Fawning to Sydney behind our yawning gap | Opinion

MIND THE GAP: Global Sydney’s appetite for taxpayer funds is insatiable and the rest of the state is being taken for a ride. Photo: Daniel Munoz

MIND THE GAP: Global Sydney’s appetite for taxpayer funds is insatiable and the rest of the state is being taken for a ride. Photo: Daniel Munoz

The present always has a past.

Six years ago, the Rudd federal government hurled $50 billion of taxpayers’ money at the Australian economy to prevent it tumbling into recession. The global financial crisis was beginning. Sydney’s financial sector was in panic. The gains of the previous decade were destroyed.

Now all is forgotten. Sydney's financial sector is again held up as the nation’s wealth creator. It is the rest of the nation that has to adapt, or so some say.

Last week, research showed a two-speed NSW economy. Sydney, says Terry Rawnsley from SGS Economics and Planning, has a successful economic strategy – but the rest of the state is in strife. Mr Rawnsley cites Newcastle and the Hunter as examples of regions that have recently been in recession. Mr Rawnsley says the regions need to find new ways of generating economic growth.  It’s a very Sydney thing to be saying.

Sydney has obliterated the events of 2008 from its collective memory, or at least global Sydney has. These days, harbourside Sydney and its adjoining suburbs call themselves “global Sydney” without blushing. Global Sydney is the nation’s wealth generator, they say. It engages successfully with globalisation, they boast. We are the innovators, the disrupters. We are hip, cultured, diverse. You know the script.

Yet global Sydney costs a packet to run. Getting 350,000 workers to inner Sydney every morning is massively expensive. Metro Northwest costs $15 billion. The proposed Chatswood to Bankstown metro (with a second harbour crossing) will cost $20 billion. The Circular Quay to Randwick tram line will cost $2.2 billion, with its $600 million blowout dismissed by the government like loose change on a bar. A consequence of Sydney’s big public transport spend is the cost of running the network. The fare subsidy for Sydney’s public transport users – largely travellers to the CBD – costs NSW taxpayers over $4 billion annually. 

There’s more. The WestConnex motorway linking the M4 to the M5 is costing another $20 billion. The Barangaroo Reserve on Millers Point has cost $250 million. The Wynyard Walk,  tunnels to enable Barangaroo workers to save six minutes walking time from Wynyard Station, has cost over $300 million. Meanwhile, global Sydney’s galleries get over $100 million annual subsidy from the state budget. This year the Walsh Bay Arts Precinct gets a special $129 million to upgrade its facilities. Global Sydney’s appetite for taxpayer funds is insatiable.

Yet funding for global Sydney’s infrastructure spending binge comes not from the wealth its financial institutions create. It comes from the store of wealth built by generations of NSW taxpayers. Our assets are being sold off at a pace: the state’s three major ports, the electricity system, a desalination plant, and a swag of prime real estate. I wonder if it is time for a closer examination of the workings of the Sydney CBD economy, not just the direction of the state’s struggling regional economies?

Is it time to ask whether the tenants of Sydney’s CBD cathedrals are deserving of the taxpayer money lavished on them? Whether the spread effects of the CBD economy and its wonder workers should be felt beyond the range of Sydney harbour’s gentle nor-easters? Mr Rawnsley is right in calling for new ways for our state to generate economic growth. It’s a shame he doesn’t see global Sydney and its fawning NSW government as central to the problem.

Phillip O’Neill is a professorial research fellow at the University of Western Sydney

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