Big thought and a small island

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  • Published 20130305
  • ISBN: 9781922079961
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

THIS STORY STARTS, as many good stories do, with a conversation between a taxi driver and a customer. In this case, the trip was short: between Hobart’s small CBD and its university campus in the southern suburb of Sandy Bay. I was Home for the weekend; although I now live ‘on the mainland’, I still insist on calling Hobart ‘Home’, and I still think of that word as having the same capital H as the city’s name. The taxi driver was about to move interstate. ‘Why would you live here unless you had to?’ he asked me.

He explained that, for him, the state’s population is inherently frustrated by ‘a lack of words’. He told me a statistic I already knew – that half Tasmania’s population is functionally illiterate. ‘People just don’t have the words’, he said. ‘They can’t express themselves in the way they want to. They get angry with this, and then they can’t put that anger into words, and it fuels more anger.’

I responded that while many Tasmanians may lack words, education, or financial security, this is not matched by a lack of ideas, hopes, aspirations, and desires for their island and their community. Maybe, I suggested to the taxi driver, we can see the frustration he identified as a note of hope: that Tasmanians want to reach past any constraints they face.

Those structural constraints are significant. In addition to an illiteracy rate of 50 per cent, Tasmania has a welfare dependency rate of 33 per cent, and in some areas only 45.5 per cent of students complete Year 12. Tasmania is also the state with the highest rate of poverty in Australia. A 2005 survey revealed that 5 per cent of adults were ‘mostly or always’ worried about whether the amount of food they could afford would be enough.

Yet in sharp contrast to the difficult realities faced by so many, there are remarkable stores of human capital in Tasmania. The bravery and big-heartedness of David Walsh and his Museum of Old and New Art (MONA); world-class tourism operations; internationally celebrated authors; the University of Tasmania’s centres of excellence in biotechnology and Antarctic studies, and the Menzies Institute of medical research – these are also parts of the Tasmanian story. All this (and more) is occurring in a population of half a million, spread across an island the size of some European countries. In many ways, the future of Tasmania looks bright indeed.

This is Tasmania’s place right now; but I have been increasingly worried at how only one or the other of these truths tends to be highlighted at any time. That there are both stories of difficulty and poverty, and stories of quite exceptional innovation is often not acknowledged – and the relationship between these truths is not examined. To focus on the problems, as the taxi driver did, is distorting: it only tells one side of a complex Tasmanian story. Conversely, an increasing literature emphasises a ‘creative class’ (Florida, 2002) or a ‘NEO-economy’ (Honeywill, 2008) in Tasmania: a new economic order of consumers who are concerned with ‘aesthetics, creativity and imagination’ (Honeywill) and who ‘spend more, earn more, read more, know more, and are better educated’ (ibid). Applying this literature to Tasmania has been important, because until recently these possibilities have been underemphasised. But focusing solely on the ‘elites’ or ‘entrepreneurs’, the ‘NEOs’ or ‘creative class’, is as distorting as the taxi driver’s opposite emphasis. The real picture is more nuanced.

How do we ensure that Tasmania’s growing cultural capital is used in a way that truly benefits all Tasmania? How do we ensure that no one is left behind? And how do we bridge the gap between the new cultural entrepreneurs, and those who may be frustrated by lack of words?

Such a gap is not new. But on the island of Tasmania, it is growing and becoming more apparent, as the state undergoes some profound and rapid changes. This is a transition time, and there is an inherent possibility of both dynamism and discord.. Tasmania is phasing down its traditional primary industry of forestry. Into that space comes a focus on innovation and emerging industries (like viticulture and aquaculture), assisted by Tasmania being a primary site for the National Broadband Network rollout. The opening of MONA, and associated events like the MONA-FOMA music festival, has added to the Tasmanian cultural landscape; in coming years, this will be built upon by the UTAS Academy of Creative Industries and Performing Arts. The move from a forest-based economy to a ‘smart island’ focused around culture, food, and tourism is a big shift for this small population. Will the Tasmanian community as a whole benefit from the changes? Or will advances be unequally experienced? One of the risks Tasmania must manage during this transition is the possibility that society becomes further separated, into those who have the ability to articulate and realise their ideas, and those who do not.

