Absent friends

It’s been so long since I’ve written anything on my own website, the template I used has become obsolete. So I’ve upgraded to a new version, Libre 2. Which is kind of apt. I’m embracing a new version of me, too. Free from my beautiful house, which now has new, happy owners. Free from Tasmania, an island I will always think of as home. And free from my Antipodean friends and family, who, of course, I love and miss.

After 14 years I decided, like a bird, to uproot myself and travel to the northern summer. You could say I have truly learned to let go. My travels are revolving around catching up with old friends and family in London, and seeing things that inspire heart and mind (wild flowers in a footpath; exhibitions and museums that excite; libraries and bookshops that welcome writers).

Australia still calls. My latest story, on the restoration of landscape artist John Glover’s home at Patterdale, Tasmania, is published in the Australian Financial Review‘s Life & Leisure section, and online, this weekend (April 10, 2019).

I wrote a story on Sarah and Andrew Ryan’s Hillandale garden in the Central Western Tablelands of NSW for a Special Edition of Gardens Illustrated magazine, with stunning photographs by Claire Takacs, author of Dreamscapes and Australian Dreamscapes, published by Hardie Grant. And, we team up again in Gardens Illustrated July 2019, with another amazing Antipodean garden.

After finally completing the first draft of my second book, I am currently looking for a publisher. One who might get my slightly whimsical, spiritual take on learning to live in tune with a sense of place – truly, madly, deeply.

I’m not sure how many of you are left as ‘followers’ or even if these mutterings will be interesting to anyone other than me. That is the nature of the beast, and how we steer our way between vanity and relevance. While people say personal websites are less in vogue these days, I plan to practise journal writing here. Knowing there are readers will help me sharpen a sense of interest.

Then, when the northern summer is over, I’ll make a new nest – one that hasn’t found me yet.

I’ll leave you with a quote that made my heart sing in an exhibition of Women Writers at Burgh House, Hampstead, the day after I arrived in London. It’s a wonderful venue, full of inspiring people and a beautiful place to write. This, from Katherine Mansfield’s Journal, 10 October 1922.

“By health I mean the power to live a full, adult, living, breathing life in close contact with what I love. All that we mean when we speak of the external world. A want to enter into it, to be part of it, to live in it, to learn from it, to lose all that is superficial and acquired in me and to become a conscious, direct human being. I want, by understanding myself, to understand others, I want to be all that I am capable of becoming.”

And cheers to all that!


Making women proud

The women of SETAC. Photo courtesy Huon News

Inside Franklin’s art deco Palais Theatre south of Hobart, sprigs of fresh wattle blossom get tucked behind ears, teenagers wear rose pink ballgowns making breezes as they walk, muttonbird canapés served in little bamboo rowboats are laid at each table setting, and young boys wearing trouser braces and new boots play hide ‘n seek in the buffet queue around dad’s legs.

The CEO of the Southeast Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation (SETAC) is wearing a black velvet evening gown with silver sequin cuffs, accessorised with a traditional Aboriginal shell necklace of toothies and maireneer shells, and the Huon Valley Council Commissioner is ballroom-dancing in a red silk taffeta gown.

The Dress Code on the invitation read: “Something that makes you feel beautiful.”

The NAIDOC Ball held every year since 1972, has long been staged in Tasmania by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation (TAC). This year, on the same night, there was a second ball, held by SETAC for the first time in its 26-year history.

The Huon and Channel areas have particular pride in two strong Aboriginal women with a significant, yet painful, presence in the Tasmanian story – Fanny Cochrane Smith and Truganini. On July 13, 2018, they were brought to life through a celebration in contemporary song and dance.

The Melukerdee Aboriginal community, whose Country includes Fanny Cochrane Smith’s former home and church in Nicholls Rivulet and Truganini’s home and resting place on Bruny Island, invited friends and family for an evening of cultural activities, presentations and awards, MC’d by singer-songwriter Dewayne Everettsmith.

“It couldn’t have happened without this year’s NAIDOC theme,” SETAC’s CEO Tracey Dillon told the gathering. “’Because of her, we can’ has been the best theme ever. Tonight you’ll get the full understanding of that.”

Above the stage a large painting of female elders by Aboriginal artist Leonie Honeychurch gave the national theme strong visual presence. And the scene was set with a moving Welcome to Country song performed by the Melukerdee Aboriginal community, written by Toni Murray. Girls and women of all ages danced as swans and sang a greeting from Country in melodic Melukerdee language.

Because of Her We CAn
Artist: Leonie Honeychurch

“As a Melukerdee woman, Toni wants to revive her language, and reclaim her culture and her Country,” says Ms Dillon, a Badtjala woman from Fraser Island who has lived in Tasmania for 15 years, and married Rodney Dillon on Bruny Island.

While the TAC promotes the palawa kani language, Bradley Strong from SETAC explains it is not one his people use. “We have different language, different stories, different tools,” he says. “Behind the celebration there is something important to focus on. We want to open up and be inclusive – invite people from outside our Aboriginal community for cultural exchange.”

It has taken more than a quarter of a century to reach this point in the evolution of contemporary Southeast Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Cultural differences between Tasmania’s seven Aboriginal groups are increasingly being expressed through the Tasmanian Regional Aboriginal Communities Alliance (TRACA), officially recognised last year by the Tasmanian government in a signed Statement of Intent. Tasmanian Aboriginal communities are now on a path to reviving between 8 and 13 languages around Tasmania.

Rodney Dillon, TRACA’s co-chair and national NAIDOC Person of the Year in 2005, told the NAIDOC Ball in Franklin that SETAC was first established with the publication of ‘We Were Not Here’ in 1992. The book by author Robyn Friend contained oral historical accounts of Aboriginal families in the Huon region.

“The aim of that project, and starting SETAC, was to talk about where we came from and to celebrate really strong families,” says Mr Dillon. “Because people weren’t recognised we weren’t allowed to practise our own culture. It’s a shame. Not only that our ancestors in the ground weren’t there, and we had to fight for repatriation of their remains, but that we couldn’t catch our fish, we couldn’t catch our muttonbird, or be having our swan eggs…

“For years I felt we were really struggling because we were Aboriginal on the one hand but, on the other, we didn’t have any rights. Now, we’re not where we want to be, but we’re on the right track. We’re singing songs as a family, as a group, just as they would have done for thousands of generations.”

For many present at SETAC’s NAIDOC Ball, cultural connections with the past were honored, shared and spoken in public for the first time. Voices were female, gentle, some emotional, as many of Fanny Cochrane Smith’s descendants were able to sing Country to life in language, just as Fanny would have done through her performances of Aboriginal songs and dances. (In 1899 and 1903 Fanny recorded songs on wax cylinders. Now held in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, they are the only recordings ever made of Tasmanian Aboriginal song and speech.)

