Tom Lewis and Peter Shutz, chair of Food Innovation Australia.

    Jane Bennett FAICD, CEO of Launceston-based TasFoods, says Tasmania has work to do to improve its regional development, which requires strong systems and governance, regional champions and cultural capital. TasFoods is building a larder of premium food brands to supplying both domestic and export markets.

    Orchestral manoeuvres

    Emerging from potential financial disaster, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra has become a resource of innovation and cultural capita.

    The TSO pops up in some unusual places. Teaming up with acoustic punk band Violent Femmes at the MONA FOMA, throwing off some Bach and bluegrass over beers on a summer weekend, or performing Peter and the Wolf on a family day at Risdon Prison.

    Its part of a revival of the state’s much-loved classical music icon in recent years under chair David Rich GAICD and managing director Nicholas Heyward MAICD. Thirteen years ago, the orchestra was in deficit and its future in doubt. Economics dictated that a state with a population of around 520,000 people couldn’t justify an orchestra with all the trimmings.

    A review in 2005 by the late James Strong recommended the TSO be scaled back from a symphony orchestra to a smaller chamber orchestra. The recommendation caused a public outcry and eventually it won a reprieve, but was challenged to lift its game. Among improvements in accountability and governance, the TSO developed a legacy of a strong collaborative and innovation mindset.

    Now celebrating its 70th year, the TSO has 47 full-time musicians, 25 staff, a large casual workforce and a couple of hundred volunteers through the TSO Chorus and the TSO Foundation. It undertakes education and outreach activities around the state.

    The TSO’s financial position has vastly improved. It receives triennial Federal and State Government funding (around 70 per cent of its $12m annual revenue), raises 11 per cent from ticket sales and the rest from sponsorship and donations.

    Heyward, managing director since 2001, says, “We consciously collaborate with as many organisations as we can.”

    David Rich, who joined the board in 2008 and became chair in 2015 is in the process of board renewal as the TSO approaches its 2019–22 strategic planning. “We want to explore new ventures and that requires a change in mindset.”

    “People always say symphony orchestras are dying because audiences are getting older,” says Heyward. “We’ve been surveying for 12 years and 89-93 per cent say they take pride in the achievements of the TSO. It shows it is an important piece of infrastructure for the community — that’s a powerful argument.”

    Hard times

    The state’s north-west has done it tough with the decline in mining and the likes of Caterpillar moving its manufacturing offshore. Dr Peter Holm GAICD, president of the Burnie Chamber of Commerce, says Caterpillar still has 200-plus highly skilled employees and there was good work with the University of Tasmania in training and helping workers find new jobs.

    He argues that “a high percentage of our problems are based on politics. This is a community that works together, which needs a hand up, not a handout. We’re looking for rational support from government with frugal use of taxpayers’ money and good governance.”

    Tasmania is due to go to the polls on 3 March. The big issues have been payroll tax, health and education (Tasmanian 15-year-olds are the country’s worst performing students in maths, science and literacy) and pub gaming machines.

    Tasmania underspends on health care and its allocation to preventative health is one of the smallest in the country, says Graeme Lynch GAICD, Tasmania Heart Foundation CEO and an AICD Tasmania divisional councillor. “A major ask for us is to move the investment in preventative health from two to five per cent.”

    Higher levels of educational participation and attainment would make a big difference to Tasmania’s economic performance, Eslake says, adding this ultimately comes back to having Australia’s least-educated and oldest population.

    “The most important thing the Hodgman government has done is to extend schools to Year 11 and 12 in country areas.”

    The government has squared up the state’s finances (it now has no net debt) and helped revive business confidence. The big question is: how sustainable is it?

    business investment graph
    growth graph

    Women on boards

    The AICD has worked in partnership with the Tasmanian Government to ensure more opportunities for women to serve on boards. Over the past three years, as part of its Women on Boards Strategy, the State Government has supported the AICD in offering corporate governance education scholarships. So far, six women have received scholarships for the Company Directors Course and 32 for the Foundations of Directorship course.

    The State Government has been part of the 50/50 by 2020 movement, with a target of having 50 per cent women on government boards and committees by July 2020. Since the release of our Women on Boards Strategy in 2015, government board positions held by women have increased to nearly 40 per cent.

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