Senate debates

Tuesday, 11 May 2021


Regional Development Australia Illawarra

9:15 pm

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Regional Development Australia is an Australian government initiative that brings together all levels of government to support the development of regional Australia. Funded by the federal government and by state, territory and local governments, the 52 RDA committees across Australia are made up of dedicated, passionate local leaders. These committees work with the three tiers of government to support economic and workforce development, local procurement and strategic regional planning and inform government programs and infrastructure investments.

With my office located in Wollongong, I have been fortunate to work with and see firsthand the contribution by RDA Illawarra. The Illawarra region comprises the Wollongong, Shellharbour and Kiama local government areas. Over 300,000 people live in the Illawarra. It borders the Shoalhaven in the south, Sydney in the north and the Southern Highlands in the west. RDA Illawarra has a small staff of three and a board of 14 dedicated people who volunteer their time to drive economic development initiatives for the greater good of the region. It is a neutral broker of growth as well as public and private sector investment for our region, in collaboration with regional stakeholders. Under the guidance of CEO Debra Murphy and chairman Eddy De Gabriele, RDA Illawarra continues to work towards the delivery of projects, often from concept stage, that will sustain and grow the Illawarra region.

RDA Illawarra's flagship project is the innovative Leadership Illawarra program, which is in its ninth year. It provides a sustainable pathway to grow the next generation of leaders in the Illawarra community. It has been my very great pleasure to meet with many participants in this program, both here at Parliament House and at my electorate office in Wollongong. Each quarter, RDA Illawarra publishes a report to the region in which it provides a snapshot of its achievements. In doing so, it demonstrates openness and accountability to the region's stakeholders and the wider community. Moving forward, the Illawarra region continues to face challenges. Having said that, I believe that there are many—perhaps more than before—opportunities for the Illawarra, especially given the University of Wollongong now ranks in the top one per cent of universities in the world and the presence of international corporations like BlueScope. RDA Illawarra, through its work, has identified some of these challenges and opportunities, and I would like to examine some of these this evening.

The Illawarra economy is diverse. There is an over-reliance on healthcare and social assistance sector and education jobs, which respectively are 14 and 23 per cent above the New South Wales state average. Sadly, the Illawarra has lost thousands of jobs in the manufacturing and mining sectors over the past 10 or so years, and this means it has a lower-than-average income—12 per cent lower than the New South Wales and national incomes. Consequently, Illawarra residents have less disposable income. Economic changes have seen lower-income jobs replace more highly paid jobs. There is a jobs deficit of more than 25,000 jobs. Hence, many people are required to commute long distances to work, often two hours each way per day, or they choose to no longer participate in the workforce. Infrastructure investment is lagging, with major road and rail corridors near capacity and in need of investment. With the advent of the second airport at Badgerys Creek, to Illawarra's north-west, I hope that future consideration can be given to greater connectivity of air, rail and port links.

There is, however, opportunity to grow sectors—the professional and technical services sector, the finance sector and the information and communication technology sector. The Illawarra is also in a prime position for further decentralisation of public and private sector jobs due to its proximity to Sydney and Canberra, particularly as part of RDA's COVID recovery strategy, which includes a Future of Work project focusing on remote working opportunities for the region. The post-COVID recovery of the visitor economy in the region is patchy, with Wollongong LGA, especially, lagging in the recent domestic tourism boom. RDA Illawarra estimates that 50 per cent of food and accommodation services jobs will be lost when JobKeeper ends. One year on from COVID, the current decline in the tourism sector has seen a loss of 1,500 jobs across the Illawarra.

There are opportunities, though, for growth in advanced manufacturing, in scale-up and start-up businesses. Most recently, RDA has led a collaborative approach to addressing many of the Illawarra's regional challenges. It has leveraged opportunities through the Illawarra-Shoalhaven City Deal initiative, with a prospectus launched in October last year. To date, projects identified in the deal have secured funding of over $69 million from the New South Wales government and $240 million from the federal government. Those familiar with the area will be especially pleased with the announcements in this year's budget of $240 million to construct the Mount Ousley interchange. Work on the Illawarra-Shoalhaven City Deal continues and, I'm informed, there is an increased pace of engagement with the New South Wales and federal governments as well as with local stakeholders.

The RDA has maintained that the port at Port Kembla has been underutilised, and I certainly agree with this. In October 2014, in my capacity as an Illawarra based senator, I made a submission to the defence white paper, attaching a paper prepared by my husband, Commander John Wells (RAN Retired), proposing that the time had come to consider the relocation of the Royal Australian Navy Fleet Base East from Garden Island, Sydney, to Port Kembla. Following this, in June 2015, RDA Illawarra, with bipartisan support from local MPs Sharon Bird and Stephen Jones and key regional stakeholders, produced a publication: 'Jewel of the East Coast': the case for relocation of Royal Australian Navy Fleet Base East to the port of Port Kembla. In 2016, Racial Discrimination Act, together with other stakeholders, commissioned a report outlining the suitability of Port Kembla harbour as a potential location for future RAN basing on the east coast of Australia The report was provided on a confidential basis to both the federal and New South Wales governments.

There are significant opportunities for growth at the port of Port Kembla and surrounding industrial land precincts—either current investment attraction opportunities or potential future precinct opportunities. The RDA Illawarra continues to support current investment attraction opportunities at the port. The Illawarra Hydrogen Hub includes significant opportunities for green energy, including Coregas's hydrogen production and heavy vehicle refuelling station. Andrew Forrest's Squadron Energy group has two key developments: Australian Industrial Energy's Port Kembla gas import terminal and Australian Industrial Power's Port Kembla dual-fuel green power station. The gas terminal will be the first LNG import terminal on the east coast and could supply 75 per cent of New South Wales's annual gas needs. In November last year, BlueScope announced a $20 million plan to create a renewable manufacturing zone at Port Kembla.

RDA Illawarra continues to highlight significant future investment attraction and precinct activation opportunities available at the port of Port Kembla, including a future Navy submarine base and maintenance facility. I have advocated that it would be very good to base our submarines there, given the proximity of the harbour to the deep waters off Port Kembla. Other opportunities are a hydrogen-vehicle production facility; advanced manufacturing and industrial support services; a dry-bulk and bulk-liquids facility; a container terminal, along with warehouses and distribution centres, including activation of the south-west Illawarra rail link and the southern container intermodal rail terminal projects; and green-energy production and resource recovery and circular-economy facilities to handle recycling from greater Sydney. There is significant industrial land in the port precinct at Port Kembla and Unanderra that could be activated for future growth. RDA is working to ensure the best use of an estimated 1,400 hectares of land to maximise economic benefits and high-value jobs for the Illawarra.

To see the port of Port Kembla come to fruition, a planned and strategic approach to its development is required. Having been born, raised and educated in the Illawarra, in Port Kembla, it is my dream to see the port of Port Kembla developed and, most especially, to see a Royal Australian Navy presence there. I conclude by congratulating RDA on its work in growing a confident Illawarra regional economy that harnesses competitive advantages, seizes on economic opportunities and attracts quality and sustainable investment to the region. I commend the work of RDA Illawarra, including its dedicated staff and volunteer board.