Inside the ballroom, pinned onto noticeboards, were messages from girls from the Huon and Channel schools married with names and photographs of elders past and present. It was a powerful space for Aboriginal girls and women to shine a light on their strengths.

Among many varied cultural performances, Bronwyn Dillon read a poem she had written for Fanny Cochrane Smith, evoking her ancestor’s presence in the smell of bush flowers, in the firelight, in the salt water:

“I know when you are there

I feel your presence, I feel your warmth

It’s almost as though our hearts are beating at the same time”

Tracey Dillon called for a minute’s silence “for Ma Dillon and all those women who went before us”. She also acknowledged other Aboriginal people finally receiving recognition for their contributions, including Aboriginal educator and northeast elder Aunty Patsy Cameron and Karly Warner, a lawyer with the national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service who flew in from Adelaide for the ball.

Due to illness, a message recorded by Aunty Shirley, SETAC Aboriginal Elder of the Year, was played to the gathering. She encouraged elders to “teach our language and culture, to respect all people, and above all believe in ourselves, be proud of who you are and follow your dreams”.

The Palais Theatre lights were dimmed when Tracey Dillon introduced one of the many highlights of the night, inspired by a recent community cultural tour. Over two days, Rodney Dillon had led SETAC staff on visits to important cultural sites where their people had lived for tens of thousands of years – from the Picton River in the Wilderness World Heritage Area to Black Lagoon on Bruny Island – with the aim of rebuilding culture and strengthening community wellbeing.

“We know that Truganini was with us then,” Ms Dillon told the gathering. “We walked her lands, we walked near her lake, near her home, we sat where she probably ate, where she fished and swam. Tonight we have something special for you to remember that day, because our women want to reclaim their culture.”

Debbie Cowen presented “Black Lagoon”, a moving, spiritual tribute to one particular place that stood out for her on that visit to Bruny Island in June.

“When I arrived at this place the hairs on my arm stood up,” Ms Cowen told the gathering. “A sea eagle flew over. I imagined he was watching us. We sang our song in our language at the lagoon, and on the path home – over and over again. It was the most emotional cultural journey I think I’ve travelled.”

For Mr Dillon, it is everything to take young people on cultural journeys, see the empowerment it gives them, to observe and sit with the looks on their faces. “We didn’t have that before,” he said, “and now we’ve got that.”

Aunty Patsy Cameron made the ten-hour return drive from her grandfather Mannalargenna’s country at Tebrakunna. “It was really important to be present at the inaugural SETAC ball,” she said. “It was a balance of cultural activity, role models and champions in community – all proud women speaking their language, and such a beautiful expression of culture”.

Speaking before the presentations, Huon Valley Council Commissioner Adriana Taylor told Tracey Dillon, “her black sister”, that she had been inspired by Aunty Ida West, a great advocate for reconciliation.

“Ida West asked us to walk together,” said Ms Taylor. “It isn’t about them and us, it isn’t about black and white. We can’t forget the past – we do have to fix those things – but we have to walk together to do that and Ida West believed that very strongly. Because of her I learnt how to live with you and how to appreciate Aboriginal culture. So, because of her, I can.”

On being awarded SETAC’s NAIDOC 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award, Rodney Dillon gave way to the next generation.

“To be a strong organisation, it’s got to be run by the young people today,” he told the gathering. “It’s no longer for our old people to be running. I’m happy to take people to places, on trips to our strong sites. When we go to these sites, it’s like our people have just left.

“I’m not going to achieve all the things in my lifetime that I want to do but I feel pretty safe that some of these young people who are here tonight will achieve them in their lifetime. That makes me feel we’ve left it in good hands.”

Presentations were also made to Tess Strong for Community Achievement and Bradley Thompson who received the Youth Award. SETAC’s Commitment and Dedication Award (from the staff) went to Rodney and Tracey Dillon.

Rodney & Tracey Dillon. Photo courtesy Huon News

In the year themed “Because of her, we can”, SETAC’s NAIDOC Aboriginal female award for 2018 was presented to chair of the cultural committee, Toni Murray.

“I stand here a very proud Aboriginal woman,” she told the gathering who applauded wildly as she fought back tears.

Toni Murray (left) with daughter Millie

For more information contact SETAC, or visit The Living History Museum of Aboriginal Cultural Heritage & Gardens of the South East Nation in Nicholls Rivulet.

First published in the fortnightly national indigenous newspaper Koori Mail.

The First Tasmanians


The opening of a permanent gallery dedicated to 40,000 years of Aboriginal culture marks a turning point in creative collaboration – but tensions remain as communities find their way forward.

One of the most striking features of The First Tasmanians: Our Story exhibition at Launceston’s Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, is a wall map of Tassie that has never been seen before. It depicts Tasmanian Aboriginal clans, and it is mesmerising. Shades of ochre, as opposed to lines, represent porous boundaries belonging to 57 known nations: the Toogee around Macquarie Harbour, Hobart’s Mouheneenner peoples, and the Leterremairrener in the north. In a side key, swan rookeries are identified, along with hunting and marine harvesting grounds.

Nearby is a black crow shell necklace, uncovered only recently in the permanent exhibition’s curatorial journey. It is thought to have belonged to Trucanini, for a long time wrongly considered the last full-blood speaker of a Tasmanian language. A massive projection of stars shows how the southern sky looked 50,000 years ago, long before the land bridge formed and Aboriginal people arrived in Tasmania. And an epic warrener shell necklace made by artist Julie Gough hangs on the wall – you have to take a step back to view it.

Until now, such aspects of the First Peoples’ culture have rarely been shared or acknowledged outside Aboriginal academic circles. A crack curatorial team headed by Jon Addison and David Maynard has plundered the extensive writings of former QVMAG director N.J.B. (Brian) Plomley, author of the seminal Friendly Mission: The Tasmanian Journals and Papers of George Augustus Robinson, 1829-1834. On his death, Plomley donated his collection of books, maps and papers from the 1950s to the ‘80s to the museum.

Instead of a primary focus on The Black War – a 30-year period of intensive conflict between European colonisers and Aboriginal people culminating in Robinson’s exile of 135 Aborigines at Wybalenna on Flinders Island – the spotlight is on families and their way of life. Who knew so many clans thrived over many thousands of years in every part of Tasmania, each with its own architecture, names, technology, cultural practices and language?

