1301.6 - Tasmanian Year Book, 2000  
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Feature Article - A century of Trade

Following the history of Tasmania’s record of trade gives a powerful insight into the changing fortunes of the State, as emerging industries, changing culture and technological developments are reflected in the composition of its exports and imports.

By the late 1880s, the value of Tasmania’s exports had comfortably outgrown the value of its imports, and by 1900 the value of exports had grown to 2.6m, while imports were 2.1m. In 1900 the value of the exports amounted to 15 2s 2d per head of mean population: 42% of the total was destined for mainland Australia and New Zealand, 26% for the United Kingdom, and 31% to foreign countries. Chief goods imported were textiles and dress fabrics, machinery and equipment, and food and drink (including alcoholic drinks).

Tasmania’s mining industry was clearly into its heyday, as nearly 63% of total exports consisted of minerals and metals: 838,071 worth of blister copper, 270,373 of tin, 204,544 of gold, 172,166 of silver ore, 79,914 of silver bullion and 63,589 of copper ore were exported.

On the agricultural side, wool, fruit, potatoes, and live sheep were also significant exports. Interestingly, the record shows that one tiger, valued at 5, was exported to New South Wales. This would most likely have been a Tasmanian Tiger, or Thylacine, a species that was later to become extinct.

In 1909 the total value of Tasmania’s exports were 3.4m and imports 3.1m. Imports were still dominated by textile fabrics, food, clothing and other manufactured goods; exports by apples, potatoes, and wool, and most significantly metals: gold, silver, copper and tin. The jam and hop industries had also begun to show their worth, with 143,975 in jam exports, and 63,815 of hops.

By 1910, Australia had settled in to its new status as a Commonwealth, and the collection of statistics was regulated by the Census and Statistics Act 1905. The individual State statistical offices had been combined into the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, and recording of interstate trade by the Customs Department ceased. Only direct overseas imports and exports were recorded from September 1910: this only amounted to about one-eighth of the total exports, and one-quarter of imports, and thus do not present an adequate view of the State’s trade.

In 1922-23 data was again collected on interstate trade, compiled by the Bureau with the assistance of marine boards and individual traders. The value of exports had risen to almost 8m, with imports rising to 9.1m. Much of this increased value was a result of increased prices, rather than an increase in quantities. The greatest increase in exports was due to the Electrolytic Zinc Works at Risdon (established in 1917), which exported over 1m in zinc, compared to 1909, when only a small amount of zinc ore was exported. Confectionery and calcium carbide were another two newly established industries, which contributed about 90,000 each to the exports total. Apples, potatoes, wool and hops still predominated in agricultural exports, and jams had risen in value to contribute 380,540 to total exports. Major imports were still textiles and clothing, food and drink, and metal manufactured goods. There were 537 motor cars imported during the year.

During 1930-31 the effects of world-wide depression had their effect on Tasmania’s economy as everywhere else. The depreciation of Australian currency and depressed world prices affected the returns that exporters were able to earn overseas, and Tasmania’s trade balance once again swung into deficit. Total imports were valued at 7.2m, and exports at 7.0m. The world price for zinc fell from 24 6s per ton to 16, so the value of zinc exports was reduced in total, in spite of increased volumes exported. The same story applied to wool and potatoes. Fruit growers received better prices, and an extension of the open season on possums allowed a substantial increase in the export of their skins.

It was recognised that tourism was beginning to be an important economic activity, despite its contribution being difficult to measure in terms of the exchange of goods.

In 1939-40 the value of imports rose to 12.1m, and exports to 12.9m, a record trade performance. Interstate imports accounted for 89.5% of the total imports, interstate exports for 81% of the total exports. The balance of trade was in surplus again, and the exchange rate remained steady throughout the year. Substantial increases were reported for a number of major export items, foremost among them was woollen manufactures, contributing 1.3m to the export total. The APPM pulp mill at Burnie had started operations in 1939, and the ANM Boyer newsprint mill followed in 1941, producing the first newsprint from Tasmanian hardwood, and establishing the State’s paper industry. The outbreak of world war had effectively removed overseas competitors from the market, thus enabling these new industries to start up.

