State cash should go to Hunter smelter workers: Opposition

MONEY from a struggling state government scheme meant to attract new residents to regional areas should be redirected to support workers and businesses affected by job losses at Hunter aluminium smelters, the state opposition says.

The Hydro-owned Kurri Kurri smelter and the Rio Tinto-owned Tomago smelter have announced plans to shed a combined 250 jobs, citing falling prices and a rising Australian dollar.

Industrial maintenance company Thomas and Coffey, which employed about 70 people at Hydro Kurri, is tipped to decide this week whether to cut jobs.

Weston Aluminium, which recycles materials from the Kurri Kurri smelter, is considering scaling back its operations.

Weston’s Kurri Kurri plant manager Chris McClung said yesterday no immediate job cuts were expected, but Hydro’s long-term fate was concerning for the business and its 34 local staff.

Labor’s Hunter spokeswoman Linda Burney visited the region yesterday to discuss the fallout with the Hunter Business Chamber and the Australian Workers Union.

She said the government should abandon its unpopular $280 million regional relocation grants scheme and reinvest it in retraining and capital assistance for businesses to ‘‘give workers like these a future’’.

About 190 people had taken up the grants since they were introduced in July, offering $7000 to those willing to move from urban areas.

Hunter Business Chamber chief executive Kristen Keegan saidthe fate of small and medium businesses that supported the smelters should not be forgotten.

The viability of the Kurri Kurri smelter was previously thrown into doubt when the then Labor government blocked Delta Electricity from signing an electricity contract with Hydro amid its partial power sector sale.

The Coalition government has since proposed the sale of Macquarie Generation, which has been negotiating a new power contract with Hydro.

A spokeswoman for Treasurer Mike Baird said yesterday the negotiations were ‘‘progressing in order to come to a commercial arrangement’’.

A spokesman for Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner said the relocation grants were part of a package of measures to encourage jobs in regional NSW.

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