Project manager and consultant curator Greg Lehman says the clan map is just one of the “wow factors” of the new gallery. He should know. Lehman has spent 15 years working with two galleries as a member of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s Aboriginal Advisory Council and the National Museum of Australia. He is also consulting to Mona as it develops the concept for a proposed Truth and Reconciliation Art Park as the centrepiece of Hobart’s Macquarie Point site redevelopment.

Lehman says the aim of The First Tasmanians is to jolt people out of their comfort zone – to see there were Tasmanian families living here 40,000 years ago. He says the team didn’t want a comfortable, old-fashioned museum of European record based just on archaeologist and anthropologist research. “There has to be another narrative,” he says.

The first permanent Aboriginal exhibition at QVMAG had its beginnings in the ’90s with a small installation at the top of the stairs. Lehman calls it “a little presence” – put together by North-East elder Patsy Cameron, a Coastal Plains descendant of North-East warrior Mannalargenna.

“We were so happy to have an expression of our culture in a corner of Royal Park,” says Dr Cameron, who is widely known as Aunty Patsy. “We were once placed alongside the museum’s curiosities. Look at us now – it is an amazing legacy.”

Just a stone’s throw away, in Cataract Gorge, Aboriginal clans once met and gathered for ceremony, hunting and trade. From the roof of the gallery at Royal Park, it is tempting to imagine pillars of white smoke from clan fires drifting up through the magnificent dolerite cleft.

It’s early June and the wind is chilling at Scottsdale’s Northeast Park when I catch up with Aunty Patsy on Reconciliation Day. About 25 people have gathered for a cultural event put on by Dorset Council. Former and current mayors and deputy mayors are present, along with local Aboriginal families and friends, teaching string-making and shaping music sticks from dogwood, later to be clapped together in a brief dance. The Yarning Circle (a loose gathering formed around these activities) is designed to help connect communities through cultural conversations, promoting a show of respect in the face of differing views.

Aunty Patsy is down to give a talk on the history of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture, “recognising the struggle but celebrating the strength in community for keeping it alive and thriving”. She is disappointed so few have turned up in the bitter cold, but she’s pleased to see the council supporting a Reconciliation Day event.

Along with cultural practitioner Dave Mangenner Gough from the Tiagarra Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Devonport, Aunty Patsy is co-chair of QVMAG’s Aboriginal Reference Group, formed before the exhibition was proposed. Also in the group are artists Vicki West and Lola Greeno, and Arts Tasmania program officer Denise Robertson.

Members of the Aboriginal Elders Council and Clyde Mansell from the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania (established to manage the state’s indigenous land) contributed cultural voices and objects to the gallery, including necklaces, baskets and kelp water carriers made by elders. Launceston organisations, groups and key individuals, including the Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation (TAC), were invited to information sessions. TAC staff or representatives did not attend.

Lehman says the desire was “to complement not duplicate” what TMAG does (there’s little reference here, for example, to contact history). A Mona-style phone app has been developed for teachers and students, and 3D gaming technology has been used to demonstrate sea level rising (you get to see the Bassian land bridge rise and fall).

“This is not 200 years. This is deep time. Time that is almost impossible to imagine,” Lehman says. “It’s 10 times older than the pyramids – what does that even mean? The stars aren’t where they should be. Tasmania as an island doesn’t exist. The sea level is 150m lower, not 2cm higher. The coastline was way out to the continental shelf. We are challenging your point of view, trying to make the mind-boggling accessible.”

I am taken on a tour of the gallery by its director Richard Mulvaney. Upstairs in the main gallery, we visit one of QVMAG’s most treasured possessions, Aborigines of Tasmania 1859. The famous painting by Australian colonial artist Robert Dowling is based on a series of watercolour drawings made in the early 1830s by convict artist Thomas Bock, whose portrait of young Aboriginal girl Mathinna, adopted and abandoned by the then Governor of Tasmania, is held by TMAG.

Dowling made his impressive painting in London and presented it to the citizens of Launceston to be exhibited in the Mechanics’ Institute in 1860. It was later transferred to QVMAG for its opening in 1891, where it has remained ever since – “virtually in the very same place”, Mulvaney says.

The painting, along with other works by John Glover and Bock, shows Tasmanian Aboriginal people with a sense of majesty and nobility, although the artists’ humanity came far too late to save them. Very little has since evolved in the positive depiction of Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Lehman says Tasmania has been slow off the mark compared with the rest of Australia to celebrate the culture of its First Peoples, “not least because Tasmania has an uneasy relationship with its past: a history of genocide”. “You could say there’s been an attitude of ‘least said, soonest mended’, or ‘let sleeping dogs lie’, or ‘too hard, let’s not go there’,” he says.

But there is something in the air in Tasmania with institutions factoring in the First Peoples in a different way, perhaps led by an increasing number of visitors looking for our “points of difference”. Take, for example, Federal Hotel’s new MACq 01 Hotel telling a story through objects of the Mouheneenner people who “fished and forged dreams in the Derwent shallows”. Guides or “master storytellers” take guests on the 114 Doors Storytelling Tour through “a patchwork of stories and artefacts that punctuate our hallways”.

Then there’s Mona’s Truth and Reconciliation Art Park proposal, with its recognition of the 30-year war between British invaders and Aboriginal people and the celebration of 40,000 years of continuous culture; and a new not-for-profit body, the Reconciliation Council of Tasmania, set to launch on August 9 (UN Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples), bringing the state in line with the rest of the country.

Reconciliation Australia’s Bill Lawson (the only Tasmanian board member, and founder and past chair of the Beacon Foundation) says RCT aims to improve relations between the state’s Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, and ease tensions within the indigenous community. He acknowledges there’s work to be done in helping the Aboriginal communities of Tasmania come together and hopes the RCT will play a key role in that.

Institutions are responding to a long-held desire of visitors, as well as non-Aboriginal Tasmanians, to connect with a deeper sense of place and history. It is a different approach to, say, the TAC’s “Aboriginal Land” sign at Risdon Cove or the permission required to visit on Aboriginal land at Preminghana on the West Coast.

“Let’s go there” has been the approach with The First Tasmanians, but via a different perspective – “a commitment to inclusivity and valuing diversity”, Lehman says, “rather than trying to emphasise one privileged, European perspective, which means we’re also open to what people want to say”.

The approach includes newly commissioned works by renowned artists Gough, Greeno and West, who are all part of the National Indigenous Artists Triennial at Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia. Visitors are guided to view First Tasmanians’ history not through a colonial filter but through a rich, deep, human past.

Mulvaney, whose late father was a pre-historian renowned as the father of archaeology in Australia, says the new gallery has national significance, describing it as “very valuable”. Some artefacts from the museum’s collection are only now seeing the light of day.

