The debate over Hobart’s proposed cable car – mooted to run from Cascade Gardens and across the Organ Pipes to the pinnacle of kunanyi/Mt Wellington – transcends the stereotypical Tassie-greenie vs. ‘economic progress’ conflict. Local tensions are being ignited by concerns over due process and political transparency, the erasure of Indigenous rights and cultural agency, and short-sighted planning that is viewing the future of Tasmania purely through a tourism lens.
Proposals for a cable car running up Hobart’s highest peak have cyclically bloomed and wilted since first suggested in 1905. Initially broached prior to road access, the enterprise lost momentum with the development of the Pinnacle Road, but regained considerable traction in 1994 under the guidance of Hobart engineer Tim Burbury. The quest to summit the mountain via sky rail has most recently been taken up by developer Adrian Bold, CEO and project director of the Mt Wellington Cableway Company (MWCC). Since Bold first announced his vision for the mountain, rapturous applause and heartfelt dismay have jostled to maintain the louder voice. This rumble is tiredly familiar in the storyline of Tasmania’s ideological and divisive environmental history. How then to communicate the value of a place, if emotional pleas to protect the natural environment are not part of a shared structure of feeling?
In her essay investigating the funding and development of dams in India, author and activist Arundhati Roy wrote, ‘I’m not an anti-development junkie, nor a proselytiser for the eternal upholding of custom and tradition. What I am, however, is curious.’ In a climate where the act of asking questions is a radical gesture, concerns about this cable car development eclipse political values and party lines. What is the true cost of this development? Who benefits, and what is lost in the process?
In February 2017, public concerns about due process and transparency were ignited when the Tasmanian State Government prepared draft laws to compulsorily acquire public land on kunanyi/Mt Wellington to expedite the development process for the MWCC. The Draft Mt Wellington Cable Car Bill legislation provided a three-week window for public comment, and received over 800 submissions. Those concerned about the process highlighted the short time frame for public engagement, the dangerous precedent for the privatisation of public land, the environmental impact, the loose interpretation of the Land Acquisition Act, the ‘build and they will come’ mentality, the wilful disregard of concerns expressed by Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation (TAC) and the overall economic viability of the cable car.
Those in support of the legislation saw the project as emblematic of progress in the state, emphasised the axiomatic benefits of tourism, and expressed frustrations over the ‘greenie minority’ continually stymying growth in ‘slowbart’. Several submissions particularly highlighted the hypocrisy of environmentalists complaining about an ‘eco-proposal’ which would reduce carbon emissions and car usage. The environmental credentials of the cable car have frequently been cited by Adrian Bold, and the MWCC website lists ‘environmental stewardship’ as a core mission of the company. Bold is a self-described ‘eco-capitalist’, a term with limited definition or academic application, but that can broadly be understood as valuing the natural world as a latent resource that can be exploited to increase economic wealth, as well as viewing environmental issues as solvable through economic measures. In practice, it is manifest as a cable-car proponent branding an eco-friendly travel alternative to fossil-fuel-consuming cars, while building a three-storey car park at the base of the mountain. This sleight of hand equates diminished Pinnacle Road use with green credentials, and casts protesters as anti-development hypocrites, while failing to acknowledge the broader environmental impacts of the project or the underlying MWCC philosophy, whereby nature is treasured primarily as a source of capital.
In September 2017, the Cable Car Facilitation Act passed both houses of state government, and on 25 January 2018 (three days before the state election), MWCC was silently given the green light for preliminary drilling and surveying on the mountain. In response, Labor and the Greens called for an Integrity Commission probe into the government’s management of the proposal. Adrian Bold has been accused of assuming a false online identity to rally support for the cable car under the pseudonym of ‘Nathan Carswell’, and an image of Bold with the Minister for State Growth was removed from the parliamentarian’s Facebook page. In Tasmania, the political and personal are interwoven in complex and multiple ways, but are always able to be tangibly traced and vibrating with potential conflict of interest.
