Politics and yeah no: An interview with Tasman Stacey

Posted by on August 10, 2011

When I talk to people back home, I get the impression that Americans have no idea what Tasmania is like. Perhaps they get a vague image of a jungle island far from civilization, like an ultima Thule of the south. Or perhaps they imagine the Tasmania of the Warner Brothers cartoons, a bizarre desert landscape full of ravenous short-tempered spinning animals.

Of course, it’s not quite so exotic. It occurred to me that Tasmania might become more real in Americans’ minds if they had a chance to talk to a Tasmanian. After all, Tasmania – like Soylent Green – is made of people. Since they might have trouble finding a Tasmanian to talk to, though, I decided to get them the next best thing: an interview with a Tasmanian.

Below, therefore, is an interview with Tasman Stacey, whom I met at a meeting for people interested in startups. He’s a writer, entrepreneur, MBA student, former political staffer, and churchgoing family man who seems to have read a tremendous number of pages on history, politics, law, economics, theology, and philosophy. He’s also a Packers (yes, the American football team) fan, gamer, cook, wrestler, cyclist, and lover of country music. And apparently he’s a musician too. Somehow he finds time to sleep.

In addition to teaching us about Tasmania and Australia, Tasman provides a fascinating outside view of the United States.

Aaron:

The first thing I have to ask about is your name: it seems unlikely that someone named “Tasman” moved here recently on a whim. Has your family been in Tasmania for a long time?

Tasman:

My mother’s family came to Tasmania with the first wave of permanent European settlers, in the early-mid 1800s. Her mother was descended from a royal marine on the First Fleet, a matter of no small amount of pride. His gravesite is out at Longford if you care to see it.

My father’s family settled in rural South Australia not long afterwards. Mum and Dad met in New Zealand, which, being across the Tasman Sea, gave me my name. After spending our first six years as a family in rural South Australia, we moved back to Tasmania, which is a very Tasmanian thing to do.

Aaron:

Several generations of family history tie you to Tasmania, but that’s not the only reason you live here; you seem to really love this state. Why is that?

Tasman:

Part of it is sheer inertia. I’m here, so I here I am. Most of what I do, work and recreation, happens over the internet, so I could probably be living anywhere I could afford with broadband.

But a larger part of it is I can’t think of a better place. Tasmania is a collection of the most beautiful places on earth. As a kid I spent every summer at Coles Bay. I’d spend hours walking on the rocks by the water, go diving for abalone at low tide and have them fried with a bit of butter for tea [dinner]. Every winter we’d spend a couple of weeks up in a lodge on Ben Lomond. I’d spend hours climbing about snow-covered rocks and bushes.

I grew up poor: five kids, my dad was a sheep shearer, and my mum stayed home. Mum homeschooled us kids so we could travel about the state with Dad, staying in shearers’ quarters. Despite our lack of material wealth, Tasmania gave me a childhood that I’d never trade.

It continues as an adult. I like that my commute to work is a 25-minute bike ride alongside the Tamar River. I like that Launceston is full of interesting buildings and ghost signs. Despite some complaints, we have a pretty awesome health and education system. We have ADSL2. My favourite national park in the country, Walls of Jerusalem, is a couple of hours away. Any outdoor activity – shooting, surfing, rock climbing, mountain biking – can be done within a 30-minute drive.

I’m raising three kids with my wife, and we spend a fair amount of time outside. I can’t wait to take my boys to shoot their first wallaby, to watch the sunrise hitting the thousand tarns of the Walls Valley with my daughter. My wife loves to run, and Launceston is full of insanely picturesque tracks.

I’ve worked in Canberra and Melbourne, but I couldn’t ever live in a large city – even Hobart would be pushing it. People walk too fast. They stare at their feet and rush about, busy busy. I like to visit these places for a holiday occasionally, but to live there would exhaust me.

Tasmania isn’t perfect. There are things I’d like to change, and things I’m trying to change. But even if this is as good as it ever gets, I’d die content.