Last Mannalargenna Day – an annual celebration held in December on the anniversary of North East warrior Mannalargenna’s death in 1835 – QVMAG curator Addison and designer Andrew Johnson returned three hunting sticks from the museum’s collection to Country. They wore protective gloves to hold the precious artefacts, thought to have belonged to Mannalargenna, that now form part of The First Tasmanians. “One member of the Aboriginal community saw them and cried,” Addison says, “so moved were they to see them on Country again.” Many Aboriginal people in Tasmania trace their lineage back to Mannalargenna.

QVMAG guides have been tutored in cultural awareness. “It’s been a process of empowering the institution, its staff and curators,” Lehman says. “Creative collaboration is one of the great things that has developed through this partnership – to be able to think together and uncover things.”

You can understand why, at a time like this, with such positive outcomes driven by passion, research, lived experience and collaborative expertise, raising the subject of rifts between Aboriginal people has the potency of a wrecking ball. But rifts are in the air this NAIDOC Week.

Across Australia they come with a name: “lateral violence” is being openly addressed. In a recent article in Guardian Australia, “Too white, too black, or not black enough?”, @IndigenousX host Shannan Dodson describes lateral violence as “a festering sore of colonisation that continues to tear our communities apart”. Dodson writes how “anger and frustration about feeling powerless can lead to violence – not ‘vertically’ towards the colonisers responsible for the oppression but ‘laterally’ towards their own community”.

In Tasmania, this rift can be seen playing out between the TAC (formed in Launceston in 1971 to provide services to Aboriginal people, with offices in Launceston, Hobart and Burnie) and TRACA (Tasmanian Regional Aboriginal Communities Alliance), formed in 2015, representing seven groups in regions around the state, including Flinders Island, Circular Head and Bruny Island. Rodney Dillon is TRACA chair, while Aunty Patsy, who turned 70 this year, is vice-chair. Aunty Patsy also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Tasmania this year, and was last month awarded an Order of Australia for her services to indigenous education.

In a Mercury Talking Point last year, Aunty Patsy and Dillon explained the group’s formation as a response to “the continued mantra that the TAC was the only voice to speak for all Tasmanian Aboriginal people”, and to “better respond to the Hodgman Government’s policy to reset relationships with Aboriginal people”. While they acknowledge the TAC, they say it does not speak for them and say the TAC continues to meet and make decisions (especially about heritage, language and constitutional recognition) that appear to exclude them.

For example, palawa kani, a revived form of the original Tasmanian Aboriginal languages, was first developed as a project in 1999 in conjunction with the TAC. In this NAIDOC Week, themed “Our Languages Matter”, the TAC portrays it as the Aboriginal language. Schools are following their program.

In contrast, TRACA views palawa kani as “a creole language” and says there are other avenues to naming, including the works of Plomley (for example, A Word-List of The Tasmanian Aboriginal Languages).

In response, the State Government has halted the dual naming process until names can be agreed between everyone. At the time of writing, however, the Office of Aboriginal Affairs has not caught up with the re-setting agenda. Its website still endorses an Aboriginal and dual naming policy implemented in accordance with the TAC.

There are other tensions, too. Recent satirical article Tracking My Way by playwright Nathan Maynard, “published” in The Census Black and posted on his Facebook page, depicts him dressed in costume as a character he calls “Aunty Judy McConnell”. Some who see the creation as a vicious parody of real Aboriginal Tasmanians are distressed by apparent allusions to themselves in the spoof feature.

Maynard, a descendant of Mannalargenna, wrote his own story about his family’s muttonbirding culture on Big Dog Island in the play The Season, which played at the Sydney Festival and Ten Days on the Island. Along with Rob Braslin, he recently returned from a five-day workshop for new comedy writers organised by producers from the ABC’s Black Comedy. He described the Aunty Judy spoof as “my first piece as a journalist”, posting it on his Facebook page, hoping it would “get a spot on the community pinboard”. Among the comments were “too genuine” and “the next thing Hodgman’ll get her on the TRACA thingy”.

Maynard says the article was intended as satirical and was timed around the 2016 Census figures, which he says showed “a lot of people are claiming to be Aboriginal with no evidence of ancestry”. He wrote it for the community – his Tasmanian Aboriginal community – “the one that comes from the Bass Strait islands and the old fellas who came off the Reserve on Cape Barren Island”.

While recognising the Aboriginality of Dillon, Aunty Patsy and others, he says many are “imposters who wake up black one week” and that “true Aboriginals fight for land and rights”.

On the eve of NAIDOC Week, the TAC called for a “forensic audit” of the number of people claiming Aboriginality in the 2016 Census. The rise from 19,000 to 23,000, they say, doesn’t add up.

Aunty Patsy, whose mother was born at Cape Barren Island, believes Maynard is mocking aspects of her cultural practice. “A small group of people is inflicting lateral violence on Facebook and in public, while many others are showcasing our wonderful culture and telling our stories to the world,” she says. “For Nathan Maynard, it’s about credibility for himself as an individual. There is not one voice – we are many voices.”

Some elders who have kept cultural practices alive felt shamed by the satire, regarding it as an abusive form of attack. Aboriginal family violence worker Fiona Hamilton says “elder abuse is rampant in our communities”.

“And we have very high levels of family violence and a lot of under-reporting,” she says, describing Maynard’s posting as “an extremely complex little meme” and a “prime example of lateral violence and cyber-bullying”. “If a non-Aboriginal person wrote that, especially at a time when we’re struggling with power and the abuse of power, all hell would break loose.”

Can the positive depiction of The First Tasmanians go any way towards healing hostilities? Or are great tensions a sign of the extraordinary challenge of sustaining a living, evolving culture? How do you sustain a culture simply by trying to preserve it?

Singer-songwriter Dewayne Everettsmith, from mina-nina, an indigenous-owned company specialising in indigenous tourism and events in Tasmania, is unashamedly commercial in his approach. He sees the future in making their culture professional.

“We want to return our community to culture by encouraging them to learn skills and work in professionalised jobs, competing on a contemporary level in a high-quality, demanding industry,” he says. “We believe that competing culturally, not politically, will provide the best outcome for our people.”

In The First Tasmanians, Gough’s warrener necklace is suspended on a driftwood hook. Describing it as “a wayfinder”, it is the artist’s way of amplifying her culture. The making and wearing of shell necklaces by Aboriginal women is a traditional cultural activity that has survived 1800 years. It is certain to survive satire, too. The clan map of Tasmania is a powerful representation of diverse communities looking after their kin, their local heritage and their language. Can The First Tasmanians help provide a track back to that?

“We are a broad church,” Lehman says.

I ask how he would say that in Aboriginal language.

