Economic development on the Far South Coast

Economic Development on the Far South Coast

Campaign Event for Leanne Atkinson, NSW Labor Candidate for BegaSaturday,

31 January 2015 

I acknowledge the traditional owners, on whose lands we meet today. Thanks to Leanne for inviting me here this afternoon, and to Doug for his very moderate moderating. It’s great to share the stage with a policy thinker of the calibre of David Hetherington. It’s good to be here with all of you as well, although I am slightly worried about who’s minding Canberra since it seems as though we’re all here at the coast.

In politics we spend a lot of time dealing with the things that are most urgent, but not necessarily the most important. Events like today’s provide an opportunity to raise our eyes to the horizon and think about the big picture challenges we need to address for this community’s future. I think it’s a great indication of the approach Leanne would bring as this region’s local member, and I commend her for facing up to the challenges ahead with energy and optimism.  

One hundred years ago, the great Australian novelist and poet Henry Lawson wrote a brief account of Bermagui. He said this is the place ‘where the mystery was – where the mystery is’. Much of what he wrote about the physical landscape remains familiar to us today. From the ‘sort of jumbled curve of bay’ of sand, rock and beach scrub that stretches along the southern coast, to the squat range of Mount Dromedary – ‘a bastard mountain’ as he called it – not much has changed in this area’s beautiful natural surroundings.

But when it comes to daily life in Bermagui, I think Lawson would find that much has changed. White settlement in Australia occurred less than ten generations ago. And just a few generations ago Bermagui was a thriving hub, connecting the Bega Valley to the outside world.

In his sketch, Lawson wrote of men labouring throughout the day into the dead of the night, loading cargo holds with cheese, butter, eggs, timber, calves, pigs and wool. He described ships scouting the rugged coast, delivering the rich bounty of this valley up to waiting markets in Sydney and Newcastle.

Were Lawson to return today, he would find a lot less activity to inspire his pen. Today, this is a region facing some big economic and demographic challenges. Just a few figures paint the picture:

  • From a low of 3.8% in 2011, unemployment in the Bega Shire jumped up to 8.5% in 2014. That’s well above both the national and state-wide unemployment figures which are sitting at just over 6 per cent.
  • The loss of jobs here means that young people and those in their prime working years are increasingly moving away. At the moment, only 15.5% of the population here is in that crucial 20 to 39 year old age bracket, compared with 27 per cent of the NSW population overall. This is, in fact, the oldest electorate demographically in the state, with the median age here sitting at 48 compared with 38 across the state. Of course, as someone whose own age has a four in front of it, I would argue that this simply means the Bega electorate has acquired experience, judgement, taste and gravitas. But an older population does create challenges in terms of service delivery, employment and other fields.
  • As many of you would be all too aware, incomes here are significantly lower than the NSW average. As a result, approximately 45 per cent of Bega residents are currently receiving some form of government benefit, compared with just 27 per cent for NSW overall.    
  • Outcomes for this region’s Indigenous community are particularly poor too, with 22 per cent of people unemployed and only 18 per cent attaining Year 12 or equivalent qualifications.  

So this part of the world has its challenges. But there’s no reason to think these are insurmountable if we apply enough energy and thought to finding solutions. I know that Leanne has a number of big ideas she’ll be talking about throughout the campaign, including:

  • establishing an agriculture labour exchange and training organisation that could build up the local agricultural workforce and move kids from this community up the skill chain;
  • creating a single brand for the ‘Far South Coast’ that can help promote your local products, as well as expanding tourism; and
  • emphasising smaller, sustainable forestry and fishery operations as a replacement for industrial forestry and commercial fishing.

I think those are great ideas and I hope you’ll all share with Leanne your own thoughts and insights on how to bring them to fruition. 

In the time remaining, I wanted to share a few of my own thoughts on how this region can focus its energies and harness new opportunities. 

One of the most fundamental principles in economics is the idea of comparative advantage. It’s a fancy way of saying that countries, companies and people get the most benefit when they work to their strengths. For example, I’m pretty handy with a set of numbers but Steven Smith is exceptionally good with a cricket bat. So it would be neither efficient nor effective to ask him to crunch out a set of labour force figures, and let’s face it – no-one is sending me out in the top order at the SCG.

No regional community in Australia can be all things to all people. The important thing for successful regional economic development is to work out where your own comparative advantage lies. What can you do better, more efficiently, or more innovatively here than other communities around Australia?

Some areas that immediately strike me as having great potential are agriculture and produce, renewable energy and cultural or eco-tourism. You’ve got a clean and green environment for making all those high-quality, speciality food products that inner city hipsters love, and the success of the Tilba Cheese Factory down the road is testament to that. The Bega Cheese Factory also shows that it’s possible to scale that kind of production up for the export market.

This region also has a lot of potential for wind and wave power generation – as anyone who’s gone for a walk along Haywards Beach in April can attest! And with almost 70 per cent of the electorate being designated national park, there’s obviously potential to partner with your Indigenous communities to create unique cultural and eco-tourism experiences which harness the wild and natural beauty of this place.   

So identifying and exploiting your sources of comparative advantage is one priority. Another should be breaking down the barriers of distance and access which serve to disadvantage this community. The biggest area of potential here would have to be internet and mobile connectivity.

With a fast and reliable internet connection, Bega’s young people can study online at any university of their choosing around Australia. Sea-changers and people looking to ease into retirement can work remotely in just about any field. After all, if a lawyer or a financial advisor can provide professional services to Hong Kong from a tower block in Sydney, why can’t they also do so from a house here by the beach? With better mobile and internet infrastructure local businesses can reach out to the world and find new markets or customers, and tourists will whine less about their inability to check in on Facebook. I understand that you’ve already got a small cluster of IT services and companies here in the electorate, and better connectivity would also help them grow.

Unfortunately, boosting this region’s internet and mobile infrastructure will take input from outside. You need the big telcos to take their service delivery more seriously here, and you need the state and federal governments to get cracking on core infrastructure like the National Broadband Network. To achieve both those things, you need a local member who is willing to go into bat for them. I know that Leanne has the drive and energy to do that, because she understands what a difference it would make to this community.

Finally (and here’s where I get on my own policy hobby horse), there’s lots of evidence that more unequal communities are less successful – whether it’s in their economic growth, their social cohesion or their community life. We all know that inequality exists in this community: between those who live here year-round and those who come for the summer; between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people; between comfortably-off Canberra retirees and struggling younger families. Inequality is not a problem that simply resolves itself when other conditions improve. Rather, fixing it can help solve those other problems and boost the entire community’s wellbeing in the process. Amongst other things, addressing inequality means targeting government programs and supports to where they are most needed, focusing on the educational attainment of the most disadvantaged, and supporting families to lead stable, secure lives.

Not everyone believes that inequality matters. Lawson’s account of Bermagui also mentions the two-class ship on which he was travelling, in which the first class cabin was at the aft, and the second class cabin at the fore:

‘in the fore-cabin it is written everywhere in brass and paint and worked on the mats – “Second Class Ladies”, “Second Class Gents”; on the other “Males”, “Females”. Stony fact.

A century on, there’s still too many Australians who get a second-class treatment. There’s a lot of inequality out there in regional Australian communities like this one, but if we can work to address it, everyone will be better off.

As I said earlier, there’s no reason to think that the challenges your community faces are insurmountable. But if you’ll excuse me being shamelessly partisan for a moment, part of the solution involves having a local member who really wants to see the Bega region grow and prosper, not one who takes it for granted. This region can thrive again like it did in Henry Lawson’s day, and I’m looking forward to hearing ideas from all of you on how to bring about that revival.

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