OPINION: Does anyone in Macquarie Street care?

Each summer for decades we’ve endured holdups as the Pacific Highway threaded traffic into towns on the route to our holiday destination, South West Rocks in the Macleay River valley. This year the drive was easy with the M1 dual carriageway completed for all but a few kilometres south of Kempsey.

Metropolitan New South Wales can now drive from suburban homes to coastal bungalows without seeing a country face.

The upgraded M1 means safer, swifter movement of people and freight between the east coast cities. 

Yet the hopes for regional economic benefits are not so obvious. 

Does anyone in Macquarie Street care?

One in three people in NSW — over 2.6 million, including those in Newcastle and Wollongong — lives outside Greater Sydney.

The outsider NSW economy was forged around the production and processing of commodities: fish, timber, minerals, a vast agricultural harvest and then downstream processing and manufacturing.

But jobs along the commodity chains are disappearing. Over the last 10 years the number of workers employed in agricultural jobs in regional NSW has fallen by over 10 per cent. Mining employment has stagnated. Most worryingly, the number of non-Sydney manufacturing workers has dropped by nearly 30 per cent. 

A marker of the struggling nature of the non-Sydney economy is its poor employment intensity. For Greater Sydney, there are 46 weekly pay packets for every 100 residents. Outside of Sydney there are only 41 pay packets per 100 residents. 

Port Macquarie, the regional capital of the mid-north coast, exactly matches the outsider ratio of 41 pay packets per 100 residents. In the Macleay valley, however, the ratio falls alarmingly. Kempsey, the valley’s biggest town, has barely 30 pay packets per 100 workers, with less than half of these coming from full time jobs. 

Fortunately there is a good economic story in the valley.

The players are the global food giant Nestlé and the river town of Smithtown. A thousand people live in Smithtown and its neighbour, Gladstone. Since 1897 Smithtown has hosted a dairy plant. Nestlé acquired the plant in 1921 and has operated it successfully ever since.

A $55 million investment upgrade was recently completed shoring up Smithtown as the major producer of the much loved Milo chocolate drink powder. The plant’s 175 workers (overwhelmingly full time) are rightfully pleased to have a quality local employer. 

For these workers, the M1 upgrade ensures an easy drive to work from up and down the coast. The plant’s daily output is shipped nationwide using up to ten b-double trucks per day. The M1 also gives access to milk powder and sugar supplies from far-away regions.

In 2019 Nestlé will unveil the Big Milo Tin to mark its Smithtown venture, a throwback to the days when specialisation was celebrated with giant icons across regional Australia. 

Abattoirs, dairy processing, wool and cotton mills, tanneries, timber mills and canneries were once commonplace across a productive outsider NSW landscape.

Now, successful commodity processing businesses like Nestlé at Smithtown have become exceptions.

The state’s 2.6 million outsiders deserve better.

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

Life in the fast lane: Upgraded city freeways, in the main, haven't helped regional areas of New South Wales as the smaller towns get bypassed. Picture: Shutterstock.

Life in the fast lane: Upgraded city freeways, in the main, haven't helped regional areas of New South Wales as the smaller towns get bypassed. Picture: Shutterstock.

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