“Waranta [all of us] mapali [mob],” he says. “That’s the palawa kani spelling. Plomley records several other spellings.”

Though Mulvaney expects some fallout, he is undaunted by the gallery’s task. “It is absolutely vital we tell the Tasmanian Aboriginal story,” he says. “And there’s more to tell. But not by us – as in QVMAG staff. We are guided by the Aboriginal Reference Group. They’ve guided us through what could have been a murky and unhappy process. They’ve instructed, informed and we’ve responded. We’ve given it a very good shot. It is their story. And in telling their story through the gallery and our public programs, it becomes all our story.”

The First Tasmanians – Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, 2 Wellington St, Launceston. Entry is free. The gallery is open daily, from 10am-4pm.

Published in TasWeekend, July 8, 2017


A floating protest


Commercial scale fisher Chris Massie anchored in Okehampton Bay. Photo: Hilary Burden

JUST bring a sleeping bag and a toothbrush. You can sleep in the same clothes. That’s what I’ve been doing,” comes the message from 53-year-old skipper Chris Massie aboard the Mater Cara. I pack an esky and drive to Orford, where a friend will take me on the half-hour boat trip from the Prosser River jetty to Okehampton Bay.

In my 20s, cameraman Andy and I spent holidays at Orford, fishing for flathead with a handline and sailing across to Maria Island for sleepovers. We’d throw over an anchor and swim in the clear waters of Okehampton Bay, too. It offered the kind of tranquility yachts seek – shelter in shallow waters with a white-sand beach – along with a clear view to Maria Island. The only road access was through farmland and a gate kept open for those in the know.

In the Mercury on September 11, 1884, a correspondent described Okehampton Bay as “an excellent shelter landlocked on three sides” and “the beau ideal of a port for Maria Island”. At different times, though there’s little sign now, Okehampton boasted a whaling station, post office, store and quarry. Okehampton sandstone was used to build the Melbourne Law Courts, Victorian Library and Town Hall. The correspondent records the quarry failed because “too much was expected from it”.

It seems industry’s quest is nothing new at Spring Bay.

Twenty-eight fish pens will soon house 800,000 fish at Tassal’s Okehampton fish farm. I’m revisiting Okehampton to meet Massie, a fisherman who has taken up temporary residence in the bay to make a stand against the fish farm.

Despite the Federal Government giving the final environmental tick of approval for the farm two days earlier, Massie is sticking to his two-week vigil. Barges are being loaded up at Triabunna with buoys, ropes, anchors and concrete blocks ready to have fish in Tassal’s pens by the end of the month – proof that local mayor Michael Kent was right when he said plans for Okehampton Bay were “almost done and dusted” in the weeks before the ruling.

Back in the ’80s, Andy and I were colleagues reporting on the Franklin Dam when the No Dams referendum vote led to the demise of the Holgate Government. Now, here we are taking photos of barges against the dramatic backdrop of Maria Island, a National Park on land and sea.

Councillor Kent supports the salmon industry. He says it is creating jobs in a region that desperately needs them. But a recent Mercury poll found 48 per cent of Tasmanians do not want salmon farming at Okehampton Bay, with a majority 52 per cent in the Lyons electorate opposed. It might as well be dam wars, or forest wars, all over again.

The Glamorgan Spring Bay Council has previously identified Triabunna-Orford and Maria Island as “a visitor gateway” to the East Coast. Now, the warm East Coast welcome is split; neighbours, including this month’s two key players, are at loggerheads. It just so happens that Mark Ryan, Tassal’s chief executive, lives on the waterfront in the same Lower Sandy Bay street as Massie – in fact, just two doors down. Massie says when he makes his morning cuppa, he can see Ryan watering his trees.

The wind on the water is brisk as we speed across the bay in a 200hp motorboat. Andy points out a giant sea eagle’s nest in the branches of a dead tree at Flensers Point. Flenser, a French word meaning “to strip the blubber or skin from a whale or seal”, points to Okehampton’s history as one of the East Coast’s major whaling stations in the 1820-40s. Just around the corner, we find Massie sheltering in the bay.

On board, I watch as Massie makes tea in winter sunshine reflecting sharply off the clear turquoise sea. Mugs are warmed with hot water before he slices off two hunks of cake that the Wilsons, friends from the Channel, brought in support. Massie’s fish-fingered hands look too big for the delicate sponge.

Supporters delivered a sponge cake for Massie during his two-week protest. Photo: Hilary Burden

His sentences are economical. He doesn’t embellish, rage or rush. At night in his bunk, he listens to an audiobook on the life of the father of peaceful resistance, Mahatma Gandhi.

As he watches the barges laying the anchor buoys, he turns and says he knows some of the men working on the boats but holds nothing against them. He knows they’ve got to work. But he is sick of what he sees as spin and greed. He says he knows he’s not going to make a difference, but he wonders if, with Tassal’s “industrial fish farm”, Tasmania is witnessing “the last of our hunters and gatherers”. “It’s hard to say without accusing someone though, isn’t it?” he says. “It’s a bloody fine line.”

He says sadness, not anger, is his prevailing emotion on the water: “In 20 or 30 years’ time, at least I can say I put my point of view in a passive way.” He says he was nervous on day one of his protest. “But I reckon you’d bloody regret it later in life if you didn’t do anything about it. Two weeks in the scheme of things isn’t long, is it? I’m just not earning any money.”

Chris Massie with a map of the Mercury Passage on board the Mater Cara. Photo: Hilary Burden

Many friends have visited him over the 11 days and he has received plenty of messages and emails. One visitor was Malcolm Ferguson, a boat-builder and crayfisher from Triabunna who built the Rachel Christine, the last timber fishing boat in Tasmania. Massie shares one of the video diaries he’s been making to record his time on board. In it, he is having dinner with Ferguson in the downstairs fo’c’sle. Ferguson says he’s been fishing the area since 1980 and that it’s still pristine. “We haven’t damaged it. I don’t want it to start now,” he says, looking directly into the iPad camera.

Tim James, Massie’s best friend for 30 years from their Rosny College days, stayed for three nights. Massie had to ban him from the small galley kitchen because he didn’t leave things how he wants them. When James’ wife Ange visited, she took videos of the pair on her mobile phone but lost them all when she dropped it over the side into the water. Ange also happens to be Premier Will Hodgman’s sister. It’s a very Tasmanian story.

Massie is listening to a digital music playlist that James made especially for his friend’s vigil. It’s an ’80s mix: The Angels, Leonard Cohen, The Rolling Stones. One of the videos records the two men talking as they fish off the back of the crayboat. “I remember when they dammed Lake Pedder,” Massie says. “I was only young. My mother went down there. Well, this is like flooding Lake Pedder and we’re just marking the moment. It will never be the same.”

