I have seen the future, at least Tasmania's, and it is a scallop pie. A scallop pie – whether prepared curry or mornay, with brie or without – is superior to any meat pie on offer at any footy ground in Australia. For Tasmania, the scallop pie is a perfect blend of old and new, containing something quite quirkily unique to the island state.
Students of governance often advocate innovation, creativity, technological leaps and intellectual bounds as solutions for economies on the slide. Well they might: obvious remedies might still be obviously important. In the case of Tasmania, however, those learned analysts may underestimate how parochial, patchwork and prosaic the motors of economic progress need to be.
The mainland, as Tasmanians patronisingly call their neighbouring island, should soon discover the culinary wonders of a scallop pie, just as, decades ago, mainlanders learned to savour Two Dogs (Cascade premium lager). Like the beers, scallops represent a culinary gamble, but they also might help save a state on its uppers.
Tasmania, with only just over half a million inhabitants (519,000) but half as many visitors again each year (more than 800,000), has almost a fifth of its population already over 65 years of age (19.3 per cent). The state has the lowest median household income in Australia. In past years, a quarter of the island's students left school at or before year 10.
Although no antipodean Hillbilly Elegy is warranted, not yet anyway, Tasmanians are likely to be older, sicker and poorer than lots of the rest of us. Life behind the flannelette curtain has turned grim, as too many of the locals wait for hip transplants, succumb to diabetes, fade into dementia or fret about their abysmal dental hygiene.
South Australia owns some pretty dismal statistics, too, but at least that state is trying to make something distinctively novel and useful out of its few assets. As for Tasmania, the recent election campaign was more about saving jobs, pulling up the ladder and hanging on by your fingernails, than about creating new jobs. A prize-winning winemaker lamented that he couldn't find sufficient numbers of committed staff, people who wanted "to be something". Talented young people had given up or gone away. A woman in her twenties complained to us that there was simply no work to be found in Hobart, and no affordable rentals either. She was off to Port Douglas, as far away as a girl could go. House prices, the one economic index Australians take seriously, rose by 13 per cent in Hobart over the past year.
Commonwealth subventions to Tasmania start at the dock at South Melbourne. The federal government rebate on our ferry trip to Devonport (at $448) was almost half what we ended up paying. Centrelink pays out far more. Some Tasmanians seem to regard rebates, subsidies and handouts as more or less their due. In the same vein, locals have been known to defend their absurdly skewed representation in the Senate as the revenge of Federation. A shop-worn sullen, seedy resentment of mainlanders lives on, not just in nooks and niches.
Such truculence has never served Tasmania well. A summary history of the Tasmanian economy amounts to a chronicle of vandalism. The state has usually been overdependent: on convict labour, to sustain the agrarian economy; on the British Empire's apple and pear orchards; on the "hydro", to build ever more dams; on forestry companies, cutting down old-growth trees for woodchips. Now, salmon farming raises environmental questions, while the sway of the gambling industry dominates political debate. As for tradition, the Georgian buildings that adorn Hobart and the Midlands remain intact largely because there was no money to be made from knocking them down a generation or two ago.
Nonetheless, though much is taken, much abides. Where else in this country could you visit Snug and Flowerpot, drive down the Meander Valley, or detour to Humbug Point? Where else is there any museum like Mona? Westbury's goat festival promised "more smiles than you could pick a stick at", while a Hamilton farmer had scoured local burrows and gullies to stock a "reptilian" for the town show. A bite from any one of those snakes would have been deadly.
At Falmouth on the east coast, stunning white sand and clear, clean sea were the preserve of one hippie and a couple of dogs. Falmouth beach would be justly famous elsewhere, but many Tasmanians would rather the beach and their entire island remained private, a secret kept from mainlanders. One dimension of Tasmania's charm is that few people yet know much about the place. Tourists are directed to Port Arthur, but not to the truly Remarkable Cave nearby; to Strahan rather than the majesty of Ocean Beach a few minutes away.
Governance, at least of the commercial variety, requires better quality control, a commodity still patchy in Tasmania. Quality control, in turn, may reflect historically poor labour productivity, ordinary school-retention rates or a failure to generate sufficient revenue to warrant capital investment. The Tasmanian tiger can waste time chasing its tail.
In adjusting to the new economy, Tasmania might try to curb an evident temptation to overdo rustic cuteness, to "tizzy things up" as Tasmanians used to say. Bold steps have introduced consumers to a duck cranberry sausage roll (on sale in Battery Point), a pavlova cronut (Scottsdale) or a curried flathead gourmet pizza (Swansea). The swing between flannelette curtain and hipster playground might prove a bit abrupt. Tasmania might hope to transform itself into a grand country fair, selling jams and chutneys, pinkeye potatoes and sloe paste (one was "hand-foraged from country hedgerows"). To bolster the state economy, any such fair would need to be bigger than Britain after Brexit, better than Hahndorf, Daylesford or Margaret River.
Insularity remains a more serious threat than lack of quality control or cutesy-pie jars of this and that. I remember a banner in a Hobart television studio, urging the staff to "smash parochialism: think statewide". Launceston was, then as now, only a couple of hours' drive away. When I last visited, Tasmania was trying to control the arrival of fruit fly, with warnings also out against the menaces blueberry rust, foxes and green snails. Those pests are real, and protecting the island is an admirable objective, but parochialism and a self-regarding, self-satisfied insularity extend into other domains beyond fruit-fly control.
Closing off the place to the outside world would mean closing it down. Election advertisements on fences and walls emphasised above all that the candidates were "local". The adjective of choice was not "competent", "intelligent", "effective" or "honest". "Local" was taken as a proxy for authenticity and empathy. That is not invariably, as older Tasmanians would note, "a true fact". "Local" can proudly connote Boags beer, Pyengana cheddar, Goat Hill pinot gris, King Island cream and scallop pies. Even so, much of that splendid produce creates more jobs when seasoned with mainland investment, developed with mainland technology and designed for mainland consumers.
Otherwise you can be left with truculence masquerading as whimsy, however amusing that might sometimes seem. The other day, a pair of mainlanders wandered into a diabetic heaven bakery in one clapped-out town in Tasmania's north-west. They inquired why there was no television in the cafe, which could show their favourite soap opera. The old bat behind the counter advised them, with a nice blend of Tasmanian good humour, irony and defiance: "youse can watch the street".
Mark Thomas is a Canberra-based writer.