Aaron:

Are there any cultural differences between Tasmania and mainland Australia?

Tasman:

There are, but the markers are fairly subtle. We don’t have a distinctive accent (unlike people from Melbourne or Adelaide), but there are a few speech patterns more common in Tasmania than elsewhere. The most obvious is to answer a question with “yeah no”. “Did you have a good weekend?” “Yeah no, it was pretty good.” “Yeah no” simply means the person has heard and understood you, no more.

We tend to be very parochial and resistant to regular travel. A daily commute of 1-1.5 hours is normal in Melbourne or Sydney, but almost unheard of in Tasmania. Most people live less than 20 minutes’ drive from their workplace, and are extremely resistant to travelling farther than that.

Tasmania doesn’t really have many recent immigrants, with the largest influx being a bunch of Dutch after the second world war. This lack of cosmopolitanism can get quite ugly (as seen in the recent series of bashings in Sandy Bay), but mostly it’s just a bit old-fashioned. People will call you a jap to your face, without understanding, or in some cases even caring, that you might find it offensive. Mainlanders get a fairly short shrift in some places, being viewed like carpetbaggers were in the American South.

Typically, “bloody mainlanders” who move to Tassie are educated but impractical people who want to retire amongst our gumtrees and on our beaches. They drive up house prices and protest every new development or industry that might change the island paradise they moved to, regardless of the employment benefits for “real” Tasmanians. This sort of thinking isn’t so pronounced in the cities (Launceston and Hobart), but out in places like Scottsdale it is a lot more obvious.

Generally, Tasmanians are very family-oriented and, once they get to know you, very generous and friendly. Once they get to know you.

Aaron:

People sometimes joke about Tasmania seceding from the Commonwealth. Is there, or has there ever been, a genuine independence movement, or at least some serious discussion on the topic?

Tasman:

Sort of. There was a push by a prominent Tasmanian MP in the ’80s for Tasmania to secede from Australia so we could become a tax haven like the Channel Islands. The idea is kicked around by business types every now and then. There is no desire for it from the average person, though. Most people understand that they would really struggle without the income support they get from the federal government. The state most likely to secede from Australia by far is Western Australia.

Aaron:

I know you’re very interested in politics. How did you get into it, and what sort of political work have you done?

Tasman:

I’ve always been interested in history, in understanding how we came to be what we are. I spent much of my childhood reading history texts from the library. I read about the Glorious Revolution, the English Civil War, the Reformation, the Voortrek, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and so on. This turned into an interest in politics and policy. Why is Australia one of the best places to live in the world, while Argentina is not? They have a lot in common: resource-based economies, 98% immigrant populations, both are former colonies of European powers....

When I turned 18, I took the fairly unusual step of joining the Liberal Party of Australia off my own bat. Usually, people are invited by existing members and have friends already in the party.

For your American audience, the Liberals are the main centre-right party in Australia. They are loosely allied with the US Republicans, although the Liberal Party holds a lot of positions to the left of even the US Democrats: no death penalty, fairly comprehensive government health care, restrictive firearms-ownership laws. Many Liberals are pro-choice, and quite a few quietly support same-sex marriage.

Despite Tasmania being an overwhelmingly Labor state and my dad’s blue-collar employment, the Australian Labor Party – the party of Catholics and rebelling against your employer and that awful man Gough Whitlam – was never an option. My dad was the son of a farmer, my mum the daughter of a successful small business owner. Our family had been, and still are, devout members of a conservative Presbyterian church. Whilst neither my family nor my church are particularly political, supporting the Labor Party would have been beyond the pale.

When I joined, I was most motivated by what you might call “life issues”: abortion and euthanasia. My other positions were fairly ideological, and since then I’ve floated between classical liberal, libertarian, Burkean conservative, theonomic, and even agrarian socialist thinking. The more I read, the more I realise we, as a race of people, don’t know much about ourselves and the harder it is for me to settle on a “right” way of doing things.

