Illawarra is hoping for more industrial growth amid federal campaign commitments
With manufacturing jobs surging in Illawarra, there is an expectation that it could rejoin the nation’s industrial powerhouse alongside Newcastle and western Sydney, regardless of who wins the general election.
At its peak in the 1980s, the Port Kembla steelworks alone employed around 20,000 mostly migrant workers, while thousands of migrant women worked in garment factories.
Today, the garment factories are overseas, while a highly mechanized steel mill employs only 3,000 people directly and supports another 10,000.
But there are signs that local manufacturing could turn the tide, with more than 1,000 new jobs being created between 2017 and 2022.
“We’ve seen manufacturing jobs being hit quite hard by the COVID pandemic, but that trend has clearly reversed and we’ve added jobs at the rate of probably 200 a year for the last five years, so that’s it a positive story,” said Policy Manager at Regional Development Australia (RDA) Illawarra, Alex Spillet.
Mr Spillet was referring to the announcement that Port Kembla had been shortlisted as a possible site for a nuclear submarine base on the east coast.
RDA’s economic modeling indicated that this would generate a net benefit for the Illawarra of US$3.2 billion annually.
As a further potential boost to production in the region, Prime Minister Scott Morrison outlined a plan for 13 new MH-60R Romeos to be based on HMAS Albatross at Nowra during his second campaign visit to Gilmore headquarters.
The company servicing the helicopters, Lockheed Martin, said it would create 90 additional skilled jobs locally.
Also during the campaign, Energy Secretary Angus Taylor approved US$85 million for a gas-fired combined heat and power plant at the Manildra Starch Mill in Bomaderry, which helped secure some 350 existing manufacturing jobs.
The Liberal candidate, former NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance, made the most of the high-profile visits.
While incumbent Labor MP Fiona Phillips welcomed more defense jobs, she said it was a politicized announcement and also described Mr Taylor’s visit to Manildra as another “announcement renewed”.
Union leader Anthony Albanese visited the same manufacturing facility just two weeks earlier, with no significant announcement.
Union focuses on supply chains, training
Supply chain issues also need to be addressed for the union movement to boost local manufacturing so consumers can buy Australian products.
“It’s not enough just to throw money at the Manildra plant, for example, or at other corporations or companies,” said Arthur Rorris, secretary of the South Coast Labor Council.
“That’s great, but at the end of the day we want to make sure we have policies in place that support the industry as a whole and encourage people to buy Australian-made products,” he said.
This is reflected in Labor’s plan for local manufacturing, which ties directly to its renewable energy plans.
In his response to Budget 2022, Mr Albanese outlined plans to build more trains, trams and ferries in Australia and “power that production with renewable energy sourced from Australia”.
Labor recently announced 3,000 houses in south Wollongong with rooftop solar panels to be connected to community batteries, but there is no plan yet to manufacture these batteries locally.
Labor also this week announced a $12.5 million pledge to develop renewable energy skills at the University of Wollongong and Wollongong TAFE.
Mr Morrison has visited Gilmore’s outskirts twice so far during the campaign, along with two visits from his wife Jenny and Defense Secretary Peter Dutton.
Mr Albanese has only visited the Labor seat once, by a 2.6% margin, while other senior Labor figures are due to visit including Tanya Plibersek, Mark Butler and Catherine King.
Green Party leader Adam Bandt, on the other hand, is the only party leader to have visited Wollongong during the election and pledged $500 million to steelmaking regions like Illawarra to phase out the use of coal to accelerate the transition to green steel.
There’s still a long way to go
Manufacturing in Illawarra currently employs about 7 percent of the workforce, compared to 14.5 percent in healthcare and 12.6 percent in education.
“Labour market statistics show a decline in manufacturing relative to overall employment in our region, but that only tells part of the story,” said Adam Zarth of Business Illawarra.
Whatever the outcome on May 21st, industry, unions and politicians remain optimistic that Illawarra has a strong future in manufacturing.