Captain Abbott rediscovers Tasmania

As Tony Abbott's hunt takes him to marginal Tasmanian seats, it's a shame there isn't more fire behind his allocation of the state as a 'special economic zone'.

How times have changed. It was only in May, when victory for Tony Abbott over then-Prime Minister Gillard seemed assured, that this columnist wrote off the seats of Bass and Braddon in Tasmania as being too much trouble for the Coalition to seriously target.

Why would they have chased these two 7 per cent-margin seats, when they were already guaranteed a landslide against Gillard?

It was wiser, at that time, to put all campaign resources into states where they could pick up extra senate seats to try to achieve a carbon-tax-repealing majority in the upper house.

At that time, it was also more natural to curry favour with Coalition state governments by considering shifting GST distribution closer to a per-capita model. That would have ripped money out of the Apple Isle and sprinkled it across richer states – particularly WA, where Premier Colin Barnett has been banging the GST drum for some time (Would Abbott trim Tassie’s Green shoots?, May 10).

But the Rudd resurrection has changed everything for this state of half a million people.

Thoughts of a Coalition majority in the Senate have been banished. That is now impossible.

And with this week’s Newspoll showing a two-party-preferred vote 52/48 to the Coalition, the Abbott team strategists have suddenly shifted attention back to Bass and Braddon.

Less than a month after Rudd became our born-again prime minister, Abbott was on the banks of the Tamar in Launceston to announce $2.5 million in funding to clean up the silt-choked river.

That was partly in response to Rudd’s whistle-stop tour of the state’s north west to dish out $100 million in grants – federal money used by Canberra to sweeten the state forestry deal brokered by the Gillard government.

Yesterday Abbott took the next step by saying Tasmania should be a “special economic zone” and promising to subsidise the pay of up to 2000 long-term jobless Tasmanians, if bosses employed them for six months. At $250 per work per fortnight, that’s worth $6.5 million if 2000 workers hold down their jobs for the full six months.

Abbott’s office later clarified that the term “special economic zone” was used rather loosely – meaning little more than giving the struggling state a bit more attention.

Labor member for Braddon Sid Sidebottom slammed Abbott for trotting out yet another slogan and for “patronising” Tasmanians.

Sadly, Tasmania needs a fair bit of patronising. It’s unemployment rates is 8.1 per cent against a national average of 5.6 per cent. It’s workforce is roughly one-third government employees, one-third private sector and one-third living on benefits of one kind or another.

Of course if it really were given ‘special economic zone’ status, things could really be moved forward in the state. There is huge scope for developing large irrigation schemes, developing high-value added food processing and manufacturing, and making more the state’s successful wine and, lately, spirit distilling businesses.

Special tax cuts, of the kind suggested by Gina Rinehart for northern Australia, would make more sense down south.

And in the wild reaches of fantasy, it would be nice to see a Tassie dollar – they’d have devalued it years ago and got past some of the major problems of being attached to a mainland economy when coal and iron ore exports pushed the dollar too high for too long.

But that is a fantasy. In reality, Tasmania is tied to the mainland the way Portugal is tied to Germany. And patronising cash hand-outs in this federal election campaign is about the best well see.