Tasmania: The land-use debate

22 February 2018 | Holly Porteous

Resolution:Possible researcher Holly Porteous has just been to Tasmania. Here she reports on how Tasmanians are protecting the islands’ environment as well as its economy and the debate this is bringing about. 

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Eaglehawk Neck, Tasmania (Photo Holly Porteous)

Tasmania: Glistening mountains, crystal clear water, lush rainforests, seafood and devils. ‘The island of inspiration’ – and it is. Roughly the size of the Republic of Ireland but with a population of just 520,000 (slightly less than Dublin), the wild beauty of the island is extraordinary.

Since the early days of European settlement, Tasmania’s economy had been largely based on primary industries. Mining of copper, zinc, tin and iron dominated in the west of the island, alongside agriculture, forestry and fishing. With such an abundance of natural resources and a small population, Tasmania became wealthy. According to rankings by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), if Tasmania was a separate country it would have the 21st highest GDP per capita in the world.

However, as in many parts of the world, Tasmania is at a crossroads. Old-world industries are falling away. Mines are closing against a backdrop of exceptionally high levels of  mining-related investment in Western Australia, and the strength of the Australian dollar has made Tasmanian manufactured products uncompetitive against Asian markets. Furthermore, recent years have seen large numbers of Tasmanian youth emigrating to the Australian mainland for university and better job prospects. With fewer professional jobs and an unemployment rate of 7.1% compared to 5.6% in mainland Australia. Tasmania was seeing an average exodus of three hundred people moving out of state every three months from 2011-2015.

Some hope that tourism will pick up the economic slack, and understandably. 51% of the island ‘s land area has some form of reservation classification and 42% is managed by the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service. The number of visitors flocking Tasmania’s stunning natural beauty have increased 8% from 2016-2017, and spending by tourists rose 11% to $2.3 billion. This is big business.But tourism comes with its disadvantages. Jobs in the sector are often low paid, low skilled, and highly seasonal. Although the state is less affected by climate change than the rest of Australia, as global temperatures heat up, the island ski slopes are becoming a less reliable winter attraction whilst for much of the year weather is still too cold to pry away visitors from the warmer Australian mainland.

Crucially though, the tourism industry relies on Tasmania’s national parks and World Heritage Sites – the same sites that dominate the island’s timber and mineral wealth and feed into industries that Tasmania has been historically strong in and the population are already skilled for. Considering the costs and time-lag of re-structuring the economy, investing heavily in tourism whilst shutting down the island’s primary industries is seen as a big risk. Many argue that restrictions on mining and logging in Tasmania’s vast natural reserves are inhibiting the island’s ability to fight off its economic sluggishness. If the economy is to become buoyant and competitive again, they say, environmental protections must be scaled back.

Liberal Premier of Tasmania Will Hodgman kicked off the fight in 2015 when he requested for 200,000 hectares of protected UNESCO World Heritage Site land to be opened up for logging. This was denied, although environmental regulation of areas under Tasmanian jurisdiction have remarkably relaxed since. Hodgman’s 2015 State of the State Address celebrated having ‘re-opened our forest industry for future growth’ and ‘cutting red and green tape to encourage investment’, leaving 43% of the island’s ‘protected’ land open to be logged or mined.

The future of Tasmania’s economic direction will be interesting. State elections have been set for 3rd March 2018, with all 25 members of the Tasmanian House Assembly on the line. A focal point of debate rests on those who see conservation of Tasmania’s natural beauty as it’s economic future, and those who want to relax environmental restrictions for economic diversification. Both the Tasmanian Labour and Tasmanian Green parties have put forward a strong case for environmental protections and investment in tourism. As of January 2018, polling suggests that Hodgman’s Liberals administration will comfortably retain power, winning a predicted 41.1% of votes to Labour’s 34.3% and 12.8% for the Greens. Looking at the longer term however, support for Liberals and Labour have remarkably converged – from a margin of over 20% in May 2012, to a difference of just a few percentage points at the close of 2017.

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Graph showing changing voting intentions of Tasmanians over time for each political party. Although the Liberal Party (shown in blue) are still the most popular, their margin of popularity between the Liberal and Labour Party (shown in red) has narrowed in recent months. (Source: Enterprise Marketing and Research Services)

Combining environmental protection with economic growth is a well-versed challenge in any country. Admittedly, it seems unlikely that 2018 will provide a change in Tasmanian leadership to a Premier confident that strong environmental protections and a diversified economy can go hand in hand. As we look at how the world’s biggest players – China, India, the USA and Latin America – are navigating issues of economic growth, globalisation and environmental protection, let’s keep an eye on the little island of Tasmania. We may learn something. 


Poll. (2018). Tasmanian State Voting Intentions. Last accessed 22nd January 2018.


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