In other messages of support, his father Ron, a retired State Fisheries protection officer, says he felt betrayed by the fish farm activity “because of the impact on our wild fisheries”. There’s an email from old-timer Des Whayman, a mussel and oyster-fisher from the Channel who visited Massie in the first week: “Good on you for your great effort in bringing your views to the front. You are not alone. Keep up the excellent work. I will be with you all the way.”

Massie, his wife Tilly and their children Hamish, 17, and Eve, 14, have had a shack at West Shelley, Orford, for nearly two decades. Tilly’s family used to own the nearby property of Rostrevor. In his younger days, Massie made a good living working as a deckhand, then ran a cherry orchard on the East Coast for 20 years, fishing in between. After that he worked as a professional fisher with his brother for 15 years: whiting and tiger flathead out of Hobart, and sandy and tiger flathead out of Triabunna. “I’ve had the best of fishing,” he says. “The ocean’s been good to us. I feel obligated.”

He says they’ve always tried to catch small amounts of fish and supply the local market. Some weeks he only fishes a total of three hours. The way he says he fishes, they’d never fish it out.

“There’s got to be more fishermen like me,” says Massie, “but it’s so hard for young fishers to get into fisheries now. Once we did it as hunters and gatherers and we made a good living out of fishing. Now, big companies are taking this right away from us.

“I’m not against them. All I’m doing is asking the question – are there other possibilities other than putting in 800,000 fish out there? I don’t have the answer to any of this, but I don’t think putting them in is the answer.”

Massie met Tassall’s Mark Ryan about three years ago. His wife had organised a gathering to open the neighbourhood herb garden constructed on the nature strip of their Lower Sandy Bay street and the Ryans came over for the event.

Since then, he says they’ve “had a few run-ins”, especially after Massie put up a ‘No Fish Farms’ sign outside their house, which he took down when the council told him he needed development approval for it. Massie invited Ryan over, among others, for a sleepover on the Mater Cara (which means Dear Mother) on his first night at Okehampton. The invitation went unanswered.

“It’s hard to tick something off without spending time here,” Massie says. “With a little gem as good as Maria. They’re not making any more of them.” He produces a book from the cabin, Maria Island – A Tasmanian Eden by Margaret Weidenhofer. A tinny pulls alongside. It’s Wilhelmina Rae, spokesperson for Marine Protection Tasmania, and her brother Ben, owner-operator of Tasmanian eBike Adventures. They are here to wish Massie well before heading back to their mother’s family home at Orford.

At night, the Mater Cara rolls on calm waters. Massie lights the fire downstairs using timber from the shore. Dinner is barbecue T-bone steak with vegetables from his father-in-law’s garden, wine and a couple of beers. He says people mock him on Facebook “just because I’m trying to save something nice”.

“But I’ve got a right to express my concern without getting slandered,” he says. “I’m for small-time cottage industries. There are so many talented people at Triabunna. Better fishermen than me, plus engineers, farmers, boat builders … it’s annoying that a company is coming to ‘rescue us’. It doesn’t sit comfortably with me. If I was out in a ship sinking, I’d do everything to save myself. Maybe they could grow one-tenth of the salmon, and the Triabunna people could construct the pens and farm for themselves, for a niche market … they’re just ideas I’m having while I’m out here in solitude.”

sunrise okehampton
Sunrise on Okehampton Bay. Photo: Hilary Burden

The next morning I’m woken by the sound of fairy terns gathering on the beach before sunrise. It’s a cold sou’wester. I pee into a bucket that gets emptied into the sea. Downstairs there’s a

Sani-Loo. Legally, Massie says, he’s not allowed to discharge anything over the side less than about 5km offshore. He goes through the arguments again about fish poo, warming waters, algal bloom, pen tarps and feed tonnage, threats from seals and sharks, and asks why the Okehampton pens can’t go offshore in ocean currents.

Two sea eagles are perched on a tree on Flensers Point. Massie says it’s the first day he’s seen them together. “It’s a bit ironic,” he says. “Monday morning the barges are full into it for the first time, and they both appear. It’s almost as if they’re watching, too.”


Concerns about the impact of fish farm expansion have been in the air since 2009, when a group made up of salmon farmers and representatives from CSIRO, the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and the Government confirmed a “clear downward trend” of dissolved oxygen levels in deeper water.

In July 2015, on the first day of a Senate inquiry into Tasmania’s aquaculture industry, Premier Will Hodgman called the inquiry a “witch hunt”. Since then, environmental monitoring and reviews appear to have struggled to keep up with industry growth.

Reforms have been provoked by intense media scrutiny – including the ABC’s Four Corners program Big Fish, which late last year revealed damning evidence about the environmental degradation of Macquarie Harbour – as well as opposition from inside the salmon industry (for example, Huon Aquaculture’s ongoing legal proceedings against the State Government). Increasingly, high-profile campaigns by Environment Tasmania and Marine Protection Tasmania (with local shack owner and AFL star Nick Riewoldt on their 1500+ database) have also held the Government to account.

The Government’s latest Draft Sustainable Industry Growth Plan for the $730 million salmon industry, released last week, identifies “Grow Zones” and “No Grow Zones” with expansion “largely oceanic rather than estuarine” and a new commitment that “other than the small existing leases, the entire East Coast of Tasmania will be salmon-farm free”.

Tassal has described its Okehampton lease, on a pre-existing mussel farm, as Australia’s first “eco-aquaculture” site and says it has strong support at Triabunna, being the largest employer in the town. Opponents say just because there’s a pre-existing site, that doesn’t give them a green light to farm salmon. A Tasmania-wide coalition of community and industry interests has this week called on both major parties to agree to a moratorium on lease allocation until what it describes as governance problems are addressed and “proper community consultation” is undertaken.

Environment Tasmania describes the proposed 4000 tonnes (800,000 fish) stock load over 80ha as “intensive”. Tassal has about 7800 tonnes across three leases totalling 280ha in Macquarie Harbour. Tasmanians have until Friday, September 8, to provide feedback on the draft plan, which will be delivered by June next year.


Published in TasWeekend, August 19, 2017


Shear delight

MIDLANDS merino stud breeder Georgina Wallace has just won the grand champion title in the Australian Fleece Competition in Bendigo for the second time in three years. Only two others in the country have won twice. Wallace and husband Hamish won with a score of 97.1 out of 100 – the highest in the show’s history.

“We’re a small fish in a big pond,” she says. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think we could be first in class again.”