So I joined the party, and volunteered fairly heavily in the next federal election. Mostly I helped out in the campaign office, photocopying and the like. After a disastrous first year at university studying information systems and commerce, I switched to history and political science.

I graduated with a Bachelor’s in political science and a pregnant wife. I tried out for a couple of jobs as a staffer, and after a couple of misses was employed as an electorate officer by a senator. My job was to draft speeches and help the senator when Parliament was sitting in Canberra.

That job lasted about a year, and after a while in the private sector, I found myself back in politics again working as an electorate officer and media adviser to another senator. This period lasted another 12 months or so, but was incredibly exhausting. My boss was simultaneously involved in an attempt to remove government funding for late-term abortions and in a nasty internal party-preselection battle. We lost both.

I love some things about working in politics. Working in Parliament House in Canberra never gets old. The work was always interesting and varied. I had a legitimate excuse to read all the newspapers cover-to-cover every day. You meet some really interesting people.

The time away from family and the long office hours – during sitting weeks you’re lucky to get out of Parliament House before 9 PM – weren’t great, but I could deal. Other things completely sucked, though. Controversial issues like abortion are super emotionally draining. Having constituents on both sides of the issue weeping over the phone to you and reading some of the letters was harder than the horrendous abuse you cop. But the worst thing for me was how often other staffers lie and try to play you. I’m terrible at telling when someone is lying to me, and I instinctively assume people are trying to do the right thing. Obviously there are politics in every workplace, but it kinda gets turned up to eleven there.

So yeah, I’m still interested in politics and trying to do what I can to encourage good public policy, but I don’t know that I’ll go back to working in the field professionally. It’s really not a healthy environment for someone with Asperger syndrome.

Aaron:

How much attention do you pay to American politics? How much attention does a typical Australian pay?

Tasman:

I pay a fair amount. My interest tends to spike during presidential elections, but Slate and National Review are at least weekly reads for me, so I like to think I’m across things. At this stage I’m rooting for Huntsman for the GOP nomination. I do get sick of the horrid level of BS that passes for a national debate there. Every time I despair of the maturity of Australian politics, I can console myself with “hey, at least they’re not, you know, willing to completely destroy the economy to make an obvious point”. This debt ceiling stuff is just incredible.

The average Australian pays very little attention to US politics. They should be able to identify the current and former presidents and a few other famous characters – Hillary Clinton, Donald Rumsfeld, etc. – but apart from that they barely have enough time for Australian politics, let alone the politics of some other place.

Aaron:

Are there any legal or political features of the US that you wish Australia had?

Tasman:

When the former British colonies of Australia federated in 1901 they quite deliberately borrowed from the best of the UK and US systems. The most obvious similarities are in our federal system (i.e., local, state, and federal layers of government), our senate, and our written constitution.

  • I would like stronger rights protections in our constitution: freedom of speech, freedom of religion and worship, right to self-defence, etc. I really admire the way the US Government refuses to restrict free speech from her citizens, even when it hurts.

  • I would like smaller states and territories, such as Tasmania and the Northern Territory, to consider moving away from a Westminster-style parliament to a more US-style full-time executive (i.e. elect a governor who appoints various secretaries), with a part-time parliament to approve major stuff.

  • I like that having a successful business background is seen as an asset for politicians in the US. In Australia, independently wealthy politicians are viewed with a great deal of suspicion.

  • I would like voluntary voting. We have compulsory voting in Australia, and it tends to make all our elections about the 20% of voters who don’t give a toss about politics. Rather than pitching to engaged voters, policies are pitched at the absolute lowest common denominator.

  • I would like a more open preselection process. In Australia, party nominees are chosen by a committee of party members. Rather than an open primary of tens of thousands of voters, candidates pitch to a preselection committee of between 20-60 people. This does make running for office cheaper, but it means that often a better candidate will lose to one who has spent longer greasing the right people in the party organisation. It means that in Australia, there is a strong institutional bias towards professional political staffers getting the nomination over people who work in the private sector. There has to be some happy medium between allowing non-insiders more say and requiring political hopefuls to drop tens of thousands in advertising just to try to get the nomination to run for reals.

