In 2020, a Muswellbrook Council committee involving employers, unions and business groups commissioned a study by Australia's leading experts on regional industry change, from UniSA. The report lays out decades' worth of experience on how to manage the impacts of industrial closures and structural change.
It deserves a read.
The straightforward conclusion? "There is no single agreed approach to best practice ... However, it is clear that there is a need for affected workers and communities to have a sense of procedural justice, leaving them with the understanding that everything that could have been done to help had been done."
This should be the standard to which the Hunter aspires. We are making serious progress. We should be encouraged by efforts from unions, local governments, state and now federal government, employers and business groups, environmentalists, and everyone in between.
Discussions on economic change are getting less bogged down in the politics of climate. That's to the credit of the region and its leaders, and it reflects the prevailing community view that has emerged.
For example, the Hunter Jobs Alliance conducted large sample polling in February. it found: 67 per cent of Hunter locals expect large economic changes caused by shifts in mining and energy in the next 15 years - slightly more in the Upper Hunter; 64 per cent see responding as an urgent priority, again more in the Upper Hunter and 73 per cent want a Hunter Valley Authority to "coordinate responses to economic change, attract jobs and investment, and assist workers", with only 11 per cent opposed.
There are many views on why and how fast these changes are occurring, but the region is now focused on collectively tackling undeniable economic shifts. And, like any situation that involves livelihoods and families, people want to action, not talk.
The Rejuvenation Fund and Hunter Expert Panel are laying the foundations of a response, and we should be first in line for federal initiatives such as the $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund.
But we are in the early stages, and some cornerstones are not yet in place. The Hunter needs to get the fundamentals sorted, quickly, and move on to delivering programs that support workers and communities. With the concerted advocacy of different groups in recent years, and closures such as Eraring, Liddell, and Mount Arthur affecting thousands of workers and businesses, the region has a strong case for further action.
The task now is articulating in detail what resources and capacity we need. Identifying specific program needs and avoiding inefficient overlaps on an issue that cuts across multiple portfolios is critical. Requests must be well justified and specific enough for a state government that has limited budgets and demands across an entire state. This does not diminish the Hunter's case for equitable treatment as a large contributor to the state's wealth, but it shows the region as a match-fit partner ready for devolved responsibility.
Local governments, elected representatives, unions, business and community groups have made strong contributions on this front. Following these efforts, the Hunter Jobs Alliance has sought to articulate a straightforward proposal, built on existing policy, informed by an analysis of regional capacity gaps, and using action in other states as a yardstick.
First, regarding public investment. A doubling of the Royalties for Rejuvenation Fund, to $50 million a year, would be a fair addition that responded to concerns about current $25 million funding being spread over four regions. This should be done while retaining the Resources for Region infrastructure and community fund at least at current levels.
Second, after accounting for initiatives in diversification, clean energy and investment attraction, there are remaining needs that can be addressed only by a Hunter authority or equivalent independent body with a dedicated structural change focus. Key functions would include coordination and delivery of worker support services, advice to agencies and stakeholders on economic change, supply chain diversification, employment land reuse, and landscape restoration.
Options for an authority-type model include evolving the expert panel, adding functions to existing independent regional bodies, or an agency similar to the Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation. Fifteen million a year would be sufficient to establish a permanent agency with coordination, advisory and program capacity that could leverage other sources, such as the Rejuvenation Fund. Importantly, such an agency should be Upper Hunter-based and incorporate a local advisory board.
Third, a doubled Rejuvenation Fund and a regional authority allocation amounts to $65 million a year. A sustained funding commitment - for example a 10-year period - would be a state investment equivalent to similar situations in Latrobe Valley and Collie.
This proposal is affordable, justified by a strong policy rationale, and provides a durable base that would allow the region to get cracking on the long-term task - that is, to back our community through change and to demonstrate fully that everything that could have been done is being done.
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