Wednesday, 16 September, 2015


I have recently had the pleasure of spending three weeks in the Arctic region. I don’t think I could possibly have travelled further from Newcastle physically and the perspective I gained from afar was enlightening. It is clear that the Arctic region is a ‘canary in a coal mine’ for global climate change. It is hard to argue with the physical evidence that glaciers are receding. The potential impact on wildlife, particularly the polar bear, is also hard to refute. Having had the privilege to sight polar bears with cubs on three separate occasions on my trip, I am mindful that this very large ’canary‘ may be challenged by reductions in sea ice well before concerted global action is taken to address climate issues.

The globe cannot continue “sleepwalking into a real mess” in relation to climate change.

The former head of Treasury Martin Parkinson used this phrase to describe Australia’s path over the next decades unless fundamental and structural changes are made to ensure that the economy is more productive (SMH Aug 27). As the Hunter Research Foundation (HRF) has previously reported, the Hunter is a microcosm of Australia. I believe our region is the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for the Australian economy, with our young people being the most vulnerable indicators of its economic circumstance.

We experienced the impact of a slow-down in mining investment, reduction in commodity prices and the resultant flow-on impacts through the manufacturing value chain well before the impacts were fully felt across Australia. We are also at the forefront of trying to rebalance our regional economy and increase diversification. Recent news that one of our long-standing coal-mining players, Rio Tinto, is considering exiting the region, as well as the Bloomfield Group seeking to expand its holdings, indicates that the future of coal mining, while assured in the short to medium term, is likely to have a different role in driving the Hunter economy in the future. The recent decision taken by the Newcastle City Council on fossil fuel investments also demonstrates the region’s relationship with coal is changing.

The important question is: what industry or industries will emerge to create new jobs and new value in the region? Key to this, both within the Hunter and across Australia, will be to focus on innovative ways to add value to our abundant natural and built resources and to leverage our growing highly-educated young workforce.

HRF’s recent economic indicators have shown a temporary slow-down in the rate of unemployment and an improved construction forecast, providing some evidence that our economy may be turning the corner. However, youth unemployment remains persistently high. Just as the world needs to begin planning a response to climate change, we need to maintain a concerted effort to drive new economic opportunities for our Region or this small improvement will be a speed bump on the road to an increasingly uncertain economic future. We also risk a generation of our young people taking their passion, skills and energy out of the region to find opportunities for employment elsewhere.

We cannot continue to sleepwalk around the impacts of global climate change, and we must not sleepwalk into a future where the Hunter’s long-term economic sustainability hangs in the balance, driven by commodity cycles or hampered by the lack of a clear pathway to create new industries and new high-value jobs, particularly for our young people. The lack of real regional development policies, from all sides and levels of politics, and the lack of consensus on how best to take the region forward, will continue to inhibit the Hunter’s ability to reach its full potential.

At HRF our sponsors and partners are helping us to conduct solutions-driven research and analysis of our key industry sectors to find ways to enable them to grow and become more globally-competitive. We are analysing our region’s strengths and advocating an evidence-driven approach to industry sector growth in manufacturing and professional services, youth engagement, and land-use conflict resolution. This research is vital to inform strategies and to support development and implementation of high-impact actions.

Stop sleepwalking Australia and the Hunter or the canary could fall off its perch!

This article was published in the Newcastle Herald on 7 September 2015.