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Tasmania: former Federal Minister discusses recommendations he made in his report on the State economy.

TONY EASTLEY: Peter Nixon learnt as a young politician not to present himself as some smart aleck from the mainland. Years back as a Federal Minister in the Fraser government, he had former Tasmanian Labor Premier, Eric Reece, steal an audience from under his nose with a quick quip about the Victorian interloper. So when he set about preparing a report on the state of Tasmania's economy, he let the locals fire the bullets.

His report targets overgovernance, overtaxing, crippling State debt, poor management, unemployment, wasteful parochialism, and the lack of opportunities. The words aren't so much Peter Nixon's but pleas from Tasmanians that something be done. Despite having the highest level of parliamentary representation in the Western democratic world, many of Tasmania's politicians are considered inept, and their government bureaucracy unwieldy and wasteful. A recent poll predicted the Liberals would be bundled out of government if an election was held.

The Nixon report, a Commonwealth-State inquiry, recommends that both Houses of the State Parliament be abolished and one chamber be set up. Politicians gave the idea lip service but balked when it came to real reform.

Peter Nixon spent eight and a half months preparing the report and spoke to hundreds of Tasmanians, but his recommendations are likely to come to nought. The bullets have turned out to be blanks, and he's not a happy man. He feels Tasmanians have been let down.

PETER NIXON: They wanted leadership. They saw what Kennett had done to Victoria, in turning it around from being the basket case and the laughing stock of all the States, and he'd turned it around so that it was the vibrant State and they couldn't understand why it was that Tasmania was not the same, and they were just wanting a Jeff Kennett-style government in Tasmania. And of course the system won't allow that. You've got a minority government in the Lower House and an Upper House that's elected on the most peculiar franchise of any Upper House in the world, and they don't answer to the people. So the governance system became a critical issue.

TONY EASTLEY: What do you mean, they don't answer to the people?

PETER NIXON: Well, there's only four of them going to the people per year - three or four of them, and they come from various corners of Tasmania. They're not in one area so that even the local newspaper will take any interest in them. And so there's three or four go every year and so they're not answering for the issues of the day; they're not answering for the Legislative Council actions. They are a bunch of Independents, and the better the baby kisser you are and hand shaker you are the more popular you are.

TONY EASTLEY: How would you describe the governance of Tasmania in general terms, and the governmental departments that support it?

PETER NIXON: Oh, it's just a mess, a dog's breakfast. It's just a dog's breakfast, it truly is. And I think that's certainly recognised by the Premier, and he was in the process of trying to do something about it when he ran into this blank wall in trying to reform the Parliament.

TONY EASTLEY: Are politicians in Tasmania convinced, personally, that there should be reform?

PETER NIXON: Look, I don't think so. They've got a cosy existence. They've got a close relationship with their people in their electorates and I don't think they ... I think leave the status quo alone, I think. The more responsible ones do, certainly.

TONY EASTLEY: But that shouldn't surprise you. You're a former politician, you know what the game is about.

PETER NIXON: I know, but I mean, the truth is they have got to face the fact that Tasmania is on a decline. It's been on a decline for many years and unless they get this system right and the economy right, and get rid of State debt and reduce their State taxes, it's going to be on a faster decline in the next 10 years. Young people are leaving, businesses are closing, the Premier has been lucky enough or shrewd enough to see a future in some new technology industries and he's encouraging those. But he's not going to stop it. Other States are not going to let him raid their industries and pull them down to Tasmania, and so they've got a very difficult picture to face up to.

TONY EASTLEY: Did you form the opinion, when you did your eight and a half months of looking at Tasmania in depth, that the people in Tasmania themselves had a real sense of impotence, of powerlessness, as regards their future?

PETER NIXON: Totally, totally, and it's not just ... it's right across the State. I used a facilitator to hold public meetings, and governance was the number one issue across the State.

TONY EASTLEY: It must make you very angry; you're very passionate about the future of Tasmania. It must be quite galling to see some, or most of your recommendations, still gathering dust on a shelf?

PETER NIXON: Well, it's up to the Tasmanians, and I think ... I mean, I do think in the long haul ... as I said in the one speech I've made down there on this subject: the Nixon report won't go away. And as more and more young people leave, there's going to be a greater drive for improved efficiencies, to get rid of the 260 quasi statutory advisory bodies that they've got for 470,000 people, to sharpen ... and they are facing up to lessening the number of local governments. They've got 29 local governments for 470,000 people - twice the size of the city of Geelong and an economy the size of the Hunter Valley. I mean, it's a small State and they should be at the cutting edge of best practice, right across all those things, instead of which, without question, they've got the worst practices of any State in the Commonwealth of Australia.

TONY EASTLEY: You talk about, in your report, the growing debt crisis, and one of your major recommendations is the privatisation of the Hydro Electric Corporation. Do you see the Government biting the bullet on that one?

PETER NIXON: Well, inevitably they will. Let me explain it to you. They've got the biggest per capita State debt in Australia. That debt is still increasing. Their State taxes for business are the highest in Australia and they can't reduce them, so they have to sell the HEC on terms that will protect the people's interest in it but, nevertheless, abolish the State debt so they can reduce State taxes and be competitive with Victoria.

I have told them down there that when Kennett reduces ... when he gets his triple A rating in Victoria next year, there will be no holding him back on State taxes, on business taxes, and they'll become less competitive again. They have got to address these issues.

TONY EASTLEY: Were you able to identify where Tasmania should be going into the year 2000; with what industries?

PETER NIXON: Well, certainly, agriculture is a great industry, tourism is a great industry. The IT industries are great industries and industries of the future, and they've done very well in opening up relationships with a province in Canada to enlarge that - they're great industries. Their mining industry is a great industry, their forest industry is a great industry. They've got all the makings of a successful economy; they've only got to put their own house in order and those industries will flourish.

TONY EASTLEY: Peter Nixon, and we'll take up the issues raised by him in tomorrow's program.