A draw for the creative class

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2005, 12:00am

If the experience of Australia's smallest state - the island of Tasmania - is anything to go by, the decision by the High Court last month to strike down Hong Kong's biased law on gay sex will enhance the city's attractiveness as a tourist and investment destination.

In 1994, Tasmania attracted world attention after the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that its anti-gay laws, whereby anyone caught having consensual gay sex could be jailed for up to 21 years, were in breach of international law. It has subsequently adopted the most pro-gay legal regime in Australia.

The result has been that Tasmania's image as a conservative, Anglo backwater of half a million people has been slowly transformed into one of a liberal creative environment, which is particularly keen to attract the gay tourist dollar and creative and hi-tech industries.

The struggle to overturn Tasmania's sodomy laws began in the late 1980s when a gay lobby group established a stall at a Saturday market in the state capital. The Hobart City Council banned the stall and 130 protesters were arrested. In 1991, the state parliament's conservative upper house overturned a reformist minority government's attempt to abolish laws outlawing gay sex. It was at this point that gay activists took their case to the UN.

In 1994 the UN found that the Tasmanian laws discriminated against gays and recommended they be abolished. It was then that the world media began to focus on Tasmania. It was presented to the world as a bigoted island where time, it seemed, stood still. There were international boycotts of Tasmania's prize exports - fine foods and wines - and the island's international tourist trade, worth over A$150 million ($900 million) a year at the time, began to suffer as a consequence of the adverse attention.

But three years later, political opposition to repealing the laws was dropped.

Tasmania's gay community celebrated the end of their long campaign.

In fact, the island went from being the most conservative Australian state to the most liberal for gay people. And in 2003, Tasmania became one of only a handful of jurisdictions in the world to pass a law allowing formal recognition of same-sex relationships.

This 180-degree turn in attitudes towards gays has benefited Tasmania's economy and enhanced its longer-term prospects as a creative society.

The Tasmanian government's official tourism website publicises that the island is a 'gay-friendly destination' and boasts about the fact that Tasmania now has the most liberal laws and community attitudes towards gays.

There are now 570 tourism operators in the state who are registered with the government as 'gay-friendly', and Tourism Tasmania has recently launched a gay tourism guide.

But perhaps more importantly, Tasmania's liberal attitude towards gays is attracting economists and other commentators who are disciples of author and economist Richard Florida's creative class theory.

Professor Florida, of the Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, argues that societies in which there is a high degree of social mobility and tolerance towards minorities attract workers of the 21st-century economy.

This is the 'creative class' and it includes writers, lawyers, educators, artists, IT professionals, researchers and others working in the 'knowledge-intensive' industries.

In fact, he has argued that the US's increasing intolerance of gays is driving its creative class professionals to other parts of the world.

Saul Eslake, chief economist at ANZ Bank, argues that the decriminalisation of gay sex enhances Tasmania's intrinsic appeal to the creative classes.

While there is still some hostility towards gays in Tasmania, and stamping out homophobia is a key priority of the state's education authorities, there is little doubt that to the worldwide gay community Tasmania has the welcome mat well and truly rolled out.

For Hong Kong's authorities and marketers, the Tasmanian experience might be one worth studying closely in light of the High Court's August 24 ruling.

Greg Barns is a political commentator in Australia and a former Australian government adviser