Tasmania's economy against the national average: Saul Eslake

PERSPECTIVE: Economist Saul Eslake believes Tasmania's economic performance will never catch up to the national average, but says the island state is still an attractive place to live.

PERSPECTIVE: Economist Saul Eslake believes Tasmania's economic performance will never catch up to the national average, but says the island state is still an attractive place to live.

An air of optimism engulfed the Hodgman government after seeing year-on-year growth in tourism, retail sales and household consumption following its ascension in 2014.

But just who were the winners and losers? 

Some in the business community have questioned whether the North is the product of a two-speed economy, while others are skeptical about whether employers across the state are actually benefiting. 

Tasmanian Small Business Council executive officer Robert Mallett believed that while some businesses are reaping success, many employers are still struggling. 

“There’s no doubt about it - there are a number of businesses across the spectrum which are not doing as well. As far as I can tell, they are everywhere,” he said.

“I just get this distinct feeling we have too much of an island culture, as long as we’re keeping our heads above water: ‘she’ll be right’.”

“We tend to not chase an extra $20,000 or $50,000, or a lot of employees are quite happy to stay happy where they are and not seek advancement.”

He said that businesses had issues sourcing good quality staff, and believed that improving customer service and infrastructure needed to be a collective effort.

“It’s the way we start to teach our eight-year-olds, we need to give them some of the proper tools and vision…I don’t think we’re doing nearly enough to influence them.”

Tasmania has a way to go if it will ever be able to catch up to the mainland, lagging behind in crucial areas. 

In 2014-15, Tasmania’s gross household incomes, averaged out to be $37,768 per head – and 26 per cent less than the national average.

At the same time, Tasmania’s population is older than the national population, has a higher share of disability, and is one of the most dependent states on federal government payments.

It’s also got the country’s lowest proportion of higher education attainment.

Unemployment has lowered to 6.7 per cent in August and below some of the highs seen in 2013 when it reached 8.3 per cent.

However, Mr Eslake and others have questioned the veracity of the figure due to softening workforce participation – which many believe to account for hidden unemployment.

In Tasmania, the figure almost hit a 10-year low of 59.6 per cent in June, nearing the 59.5 per cent low in November 2013, although unemployment was 7.8 per cent then. 

While the rest of the economy continues to grow, the labour market figures have puzzled Mr Eslake.

The figures have him scratching his head to the point where he argued some figures, particularly the number of jobs created, may reflect changes to ABS sampling.

In June, a spokesperson for the ABS said the Labour Force Survey had a survey response rate of 93 per cent each month, ensuring confidence in the statistics.

The latest regional data on Launceston and the North East revealed unemployment sat at 7.2 per cent in July, compared to 5.4 per cent for Hobart. 

Mr Eslake said that ultimately part of Tasmania’s poor job prospects related to its below-average educational attainment.

“A significant part of the wide and widening gap between Tasmania’s economic performance and the rest of Australia can be put down to the growing gap between the educational attainment of our population, and that of the rest of Australia.”

Launceston Chamber of Commerce executive officer Jan Davis agreed, though she theorised that Tasmania may well be the product of a two-speed economy, with the South of the state accounting for most of the positive figures.  

“We’ve just had Launceston become the first major regional city complete with the NBN rollout. 

“If we stop looking for silver bullets and start thinking about how we can get one or two jobs in the half the businesses in the North, you’ve almost solved your problem,” Ms Davis said.

Although education may be the obvious answer to improving employment, Mr Eslake believed it was unrealistic that Tasmanians could ever hope to compete with the mainland.

He cited an older population, and lack of a mining and financial services sector as key reasons.

He said his hope is to one day see Tasmania’s gross state product reduce to 15 per cent below the national average – from its current figure of 27 per cent.

“It’s unrealistic to expect we can completely eliminate the gap. It’s not possible. If we could aspire to be no worse than South Australia and maybe a bit better than South Australia.

”Most Tasmanians would say: ‘ok we’re 15 per cent poorer than the national average, but the other advantages of living in Tasmania outweigh that’.”

However, the latest state final demand figures showed promising signs for Tasmania – up 1.5 per cent for the 2015-16 financial year. 

Opposition Treasury spokesman Scott Bacon welcomed the figures but said employment still remained a headache for Tasmania’s economy.

After the release of the labour market figures last Thursday, Treasurer Peter Gutwein acknowledged a two-speed economy existed within Tasmania, with the North behind the South, and the government was working on a plan to rectify this. 

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