Tasmania – The Tipping Point (Review)

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Tasmania may be Australia’s smallest state, but it is also arguably the most complex.

The island state is a place of dichotomies; where nothing is as simple as it seems. It’s a place where every tale has an equally intriguing back story; where the seemingly simplest of debates is countered by opposition from the most unlikely quarters.

Since arriving in Tasmania just over three years ago, I’ve discovered the many layers to this stunning place; where heroes can also be villains; beauty can be found in ugliness.

Nowhere are the stories of Tasmania and its often contradictory people found laid bare; full of sometimes uncomfortable honesty, than in Griffith REVIEW 39: Tasmania: The Tipping Point?, with contributions from figures as diverse as David Walsh, the gambling billionaire and founder of the iconic Museum of Old and New Art, to food writer Matthew Evans, both, incongruously, leaders of the re-shaped, re-imagined Tasmania.

Walsh’s MONA – its art, markets, festivals, wine bar and restaurant, has helped revitalise the Tasmanian tourism industry while Evans’ three series of Gourmet Farmer television programs have helped awaken national interest in Tasmanian produce and cool-climate wines.

Coincidentally, the timing of the release of the book was almost identical to the launch of a new Tourism Tasmania campaign “Go Behind the Scenery” – which delves below the superficial beauty of the island state and uncovers historical, political and intriguing stories about Tasmania – from its proud convict roots to moments that seemed less than glorious at the time, such as the campaign to save the Gordon-Franklin wilderness from the planned Gordon Dam.

Both Tasmania: The Tipping Point? and Go Behind The Scenery” focus on the real stories and the intriguing people who have helped to create a state that is about much more than dramatic landscapes and fine food and wine – the qualities for which Tasmania is now probably best known.

Tasmania: The Tipping Point? is a result of collaboration between Griffith REVIEW and the University of Tasmania. The Griffith REVIEW is a leading journal of ideas and analysis, and, as you’d expect co-editors Julianne Schultz and Natasha Cica have honed in on the work of writers who scratch below the surface to unearth the stories behind not only Tasmania’s past, but also its transition.

The main question posed is can the state overcome a fractious past (think forestry disputes and political upheaval), and work towards what would appear to be a brilliant future.

Contributors including Peter Timms, Cassandra Pybus, Rodney Croome and Kathy Marks join Walsh and Evans in discussing – from myriad viewpoints – the challenges and opportunities that confront the state and Tasmanians both old and new.

The contributions range from essays to memoirs, fiction and a picture gallery; which seems fitting given the many facets of the state right now. The cover, an image of the state upside down, is emblematic of the current state of uncertainty.

A theme much considered is that outsiders see Tasmania as a place of pristine wilderness, deserted beaches, culinary excellence and abundant wildlife and are drawn to the state by those factors.

Many Tasmanians, however, struggle with daily issues and the truth is that Tasmania ranks at or near the bottom among Australian states on virtually every indicator of socio-economic performance – including levels of employment, income, investment, education and health.

But do these factors make an impact on happiness? Stroll around any Tasmanian town or village and you’ll find people happy with their circumstances; no matter how humble.

And as Cica points out: “There is still no David Jones in Tasmania, never mind Shanghai Tang.”

Here Cica asks: Does Tasmania need an intervention?; Timms looks at Lady Franklin’s heirs and successors;  Jonathan West asks what’s wrong with the state while Jo Chandler tells how from little things, big things grow and Marks muses on surviving, belonging, challenging and enduring.

Evans ponders on how smaller-scale farming can produce food of real quality.

Schultz states in her introduction that: “Tasmania enjoys a unique place in the national imagination. It is different in so many ways to the vast, dry expanses of the continent that it has acquired an almost mythic status – a magical place where nature’s power and beauty combine with the people who live there to test the limits of good and evil.

”There is something about Tasmania that gets under your skin; that makes you want to understand more, to feel the stories of its past, its joys, its anguish.”

West’s essay Obstacles to Progress attracted much interest on publication with its stern criticisms of what he sees as a mendicant mentality and an attitude that Tasmanians ”don’t need to change because their way of life is mainly financed by the mainland.

“One-third of the population belongs to an underclass that has lived on welfare for generations and is antipathetic to the education that might liberate it.”

Moya Fyfe, in contrast, sees the Apple Isle as a place that “remains on the cusp of heading somewhere good and achieving something new”. It is certainly an environment that entices artists, writers and artisans.

Eccentric millionaire and benefactor Walsh also argues there are “reasons to be cheerful” and talks of how he was taught by his community not to respect boundaries and how, as a boy, he often walked past the peninsula on which he now resides but who “never ventured in, because he didn’t understand it was OK to have a look.”

There is no doubt that Tasmania remains an intriguing place; a great place to visit and a superb place to live. But it is, more than anything, a state of contrasts as is underlined most eloquently by Walsh’s MONA, a world-class museum that has attracted global interest, set smack in the middle of the drab ordinariness of Hobart’s working class northern suburbs.

Does, as West postulates, “a darker reality lie behind the seductive tourism brochures?” Why not visit and find out for yourself?

Tasmania: The Tipping Point. Edited by Julianne Schultz and Natasha Cica
Griffith University/Text, $27.95

Reviewed by Winsor Dobbin

Winsor Dobbin is a Tasmanian-based journalist with over 30 years’ experience, during which he has been based in cities as diverse as London, Paris, Johannesburg and Sydney. Winsor writes about his greatest passions; food, wine and travel and is most often found where there’s a cellar door and good restaurant.

Follow Winsor on twitter @winsordobbin

The Griffith REVIEW Issue 39 - The Tipping Point

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