Apart from that, I think we’re pretty right as far as legal and political institutions go. There are elements of US culture I think we could appropriate, but that wasn’t the question.

Aaron:

Could the US learn anything from Australia’s political and legal systems?

Tasman:

The US could learn a lot from Australia. Off the top of my head:

  • Electorate (you’d call them congressional districts, I guess) boundaries absolutely need to be set by an independent, non-partisan body, like our Australian Electoral Commission. It is insane that you allow the major parties to blatantly gerrymander seats.

  • A version of question time, where the President and his cabinet answer questions from Congress under oath, would be good. Jon Stewart did a bit on it recently. I won’t pretend Australia’s version is all that, but even the televised zoo that is Australian question time is far better than a system where the executive never has to answer any questions he doesn’t want to.

  • You absolutely cannot continue to run deficit budgets. You can’t cut taxes and increase spending, even if it’s for cool stuff like toppling dictators. Our last Liberal (i.e., conservative) government lasted for just over 10 years. In that time they constantly cut taxes. They also paid off debt like crazy, and in their last 12 months of office reduced net government debt to zero. Yep, a couple of years ago Australia had absolutely no government debt. They even stashed away billions of dollars in an untouchable managed fund to account for future government liabilities, such as public servants’ pensions. Since then, we’ve used the national credit card a bit, mainly to try and dodge the global financial crisis, but shouldn’t credit be used for a rainy day, rather than for paying the rent?

  • Our superannuation system is the most sustainable and fair model for providing income in retirement years I’ve seen. It puts the ponzi scheme of Social Security to shame, and I cannot understand why the Democrats oppose the concept. Basically, 9% of every paycheck goes into an account in your name in a managed fund, that you can’t access until you retire. The government provides a basic pension for retirees who can’t support themselves, but most people can, because the government has pretty much forced them to save for retirement. The system was introduced by an ALP (i.e., left-wing) government with strong support from the opposition of the day, and it makes me proud to think that in living memory there was a time when parliament would just do their job.

Aaron:

Do you feel like you have much in common with American conservatives?

Tasman:

Some ways yes, some ways no.

Of course there are the general differences between Australia and the US: slavery versus convicts, large independent nation versus colonial trading post, etc. But apart from that, there are a few things that are particularly different between Australian and American conservatives.

The first thing I should mention is that the Australian political conversation is generally shifted a fair way to the left when compared to the US. Death penalty was abolished in the ’60s, we’ve had socialised medicine since the 1980s, banned most private firearms ownership in 1996. Other positions are more rightward than the US, like government debt and the separate-but-lumped-together issues of immigration, illegal immigration, refugees, and asylum seekers. But as a general rule, Australia is a lot more left-wing than the US.

Anyway, moving on to the British Empire. AusCons tend to view it through rose-coloured glasses: defeated Hitler, slavery, and Napoleon, spread the rule of law and parliamentary democracy across the globe. USCons tend to not think about it much at all. “King George the Tyrant was totally like, a lesser Hitler, but after that the Brits were okay.” The role of the British Empire in securing US trade routes in the early days of the republic is ignored, and so on. Basically, AusCons see themselves as part of a tradition spanning the globe going back to Magna Carta/The Glorious Revolution/Athens/whatever, whereas USCons almost act as if the world was created in 1776.

USCons view their Constitution (and the Declaration of Independence etc.) as a document only slightly less immutable, infallible, and perfect than the Bible. AusCons barely talk about our Constitution. You’d certainly never see a framed copy on the wall, unlike, say, the Declaration of Independence. You have this widespread idea amongst USCons that if only the government would follow the Constitution, everything would be okay. AusCons don’t have this “silver bullet” myth.

