OPINION: Sydney pollies killing off coal jobs in Hunter

July 09, 2015

This opinion piece originally featured in the Daily Telegraph on July 9 2015

From the north shore of Sydney they can see the Sydney CBD for which they make the bulk of their decisions.
Meanwhile, hard-working people in the regions of NSW are left to wonder if this government has any idea what it’s really like to live, work and raise a family away from the leafy suburbs by the Harbour or the beach.
Fresh from a convincing election win, the NSW government is at risk of becoming Sydney-centric with key ministers making decisions which seem to ignore the economic reality of life in regional communities beyond the suburbs.
It’s true the Sydney economy is humming. There are plenty of cranes on the CBD skyline, housing construction is going gangbusters, and ­record Sydney property sales are filling government coffers with stamp duty. Unemployment in many parts of Sydney is under 4 per cent.
But outside of Sydney the situation is dramatically different. Take the Hunter for ­example, the second largest ­region in NSW, and a key ­driver of overall state growth.
It’s also home to a large part of our mining industry, which contributes around a third of the economic activity of the ­region and a large bulk of our state’s exports, including coal.
Unemployment in the Hunter is over 11 per cent, or twice the NSW average. Many Hunter communities are suffering from a downturn that feels like a regional recession.
And it’s not just the Hunter that’s suffering. In the Illa-warra, another mining region, unemployment is at 9 per cent. In the central west the jobless rate is nearly 8 per cent. On Sydney’s north shore, unemployment is around 3 per cent.
Under these circumstances, you would think protecting and creating regional jobs would be a priority. Yet instead the NSW government wants to move the goal posts on NSW planning laws, removing economic considerations from the assessment of important mining projects that are the lifeblood of the Hunter and other communities across regional NSW.
The proposal to change the mining State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) will ­remove a critical component designed to protect jobs.
The measure to be removed was only introduced by the government a few years back. It was intended to ensure an appropriate balance between economic, environmental and social factors in project assessments and it worked within a wider planning framework that put environmental and ­social impacts at the centre of the planning process.
Back then the responsible minister completely failed to explain it, enabling its purpose to be misunderstood and misrepresented. Now, rather than defending its own policy, the NSW government has ­instead chosen what it believes to be the easy political rather than the sound policy option.
To make it even worse, there’s been no clarity from the NSW government that this change won’t be retrospective.
This means projects currently in the planning system could be affected by a last minute rule change, even those at the final stages of assessment.
This has the potential to kill off 1800 jobs at two projects in the Hunter Valley at key stages in the approval process, and make it even more difficult for other job-generating projects in the future.
This economic policy deb-acle also sends a bad signal to the world about NSW as a place to invest. Those considering investing in job-generating projects here in NSW will quite rightly want to know if the rules could be changed on them, too. It’s a bad look for a state government that prides itself on describing NSW as “open for business’’.
Protest groups have been quick to praise the government, even calling for them to further hamstring the NSW economy. When the Sydney property market stabilises and the cranes stop their work on the city skyline, what will be left for those outside our great capital city? Regional NSW needs investment and jobs. It’s time for less Sydney-centric decisions and some responsible economic policy for the good of our state.

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