IN CONTEMPORARY TIMES, the new economy is the free market of ideas. Ideas increase power, enable democratic engagement, and facilitate upward mobility. Ideas are currency, and the ability to articulate thought is capital. Information exclusion is a new risk to social cohesion, where access to information divides societies into the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. Elites and entrepreneurs may or may not have money, but what they certainly have access to is the ability to think big. Here, I call having access to the marketplace of ideas ‘thought capital’. This is the ability to give life to your ideas. It is linked to literacy, culture, and cultural capital, but it is not the same as any of these. Such thinking is associated with reason, resourcefulness, imagination and innovation. To have thought capital is to have capabilities in critical and creative thinking.

That snowballing anger identified by the taxi driver, which he linked to access to words, may be seen as a frustration at an inability to access this thought capital. It’s not that the ideas and the hope aren’t there; the frustration, at its heart, is borne of being able to sense another possibility, but not being able to realise it. The frustration lives in the space between having ideas, and having the capital to give them full expression. Linked to this is the wider structural reality: how can Tasmania be established as a place where thought, idea, dissent, creativity, civic participation, deep democracy, and critical engagement is both possible – for all Tasmanians – and valued? How do we create Tasmania as a ‘shared space for thought’?

A shared space for thought is a place where curious, engaged, and analytical thought happens, and is encouraged. There is no hierarchy of ideas; no thought is more or less worthy than others; and many different views can be articulated, without fear. Thought is not an event or outcome, and the ideas themselves are not the focus. Rather it is a space where the process of respectful debate, curious analysis, and positive problem-solving, is valued. In this space, people are able to deconstruct, question, and inspect different possibilities. Crucially, it is a place where opinions that are divergent – or even anathema – to our own, are respected and protected. A space for thought is ‘shared’ because everyone has access to the space, but the thoughts themselves may be controversial, dissident, or unexpected. The space must be safe for people to voice such opinions. In this shared space, thought capital is cultivated: capabilities in critical thinking, problem-solving, empathy, and respect, are promoted. The participants see themselves as able and empowered to think and learn. Instead of the spiraling anger the taxi driver spoke of, every participant is valued as being able to learn, think, and engage; and articulate and advance their ideas.

A GOOD EXAMPLE of a space for thought – which must now be built upon – is MONA. This museum demands a questioning and engaged approach, and its opening can be seen as a watershed moment for a ‘shared space for thought’. The museum’s embrace of the unusual and unorthodox has meant it is a place where all views are valued; where unpopular opinions and exceptional thought are celebrated; where everyone can belong. With MONA located among some of the most disadvantaged suburbs in the country and admission free for Tasmanians, there are no structural barriers to equal participation. The challenge now is to create Tasmania in a similar way, as a place where engaged thinking is more encouraged. How can we build on this MONA moment, and create a shared space for thought throughout Tasmania?

Emphasising Tasmania as a place where thought is valued is important, because to some extent curious and independent thought has been stifled in the past. Tasmania’s small society has demanded loyalties be established, articulated, and known. Social cohesion on an isolated island has required strong views, and fostered ‘us against them’ divisions: Are you for, or against, forestry? Are you a Greenie, or a Unionist? Are you for trees or jobs? The environment or the economy? Are you pro-supertrawler, or anti-supertrawler? Are you for protecting the jobs of nurses, or funding the V8 supercars and AFL teams? Are you for keeping, or abolishing, the State Architect? Pro, or against, Marriage Equality? There has been little room for the nuances, the complexities, and the questions – and little room for allowing, appreciating, and protecting activism that is not your own.

Creating a shared space for thought is also important, because the state is losing critical thinkers. The famed ‘brain drain’ – those Tasmanians living in diaspora, as close as Melbourne or as far as Manhattan – highlights an issue with creating Tasmania as a place where thought is nourished. For in that taxi, both the driver and the passenger were in the process of leaving Tasmania, and the cabbie’s reason for departure was the anger of people without words. The conversation was, in essence, about the link between Tasmania’s low thought capital and the desire to leave the island. The relationship between the leaving and the lack of a space for thought is mutually reinforcing: the lack is a reason to leave; leaving further reinforces the lack; and so the cycle goes.

