Tasmania has the highest rate of unemployment in Australia. Christian Berechree looks at the political parties’ response.

Australia’s smallest state is facing the country’s largest unemployment crisis. Tasmania’s unemployment rate has risen to 8.4 per cent and party candidates agree that addressing this issue needs to be a priority at this year’s election.

Speaking at a press conference in Launceston, Mr Abbott said the issue of unemployment was of critical importance to Tasmania. He said unemployment needed to be addressed as part of a broader plan for economic improvement in the state.

Photo: Nina Matthews Photography / Foter / CC BY

“The economic situation of Tasmania is now so dire, it is important that there be a special focus on Tasmania,” Mr Abbott said.

“Given that we’ve got well over 20,000 unemployed people in Tasmania, a very small economy right now, given that there’s actually been a decrease in full-time jobs in Tasmania over the last five years, this is also a significant element in our plan for growth here in Tasmania,” he said.

With a population of around 512 000, Tasmania is a small economy. Although its rich farming land, fish stocks and forests provide valuable resources, its economic performance is behind that of the rest of Australia.

Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics notes that “over 75 reports into Tasmania have been conducted with the overwhelming conclusion that Tasmania’s economic performance has generally lagged behind the other States . . . The underperformance was clear in a number of economic indicators, such as employment”.

Geoff Lyons, Labor member for Bass, one of the five electorates in Tasmania, said the Labor government has helped protect jobs and ease cost of living pressures in Tasmania. Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey disagrees. He said unemployment has grown under the Labor government.

“It is unacceptable to have an unemployment rate with an eight in front of it here in Tasmania … it had started with a five in front of it when Labor was first elected, when Kevin Rudd was first elected,” Mr Hockey said.

“Now unemployment has an eight in front of it and it may well go much higher as the national unemployment rate continues to rise,” he said.

The driving factors behind Tasmania’s high rates of unemployment are varied and members of major parties have raised concerns about a range of issues. Mr Lyons said funding cuts proposed by the Coalition would have a negative impact on families and workers in the state.

“Mr Abbott has already promised cuts to Schoolkids Bonus, Medical Locals, superannuation and jobs and manufacturing,” said Mr Lyons.

“[Tasmanian] people want to know what else Mr Abbott has on his chopping block to fill his $70 billion black hole. They deserve to know if there are more cuts to jobs, family payments, education and local health care to come,” he said.

Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson also expressed concern about the impact of funding cuts to higher education on Tasmania’s unemployment rate. Senator Whish-Wilson said the University of Tasmania (UTAS) employs over 2700 people and funding cuts will put greater pressure on already stretched staff.

“Labor’s cuts to higher education funding, backed by Tony Abbott, put up to 150 jobs and $10 million per annum at risk in Tasmania,” said Senator Whish-Wilson.

“You can’t talk about a jobs plan in Tasmania without talking about the importance of UTAS and higher education,” he said.

Tasmania’s forestry industry has been at the centre of discussions about economic issues and unemployment in the state. Forestry is at the core of Tasmania’s economy and some say efforts to conserve natural forest have impacted workers.

The Tasmanian Intergovernmental Forestry Agreement, signed by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Tasmanian Premier, Lara Giddings in 2011 provided funding to protect new forest reserves and support members of the forestry industry whose jobs were impacted by the agreement.

Andrew Nikolic, Liberal Candidate for Bass, said the agreement has had a negative impact on Tasmania’s economy and employment. “The Labor-Green shut-down of forestry has decimated our economy,” Mr Nikolic said.

Employment, Skills and Training Minister, Brendan O’Connor said it is important to support Tasmania’s forestry workers.

“With a sustainable forestry products industry at the core of Tasmania’s economy, the Rudd Labor Government is standing by those workers who are doing it tough. There is nothing more important to Labor than jobs and ensuring people have the skills they need to get the work they want,” Minister O’Connor said.