EDITORIAL: Hunter's defence dreams

WHENEVER the Hunter Region scans the horizon for opportunities to diversify its economy, defence industries inevitably loom large.

There are good reasons for that.

The Hunter has strong traditional ties to all branches of the defence services, a large skilled workforce and excellent facilities for defence support.

All other things being equal, the region should probably have hosted some of the nation's biggest military construction projects over the past few decades.

Politics being what it is, however, some of those projects have found their way to electorates with more important votes to win, for one party or another.

Even with those disappointments - the submarines and frigates spring to mind - the Hunter has still managed to win numerous contracts and subcontracts, keeping its industrial finger on the pulse of defence needs.

With that in mind, regional leaders have returned to the task of trying to develop the Hunter as a national defence hub.

Naturally, a large part of the strategy revolves around RAAF Williamtown, already a critically important part of the Hunter's economic landscape and one with immense potential for growth and development.

Side by side with potential aerospace industry evolution, Williamtown offers the enticing potential synergy of simultaneously boosting the capacity of Newcastle Airport. Few other possible areas of investment offer such diverse and valuable opportunities.

Singleton army base is also proposed as an area for potential enhancement, and the argument in favour of this measure to boost the economic base of the mid-Hunter is a powerful one that will become still more powerful as mining gradually recedes into the upper valley and beyond.

Boosting the role of the Port of Newcastle in providing services to the navy has long been a tantalising goal, but an elusive one.

Shipbuilding and repair has been the traditional contribution, but it would be preferable in the long-term to have the city play host to some units of the navy.

Newcastle MP Tim Owen, with his extensive defence experience and knowledge of the department's needs and perspectives, may prove to be a trump card in the Hunter's latest push to put itself on the defence spending radar.

It is estimated that NSW attracts only 17 per cent of the national annual defence expenditure of $18.7 billion. That percentage is tipped to rise over the next decade, making the Hunter's push for a bigger share a timely one.

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