With Tasmania winning five of the six major awards, you get the feeling there’s a big story to tell: Tasmanian superfine wool growers are consistently producing Australia’s finest. So why is it so unusual to see the premium-quality wool that is shorn here being branded Tasmanian – and worn?

We’re in the kitchen at Trefusis, the 1830s merino stud south of Ross where Wallace grew up learning about sheep at father Jim McEwan’s side. In 1988, he set the world-record price for superfine wool – at 32,000 cents a kilogram – and won the Ermenegildo Zegna trophy 15 times for fleeces he produced.

“Buyers like Tasmanian wool,” Wallace says. “It’s a niche product to market. Compared with mainland wool, it’s clean, green, with low VM [vegetable matter].” Wallace says this is because the seasons here are fairly even (although it’s been tricky of late, forcing them to make changes). But she says wool grown here tends towards super or extra fine, and has outstanding tensile strength, which means it is more suitable for spinning into cloth.

While Trefusis is focused on breeding stud merino rams for clients rather than the maker end, Wallace believes Tasmania is in the box seat to take advantage of the current fashion trend to market wool direct to customers. While she hangs on to her champion fleeces so she can show them, most Tasmanian fleeces are sold at auction. To a premium winemaker, this is like pouring grapes grown in Tasmanian vineyards into cleanskins to be marketed as “Australian wine”.

Georgina Wallace, a two-time Australian Fleece Competition winner at the Australian Sheep and Wool Show in Bendigo, at her merino stud near Ross. Picture: CHLOE SMITH

Alistair Calvert, the state wool manager at Roberts Ltd Hobart, drives the agricultural services company’s Tasmanian merino campaign, which he says has “ramped up over the past 18 months”, being registered in jurisdictions around the world. He says Tasmania produced 52,000 farm bales last season, 90 per cent to 95 per cent of which were sold at auction – a statistic that should shriek “branding opportunity”.

While not being critical of the auction system (he says it’s a transparent way of exchanging ownership), Calvert says that with value-adding now the name of the game, it’s time Tasmania took back control. Market analysts say the time is right with a clear push by consumers to understand where the product comes from and how it’s produced. We need to tell our Tasmanian story to the world.

“We’re hearing this all the time in food, and now it’s coming through to fibre. It’s a real shift,” Calvert says. “I’ve just had the managing director of one of the world’s largest, French-based top makers here in Tassie. He’s telling us we need to increase the value of the product – to stop dealing with it as a commodity and focus on the niche, high-end, natural fibre instead.”

Nick Bradford, wool fashion industry stalwart and owner of Nundle Woollen Mill in north-west NSW, agrees, but says it’s hard to differentiate yourself. He has worked in Italy selling wool to top makers and spinners, and says you need to start with the designer. “They have to love Tasmanian merino and want it in their collection, and then they will push it down the line to the spinner,” he says.

But it’s an uphill battle. Bradford says that while working in Europe he visited a suiting shop in Germany. “They think New Zealand grows the best merino in the world and yet the bulk comes from Australia, and NZ merino has grown quickly using genetics from Australia,” he says.

“I could not turn him around. And that’s what it’s all about. Someone had been in his ear … we need to start telling our own stories. Tasmania could be telling a real story of its own – that there is no other area in the world where sheep graze like they do in Tasmania. You don’t need to overthink it, or complicate it, or turn it into a mystery. There is nothing like Tasmanian merino. So come up with 30 reasons why there is no wool in the world like it.”

It’s also never been a better time, in recent history, in terms of price. In the past year, Australian wool prices have risen to heights “not seen in decades” and are expected to remain strong on the back of an export boom, according to Rural Bank’s 2017 Australian Wool Annual Review. Australia produces about a quarter of the world’s wool production, with 75 per cent of wool exports destined for a growing Chinese market.

Holly, Nicola and Carl Mason, from Smitten Merino, which is based at Battery Point but is trying to crack the overseas market. Picture: LUKE BOWDEN

Tasmania has been good at growing the raw product since merinos were first brought here from Europe. Midlands’ merino, in particular, has been one of the best stories to tell, with five studs established here in the 1820s thanks to a drier climate more favourable to sheep.

Luxury Italian fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna recognised this reputation as far back as 1963 when it established the Zegna perpetual trophy for Tasmanian wool growers. The Zegna was awarded annually to the best superfine merino fleece until 2008. The trophy sits in a glass cabinet in the Tasmanian Wool Centre at Ross (opened in 1988 as a bicentennial project).

The museum/wool shop mainly services tourist clientele. If you’re looking to buy the Tasmanian brand of wool the Zegna was set up to reward, you’ll find popular sock brand Mongrel and satisfying balls of Nan Bray’s White Gum Wool, but no Tasmanian-branded clothing. Instead, references seem to lean towards the northern hemisphere, with posters advertising the global Campaign for Wool of which Prince Charles is patron.

Wallace repeats a neighbour’s quip that if there were no fences in Tasmania all the sheep would end up at Ross or nearby Tunbridge. But in the heartland of some of Australia’s best wool production there seems to be a disconnect when it comes to selling Tasmanian wool apparel.

In New Zealand, a quick internet search reveals merino brands including Untouched World’s luxury Ecopossum and washable Zque Merino (“easy care, easy wear and easy on the earth”) and Icebreaker (making garments for outdoor adventures from merino fibre since 1995, with stores throughout North America and Europe, promoting growers as “the true custodians of the land)”. So what are the opportunities for Tasmanian wool, and how can we grow our reputation?

Although there are small retailer designer/makers succeeding in manufacturing here (for example, Hobart’s Ally and Me and Launceston’s Spotted Quoll, set to open in Hobart), Bradford says manufacturing has long gone from the Australian landscape. “You cannot process wool in Australia,” he says. “If you’re going to go down that route, stop now. Australian-made? That boat sailed out of Australia 15 years ago. There is one commercial weaver left in Australia – that’s Waverley in Launceston. Lucky last. It can’t be done here. It’ll be hundreds of years before that returns because of the disparity in the costs of wages and energy between here and Asia, and all the OH&S hoops there are now.”

For Bradford it’s all about the sales channel. “Anyone can buy wool,” he says. “Not everyone can sell it.”

Alistair Calvert, the state wool manager for Roberts Ltd, in their wool store at Brighton. Picture: SAM ROSEWARNE

Not far from Trefusis, at Beaufront at Ross, fourth-generation sheep farmer Julian von Bibra is amused by “everyone suddenly discovering wool” when they’ve been doing it for 150 years.

“It’s the most old-fashioned industry in Tasmania,” he says, admitting it has had its moments, especially in the past decade with low superfine merino prices and a drought. “But we’ve stuck with it because it’s such a lovely thing. Everyone who wears wool enjoys it.”