Of course, a small island with a small population cannot be all things to all people. But Tasmania continues to lose many of the people who are most likely to challenge the inadequate thought space. The lack of critical thinking has been enough to convince many Tasmanians to leave, and many to stay away. A recent participatory art project, ‘Dear Hobart, Regards, The Expats’ invited ‘ex-Hobartians’ to pen a letter to their former home, ‘reflecting on your relationship to the city’. Many respondents articulated that the sparseness of a space for thought was the reason for leaving, and staying away. Sentiments included: ‘I keep on leaving you to go and grow my brain […] every time I do come back, it is frustrating’; ‘I need to invent, to research, to apply twenty-first century skills, and you just can’t sustain me in that desire’; and, ‘I need to feel I can challenge without reprisal […] I need to feel I can succeed… and I just don’t get that in Hobart’.

The counterpoint to ‘people leaving’ is ‘people arriving’. The passion of new or returning Tasmanians must be harnessed, as should the cultural and intellectual exchange from the comings and goings; and any new Tasmanian must be welcomed. But instead of focusing on importing a new group, we should look to build the capacity of all Tasmanians.

CREATING A SHARED space for thought in Tasmania is not an easy task. It will be a long process, and will require many interlinking policy responses. It is as complex and as simple as improving access to quality education, possibly by streamlining high schools and colleges to lift retention rates; ensuring that children who have suffered trauma are not inadvertently excluded from education; guaranteeing no Tasmanian is concerned about having enough to eat; encouraging a media that will vigorously ask difficult questions. Yet while this requires a consistent policy agenda, it is more fundamentally a culture shift – and in order to be realised, it requires a shared vision.

In the taxi that morning, I said to the driver that ‘we need to focus on what unites us as Tasmanians’. We talked a little, and agreed that social cohesion requires greater emphasis on these shared ties. What is the common thread that runs through the different Tasmanian stories? A narrative could be built around a communal identity of being learners and thinkers. This should be facilitated by community leaders, and would be egalitarian and inclusive. While there will be many elements to building this, here I focus on two: encouraging proper debate about Tasmania’s governance systems; and an engagement of community groups to forge such a shared narrative.

To build a communal identity as thinkers, an engagement in analytical and holistic debates should be encouraged. A good starting point would be on the topic of reforming Tasmania’s governance structures. This needs attention, because it is increasingly of concern: the proportion of Tasmanians ‘who are satisfied that the State Government both listens to and acts on community wishes’ has fallen, from an already low 2009 baseline of 25 per cent, to only 14.7 per cent in 2011 (Tasmania Together Revised, 2011). Considering that this level of satisfaction is with government accountability and processes (not decisions themselves), this lack of confidence is notable. There must be a real conversation about the interplay between, constitution of, and reform to, Tasmania’s governance structures – but this is yet to be encouraged.

Tasmania has 29 local councils in addition to a bicameral system of parliament. Three issues currently have traction: a move to amalgamate councils; a move to ‘restore’ the numbers of the Lower House, from twenty-five Members to thirty-five; and a move to reform the Upper House. But these debates are happening in silos, with no discussion about how the governance structures in fact complement each other, work together, and should be strengthened in tandem. There is no rigorous, curious, approach to solving the problems. How do we maintain the important community work done by local councils, while reducing top-heavy governance? Is it possible to cut council rates but increase taxes? How do we ensure poorer councils are not disadvantaged? How do we invigorate the Upper House? What would increasing the numbers of the Lower House achieve (except more politicians)? At heart, there is no discussion on how to ensure Tasmanians are properly and adequately represented – without duplication or waste – at all levels. The present, separated, rumblings to amalgamate councils, ‘restore the numbers’ in the Lower House, and reform the Upper House, are underdeveloped. Without a more holistic debate, matched by broader and more dynamic thinking, any reform will be piecemeal and unsatisfying. But if constructive, analytical, and rigorous debate is encouraged, this could be an exciting step in creating a shared thinking space in Tasmania.

