There’s now just a week left until the public makes its choice on who will lead our state for the next four years.
The role of the Illawarra Business Chamber is to advance our region’s economy on behalf of its 27,000 businesses. While an individual’s vote is a highly personal decision, driven by an array of considerations – not the least of which being habit – we view politics very pragmatically, and will work with whomever will deliver the best outcomes for the region.
If the question is “who will that be?”, then the answer in this case is not completely straightforward. The two major issues facing the Illawarra economy are, in order, a lack of available and skilled workforce, and underdeveloped transport infrastructure that has not kept pace with our growth.
To address the first, we have run a strong election campaign calling on all candidates to ‘skill NSW for the future’. Skills shortages are holding back the key sectors of our economy, and youth unemployment is still far too high at 12.9 percent. We need to do far more with the 60 percent of school leavers who don’t go to university, and TAFE is letting us down.
Both the coalition and Labor have come to the table with commitments to strengthen TAFE and address skills shortages, which is a terrific outcome. On the other hand, there is no coherent strategy from either side to address the long-term lack of investment in our major road network and freight and passenger rail lines. Our research estimates that the transport infrastructure constraints hampering our region will cost the economy $640 million per annum by 2031. There is no doubt that Gareth Ward has delivered much-needed road infrastructure in the south of our region, with a promise to extend the Pacific Highway to the Victorian border; matched this week by Labor.
The two major issues facing the Illawarra economy are, in order, a lack of available and skilled workforce, and underdeveloped transport infrastructure that has not kept pace with our growth.
In addition, the coalition’s commitment to the first stage of the F6 Extension is welcome, but on our analysis needs to be delivered from Arncliffe to Loftus to save 27 minutes commuting time in the morning peak and deliver a $67 million benefit to the Illawarra economy. However the coalition has been silent when it comes to the major upgrade of Picton Road, which is concerning. A re-elected coalition government’s focus must next move to the north and towards completion of an ‘integrated road network’ to connect us to the Greater Sydney economy.
If Labor is elected and Ryan Park becomes the state treasurer then we will expect him to follow through on his promise to openly assess the Maldon Dombarton line. It would be remiss not to consider the benefits of a combined passenger rail line included in our SWIRL proposal at this time as well. While the major parties argue over the merits of rail versus road projects, we would instead paraphrase Premier Gladys Berejiklian and ask “why can’t we have it all?” With a significant war chest derived from the lease of various state assets, the government can well-afford to finance key infrastructure projects that have a solid business case.
Wollongong receives a fraction of Restart NSW funds and stands to receive nothing from the Snowy Hydro Legacy Fund, which will be spent entirely in regional NSW. Wollongong is excluded from this ‘regional’ definition, but conversely is unable to compete against the infrastructure backlog of Western Sydney. Our members were pleased to hear Ryan Park and Gareth Ward recognise this concern as requiring the attention of an incoming government at our recent pre-election forum.
We have fought hard to have the payroll tax threshold lifted to $1 million and so are deeply concerned that Labor’s plans to backtrack on this will negatively impact 122 Illawarra businesses on the threshold, discouraging them from expanding or taking on more staff. But we have welcomed Labor’s commitment to relocate the Office of Liquor and Gaming to Wollongong, which will see 200 jobs come to our CBD. Government department relocations can have a substantial flow-on effect on local economies and attract other business as a result. To date, the government’s ‘Decade of Decentralisation’ policy has seen most public sector jobs moved to Western Sydney.
More can be done for the Illawarra, and in the likely event of a ‘hung’ parliament following March 23 - or at least one that is more politically diverse - we rededicate ourselves to continuing to work with all sides to build the Illawarra economy.
Adam Zarth is the Executive Director of the Illawarra Business Chamber