The preferred site to launch the cable car is the at the ground of the iconic Cascade Brewery. MWCC is currently under negotiations with its landowners Carlton United Brewery (who in February 2018 were granted $1 million government grant towards a $10.3 million upgrade and growth of the facilities). These grounds were also the site of the community Mountain Mayday Rally in 2018, when almost 5000 attendees gathered in a protest to protect kunanyi. For a city the size of Hobart, this level of engagement can’t be dismissed as the actions of fringe, radical protesters. The turnout physically demonstrated the commonplace nature of concerns over this development. The event showed that it isn’t extreme to care about the future of a place, to question the economics of private development on public land, or to critically examine this finance-led shift that views the city through myopic, profit-driven goggles.
At the Mayday event, Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation executive Heather Sculthorpe described the cable car development as an act of erasure of Aboriginal knowledge and culture. The TAC are not anti-development, but rather, pro-consultation and honouring of Tasmanian Aboriginal people. In 2012, the State Government announced the ‘Aboriginal and Dual Naming Policy’, informed by principles of acknowledging prior ownership and continuing living language. As part of this policy for Palawa and English language recognition, Hobart’s highest peak was formally gazetted as kunanyi/Mt Wellington. Following this place-naming announcement, the MWCC purchased the domain name kunanyi.com. The TAC expressed frustration at the company’s opportunistic colonisation of the website name for economic gain. In response, Bold claimed that ‘the internet belonged to no one, it’s first in, best dressed.’ In response to the public’s distaste for this act of online imperialism, the company reverted their site name to mtwellingtoncablecar.com (while kunanyi.com still redirects to the MWCC site). However, ABN details reveal that on 5 April 2017, MWCC registered the names ‘kunanyi Cafe’, ‘kunanyi enterprises’ and ‘land of incredible scenery and air’. As Sculthorpe clearly communicated at the rally, ‘this fight for kunanyi is also a fight for Aboriginal rights.’
The active forgetting and lack of engagement with Tasmanian Aboriginal people and culture is also materially evident in the State Government’s management of the cable car process. Despite the dual naming act of 2013, the draft Mt Wellington Facilitation Bill rendered the future of the mountain exclusively in colonising terms (and failed to uphold the dual naming policy that specifies that the registered dual names be used in all official documents). As geographer Doreen Massey argues, ‘You can’t hold places still. What you can do is meet up with others, catch up with where another’s history has got to “now”.’ It is in this space of ‘meeting up’ that the MWCC fails to create inclusive and respectful spaces for future development. The company’s narrow gaze is cast only so far as to envision a future for its stakeholders, and it exploits the currency of Palawa language without including Palawa people. While promoting itself as ‘innovative’ and ‘progress driven’, the MWCC cements a singular and exclusionary model of operating.
Scottish poet Nan Shepherd spent her life exploring and writing about the Cairngorm Mountains. Her writing communicates ways of knowing that are bodily and transformative. She also encourages what might be described as a feminist approach to mountaineering, which is not about conquering nature through swift ascent to the summit, but rather an engagement with the mountains that unfolds incrementally through loving attention to place. As she explains in The Living Mountain: a celebration of the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland (2005), ‘to aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain.’
In considering the future of kunanyi/Mt Wellington and Hobart, the quick spectacle is not always the most rewarding. The benchmark should not be the volume of tourists, but the quality of their experience, and their engagement and interaction with Tasmania. The MWCC development highlights the creeping transition towards a model of urban planning via-tourism policy, as Hobart’s skyline is redesigned with the punctuation of hotels, capital projects and private investments, and urban form follows finance.
Tourism that focuses on the temporary extravaganza is often exclusionary and expensive, and fails to invest in the everyday encounters and lived experiences of the city for both residents and visitors. In Hobart, where rental availability is at a national low, and homelessness has risen 21 per cent in the last five years, how is it that the government can legislate to acquire public land for private gain, but cannot orchestrate legal provisions to connect the Tasmanian Affordable Housing Action Plan with urban development or planning strategy? Or develop a policy position on affordable housing with mandatory provisions in the planning scheme?
‘To aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain’ – and is not the only way to build a sustainable, democratic city.