Australia never had a Civil War or Revolution like the US did, and in fact we’ve had an extremely low level of political violence in general: less than New Zealand or Canada, if you can believe that. A lot of USCons’ rhetoric is militarised. Their heroes are soldiers and revolutionaries: George Washington, Patrick Henry, Ronald Reagan. AusCon heroes are boring guys like Sir Robert Menzies and John Howard.

Another major difference has to do with the Australian Labor Party. The ALP is the oldest labour party in the world, and a lot of workers’ rights were first established in Australia before slowly spreading across the globe. The ALP is the oldest political party in Australia, while the Liberal Party of Australia (the main center-right party) was only formed after World War 2, and even now is still in coalition with a smaller agrarian socialist party, the National Party. Basically, rather than being for anything in particular, AusCons are more defined by what they are not, or by what they are against. USCons don’t have a dominant bogeyman to rally against. Well, things have changed in the last decade or so (“Liberals are destroying America!”), but for ages you had this weird thing where the two major parties had bizarro factions in the South. And you still have this thing where a Vermont Republican is way to the left of a Texas Democrat. Our political parties tend to be a lot more homogeneous.

Personally, almost all of my close friends in the US are hardcore Republicans, if not overly political. They don’t like Obama at all and some are Ron Paulistas. If I moved to the US, I’m not really sure what I’d do. Some sort of pro-life democrat (if they still exist), or a moderate Republican would be my preferred presidential candidate. Or maybe a Libertarian. When I know, I’ll let you know. For local representatives it would be all up to the individuals in question.

Aaron:

You mentioned earlier that there are elements of US culture that you wish Australia would adopt. Which elements are those?

Tasman:

No tall poppy syndrome: America seems to respect and reward merit better than most cultures. Australia generally does a pretty terrible job of respecting most forms of success. A lot of Australians view wealth and success as a zero-sum game: wealthy people, they think, can have only gotten that way through ripping people off, being a massive prick, being lucky, or being born into wealth. This attitude has a few knock-on effects:

  • Philanthropy: Americans give more to charity, regardless of how wealthy they are. But the effect is especially felt at the top of the income curve. Wealthy Americans give away a lot more cash than wealthy Aussies. In Australia, social problems are generally viewed as a problem for the government, not society.

  • Entrepreneurship: People in Australia are very harsh on people who went bankrupt through business risk, especially if it was “their” fault. In a lot of ways, it is far better to not try at all, than to try but fail. We tend to drive a lot of our achievers overseas, mostly to the US.

  • Then you get the plain ridiculous: Malcolm Turnbull is a member of Parliament. Raised by a single blue-collar father, Mr. Turnbull did exceptionally well in school and university, becoming a top-level lawyer and journalist before entering the corporate world, where he made a bunch of money. When he entered politics, what do you think he was constantly asked about? His experience in running businesses? His legal chops? His knowledge of financial markets? Nope. Time and time again he had to defend himself against accusations that he was “too rich” to represent Australians.

Aaron:

What kind of writing and podcasting are you doing, and what sort of ambitions do you have in that area?

Tasman:

Well, I’m a copywriter by trade, so I do a lot of writing professionally. Which means that I’ve tended to stop writing after work, and do, well, anything that involves not-writing.

I blog a little bit about stuff: cycle commuting, politics, and ASD, mostly. I’m also trying to put up a weekly or fortnightly podcast on Tasmanian politics. It’s more of an experiment, really, and we’ll see how long it lasts.

I’m a fair way into writing a screenplay as well, but I’ve been working on that bastard of a project for close to four years now. It’s a retelling of the Arthurian myth set in post-apocalyptic Britain. I’ve been getting a ton of inspiration from these horrid riots at the moment, which is nice of them.

Ambition-wise, I can’t decide whether I’d like to be a full-time fiction and opinion writer, or whether business will be what I enjoy. For a long time my goal was writing, but since starting my MBA and working in the private sector, I’ve come to really enjoy, you know, money.