Saviour lies in Victoria merger

ON a balmy Saturday morning with Salamanca Market buzzing it is easy to be taken in by the charm and apparent vigour of our island state.

However, a vision for Tasmania must be rooted in the realities of today, which are instead very grim. We have a small and static population and a declining economy, issues beyond the capability of a state government of any complexion to remedy.

We are becoming more and more dependent on disproportionate funding from the Commonwealth, which is resented by other states. Service delivery is burdened by a full- blown bureaucracy, which is impossible for our population of just half a million to sustain, especially given the demographic distortion caused by youth unemployment, social services dependency and ageing.

Manufacturing jobs are being decimated, as indeed they are on the mainland, by pressures of cost and lack of scale. We are hell- bent on throttling our natural resource potentials of forestry and mining.

We lack the funding for vital improvements to our infrastructure, be it health, transport or education. We are left with a few successful areas of enterprise - agriculture, fisheries and aquaculture, tourism, electricity generation and our university.

Our gross state product per capita is 20 per cent below the national average and is the nation's lowest. Hopes for a local information-led jobs revolution based on the NBN seem over- optimistic.

The Tasmanian economy and our future as an independent state are on life support. My family arrived here in 1829, and I have lived and worked here almost all my life. I am, therefore, entitled to have an opinion without being accused of giving gratuitous advice from the sidelines. I hate to say it but the simple fact is that Tasmania may need to relinquish statehood and become a part of Victoria.

This would have to be done thoughtfully and only with certain threshold agreements. The Commonwealth would incorporate and preserve the present Tasmanian funding, including freight equalisation into Victoria so that the special consideration given to our island's separation is maintained.

The Victorian government would undertake to properly develop efficient Bass Strait shipping and instigate favourable port charges that make exporting from the island far less expensive. Tasmania, as a region, would retain its five federal lower house seats and the same electorates would elect one member each to Victoria's upper house and two each to the lower house.

Our Senate representation would simply be the 12 elected by Victoria as a whole but the very costly Tasmanian parliament and all that goes with it would disappear. Tasmania's share of the Australian population has shrunk from nearly 5 per cent at Federation to little more than 2 per cent today, making its 15 per cent representation in the federal states' house unrealistically influential.

Local government rationalisation must be resolved. Victoria has an abundance of municipalities and shires but their 79 is still much more efficient, given the population ratio of 12 to one, than Tasmania's 29.

Of course both states could be doing much better and Tasmania should, arguably, have only a handful of municipalities right now.

Many advantages would accrue from such a merger.

Destructive parochialism would recede with Hobart and Launceston placed on an equal footing as regional centres akin to Ballarat and Bendigo.

Our public enterprise employees would have more career opportunities and move in both directions across Bass Strait without disadvantage. Some commercial and non-profit organisations have already recognised the natural efficiency of amalgamating their southern branch operations in Victoria- Tasmania formats. There would be abundant opportunities for local enterprises from a much expanded local market.

If nothing more is done, at least an independent and detailed assessment of this proposition, or perhaps a less radical rationalisation and amalgamation of both public sectors, should be commissioned jointly by the two state governments. Otherwise we will never know what opportunities we are missing.

TED BEST is a retired manager of the Cadbury Schweppes factory at Claremont, including 21 years as Tasmanian director. He has also been chair of the TCCI, Hobart Marine Board and RACT, and a director of Forestry Tasmania and the former Trust Bank.

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