By 1949-50, Tasmania was riding on a wave of post-war prosperity, with manufacturing industries driving imports as inputs as well as finished products as exports . The value of exports had risen to A38.3m, and imports to A40.3m. The value of trade by air was recorded for the first time, amounting to A7.3m. Most of the air trade imports were in textiles and clothing; with textiles dominating the air exports. The proportion by value of interstate trade had fallen during the decade from 92% of imports and 88.5% of exports in 1940-41, to 73.3% of imports and 58.8% of exports in 1949-50, indicating the State had developed more direct trading links with overseas markets. Over A5.8m of wool was exported, along with nearly A5m worth of zinc and over A2m of fresh apples.

In 1959-60 the State’s total value of exports had risen to A103m, while imports were valued at A88.4m. In 1959 the vehicular ferry service by the Princess of Tasmania enabled a sharp increase in the transport across Bass Strait of tourist passenger vehicles. It was estimated that this service helped increase the value of both imports and exports by A4m during the year. Apples, wool, butter and zinc, aluminium and copper continued to be major exports, and sawn and dressed timber (mostly eucalypt) exports were valued at over A4m.

In 1966, Australia adopted its own decimal currency, based on the Australian dollar, which was equivalent at the time to about
10 shillings, or $2 to the earlier pound (A).

The value of Tasmania’s exports for 1969-70 was $455.8m, and imports were valued at $325.0m. Trade by air was still a small proportion of the total, contributing only 6% by value. Manufactured goods and machinery from the Australian mainland dominated imports and zinc, tin, apples, wool, frozen vegetables and timber were the major exports. Over $25m worth of iron ore was also shipped from Port Latta. Japan had taken over as Tasmania’s major export trading partner, taking over $43m of goods, which included the iron ore from Port Latta.

The United Kingdom only took $24.4m of the State’s exports, which still included mostly food and live animals (butter, apples and sheep), some wool and manufactured goods. The declining status of the United Kingdom as a trading partner not only reflected the relative increase in Japan’s position, but the impact of the formation of the European Common Market. Whereas previously Tasmanian goods such as apples, pears and butter had received preferential treatment in the UK market, they now faced direct competition from European countries.

By 1979-80 the value of Tasmania’s exports had reached $1,446.9m, and imports $1,168.8m. Principal overseas exports were still the metals: zinc ($100.3m), tin ($57.6m), lead ($53.0m), iron ($46.5m) and tungsten, mainly from the King Island scheelite mine ($29.8m). Agricultural produce such as beef, wool, live sheep and skins were important, as was abalone, valued at $10.4m for the year. The export of apples played only a minor role. Woodchips were being exported, but the quantity and value were not published, due to confidentiality. Japan was far and away Tasmania’s most important trading partner, taking $217.9m of our total overseas exports. Much of this consisted of iron ore pellets, but copper, woodchips and abalone were also significant exports. Japanese tuna fishing boats were also operating frequently in Tasmanian waters, and the value of these vessels is recorded in both imports and exports.

Late in the 1970s it was recognised that data being collected for interstate trade movements was unreliable, and towards 1980 the data was increasingly being estimated. By 1984-85 the collection ceased completely, so from then on the ABS has only collected information on overseas trade movements. This does not give a complete picture of Tasmania’s economic situation, but is however still a valuable indicator of changes from year to year.

In 1997-98, international trade was still dominated by Japan, taking $549m of Tasmania’s exports, which was 25.7% of total overseas exports: $283m of this was made up by woodchips, a significant input into Japan’s paper industry. Iron ore, used in Japanese car manufacture, no longer played a significant role, following the closure of the Savage River mine in late 1996. Zinc and aluminium are still important exports, and a major contribution to the State’s exports is now being made by ship and boat builders, principally aluminium catamarans. Ship and boat building has historically been an important industry throughout Tasmania’s history, but particularly in the early years of the colony, when craftsmen were quick to appreciate the qualities of Tasmanian timbers.

It seems likely that Tasmania’s trade records will always be dominated by overseas transactions, as the abundance of mineral resources, rich forests and fertile soils make it possible to produce a wealth far beyond what even the small Australian population can consume. Local manufacturers import a great deal of the raw materials required as input to their processes, but the value of what is exported must significantly exceed what is imported for this purpose. As new industries emerge and others decline, their exports will continue to be reflected in the statistics of the State.

This article has only covered the trade of goods between countries and States. To gain a complete picture of Tasmania’s trade requires further information on the interstate sea and air freight movements, as well as on the exchange of financial and other services, such as education and tourism.