This winter, Country Road produced a limited-edition polo using superfine merino wool sourced exclusively from Beaufront Station and milled at the famed Tollegno mill in Italy. Its provenance is marked on bespoke swing tags. Von Bibra says it took three years for the idea to come to fruition.

“Nothing happens in a hurry, but I never thought I’d end up wearing our own wool – it really is very satisfying,” he says. “Out here our main role is producing bales of wool and running sheep, we can sometimes forget the end use.” He says about a third of their wool from 30,000 sheep goes to Italy, and a proportion of this is branded Beaufront.

As with food, von Bibra recognises provenance has traction. He laughs when he recalls how his dad used to sit down at mealtime and say, “Apart from an onion given to us by a deer shooter, everything you’re eating we’ve grown ourselves”. “Well,” he says, “now we’re wearing our own wool.

“The crazier the world gets, the more people value something that is harvested sustainably off an animal and converted into something you can wear. The fashion industry is fickle – at the moment, they want a story – but wool is also a very good product.”

When it came to having a suit custom-made in Australia out of cloth milled in Italy from their superfine merino wool, von Bibra was ecstatic. “I cannot wear that suit and stay sober,” he says. “It is so exciting to put that on and know it’s made from wool we’ve grown – I always need a glass of champagne in my hand.

“People say, ‘You’re a cottage industry and you are outpricing yourselves’, but we’ve never got bogged down with price. It’s not why we’re in it. You’ve still got to have a business, but we don’t want to make polar fleeces for everyone. Selling your own wool is not all about price – as long as someone wears it.”

Wool grower Simon Cameron in his shearing shed at Kingston, in Conara. Picture: SAM ROSEWARNE

Kingston in the Northern Midlands is one farm that is successfully telling its story. Last year, The Channel was a digital ad campaign by Australian tailored menswear brand MJ Bale.

At a function put on by Italian fabric manufacturer Vitale Barberis Canonico, Matt Jensen (the MJ in the brand name) asked wool grower Simon Cameron about doing a line of suiting just from Kingston wool. After three years brewing the idea, he agreed to make a contribution back to the farm at Kingston (based on sales) for the management of its unique natural values.

“It’s an amazing project for a wool grower to be selected to have a product made just out of the wool they produce,” says Cameron, who is also Australian Superfine Wool Growers Association president.

Cameron says Jensen turned up at shearing in October with one of the suits made from Kingston wool. “It was an unbelievable experience in the shed,” he says. “The shearers were there, everyone knew this was the Holy Grail for a wool grower, to see a product just made out of your own stuff. Talk about traceability.”

For his part, Jensen promoted the range, organised the launch and made material available online. Male models came to Kingston and posed in the middle of a mob of sheep that produced the wool: The Kingston Collection was born.

Cameron says it’s only been going for one season but they’ve proven it can work with “quite a number of suits sold around Australia”. “For a long time we’ve had Cape Grim pies sold at Banjos,” he says. “There’s a story to what farmers do. You don’t hear about it because farmers don’t do that. But it does wonders for the product and gives people a sense of the passion behind it – and gives the consumer that link.”

Fourth-generation sheep farmer Julian von Bibra and wife Annabel in Country Road polos made from wool they produced at Beaufront Station at Ross. Picture: SAM ROSEWARNE

At Roberts, Calvert has high hopes but acknowledges taking back control is key. He says China has in the past been a big player in buying five or 10 bales and calling the whole 110-bale parcel “Tasmanian”. “That’s not cricket,” Calvert says. “We need to take back that control, verify everything as Tasmanian. Put an audit in place that verifies the step through the supply chain to make sure we maintain integrity. Once we do that, only so much wool will be available and we will start to twist price a bit at farm-gate level.” He says Roberts is very strong on ensuring a certificate of authenticity and traceability that is signed by the premier and dated on Tasmanian Government letterhead.

At the same time, he says there needs to be a shift of thinking and an education process. “Traditionally, the wool industry has been its own worst enemy – with three or four competitors vying for one client, all trying to undersell, driving price down to buy it cheaper and maintain margins,” he says. “We’ve got to flip that on its head and get to the other end of the pipeline – the consumer and brand end. We’ve got all of these things to talk about before we talk about price. If you like, we should be saying, ‘This is the price, there is no negotiation’.”

Food provenance has come of age in Tasmania with chefs making a beeline for Tasmanian produce. Now that wool is learning to tell the same story, Cameron sees an opportunity for regional growers to group together. “Getting links with retailers is a way of adding a little bit of value above and beyond just what we get for the fleece,” he says. “That’s what got me across the line. From realising I was losing money on wool I was selling, and deciding I had to try to make it work, eventually, after a 90-second mobile phone conversation, we had an agreement.”

Carl Mason, from Hobart-based Smitten Merino, says when he and his wife Nicola started their merino fashion clothing business 10 years ago, “most people thought wool was scratchy and itchy, yet it’s arguably the highest-performing fabric on earth”.

Education has been slow, but the greatest success with their lightweight merino brand (sourced from a co-op of mainly Tasmanian farmers) has been overwhelmingly in the tourist and interstate visitor market. “Professional women who fly a lot love our brand,” Mason says. “They know they can wear one scooped neck wool top all week – no washing or ironing required.”

Smitten’s head office at Battery Point is now its biggest local stockist, selling direct to the public. “Women fly down to buy direct from us,” Mason says. “Some don’t even visit Mona while they’re here.”

He says their family-run and owned business (their daughters are company models and sales reps) started gaining momentum in the past couple of years and, with a regular presence at Agfest and the Deloraine Craft Fair, they’ve received good feedback from wool growers. “It’s really nice to hear from farmers what a great job we’ve done for the Tasmanian wool industry, even though they may not be supplying us with wool,” Mason says.

At Smitten Merino, they see their next challenge as shoring up local sales while trying to crack the overseas market (which makes up just 10 per cent of total sales). “Europe – that’s our future,” Mason says. “We’re really just figuring how we market Smitten into northern Europe where they have a real fondness for merino wool – they get it. Do we get into building stores, or do we build websites in languages? We’ve got to tap into people who haven’t been to Tassie who are trawling the web for merino wool. Then we’ll be able to do a lot more for the economy.

“We’ve always believed in our Tasmanian-ness, but never before has it been more relevant. Never ever have tourists wanted local more than now – if it’s not Tasmanian they don’t want it. We’re lucky with Mona, with great chefs visiting and with our food reputation going from strength to strength. We hope to ride on the back of that. We just have to get our brand out of Tasmania – and out of Australia.”

Models pose for MJ Bale’s Kingston Collection.

Published in TasWeekend, August 5, 2017