Reforming governance structures in a way that supports a shared thinking space would send a clear message that such a space is valued. It would also empower citizens to properly invest in governance reforms, hopefully improving the low levels of confidence in government processes.

In addition to more rigorous debate on important topics, the forging of a shared narrative should be achieved through engaging the resource of Tasmania’s strong sense of community. There are over 5000 community groups in the state, and a volunteer participation rate higher than the national average (Adams, 2009). These groups and energy should be captured to nourish the shared thinking space, making this ‘owned’ at a local level. How can we empower community groups to overcome the structural realities that face many Tasmanians? And how can community groups help shape that shared narrative?

A recent example of progress is local schools addressing community levels of illiteracy – which, as the taxi driver said, constricts the ability of many Tasmanians to give full expression to their ideas. While packs of books may be given to newborns, the reality is that with half the state functionally illiterate, many parents will not be able to read these books to their babies. Improving thought capital has to happen at a slightly broader level of the community. Anecdotal reports suggest that in new schools, locating libraries within interactive learning ‘pods’ and using technology such as iPads and Smartboards has improved adult literacy, with parents and children learning to read together in this dynamic environment. Elsewhere, a partnership between Montello Primary School in Burnie and the local Police and Citizens Youth Club, funded by the National Australia Bank, aims to develop students’ social skills, confidence, and self-esteem. The benefits are said to be noticeable both in school, and in the transition of students into further education and the wider community. How can we encourage other community groups to embrace critical thought while building skills? How can those 5000 community groups in Tasmania – from suburban Neighbourhood Houses, to sports clubs and service providers – help improve access to thought for all Tasmanians? While not every group will see itself as directly involved with ‘thought’, all can encourage individuals to see themselves as learners and thinkers, and to see Tasmania as a place where learning and thinking is valued. The narrative of Tasmania’s unity in a space for thought will be grown.

In a brave new era, where traditional industries are being phased out and something new is being forged, Tasmania is faced with an exciting and daunting prospect. The lack of words which the taxi driver spoke of has to be addressed. The challenge is to build a shared narrative about what unites Tasmanians, rather than what has the potential for greater iniquity or division; to nourish excellence, in a way that does not create or consolidate disadvantage. In this way, we can navigate the possibilities of the state together, building a collective confidence. If Tasmania grasps the opportunities of this question-mark time with courage and a mind to the future, the possibility exists for a community that is more egalitarian and democratic. There are two clear starting points: encouraging proper debate on topics such as Tasmania’s governance; and further engaging community groups. If managed with vision and coherence, these areas will grow the narrative of being united in thinking. The taxi driver’s question ‘why would you live here unless you had to?’ will have another resounding answer: it will be because the Tasmanian community is empowered and bound together through thought; and is strong, cohesive, aspirational, and hopeful.

A note on sources:

Demographic information has been sourced from: Department of Premier and Cabinet (Tasmania), Estimated Social Exclusion Risk Factors (2011); Department of Premier and Cabinet (Tasmania), Cost of Living Indicators for Tasmania: Final Report (2011); Department of Education (Tasmania), Tasmania’s Education Performance Report 2010 – Government Schools (2010); Madden, Kelly and Law, Margie (2005), The Tasmanian Community Survey: Financial Hardship, Anglicare Tasmania Social Action Research Centre; Adams, David (2009), A Social Inclusion Strategy for Tasmania; and the Tasmania Together Progress Board, Tasmania Together Revised 2011 (2011).

Direct quotes from Ross Honeywill on the NEO-economy have been sourced from Tasmania & the Neo-Economy, available:

Dear Hobart, Regards, the Expats, was devised by artist Amy Spiers and commissioned by the Salamanca Arts Centre. For full responses, see

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About the author

Sophie Rigney

Sophie Rigney is a Melbourne-based Tasmanian.She is undertaking a PhD at the University of Melbourne, where her research examines the procedural rights of the...

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