A DECADE ago, at the height of the mining boom, much was made of the “two-speed economy” of the time, in which the mining sector flourished, while the rest of the nation stagnated under the weight of the global financial crisis.
Today, it can be argued that we still have a two-speed economy, but the division this time around is between the capital cities and regional Australia.
Here in the Hunter, we might only be a few hours’ drive from Sydney, but a host of economic indicators show that we are very much a regional economy.
This is no bad thing in itself: most of us live here very happily, and would not swap the lifestyles we have for the congested scramble of our southern neighbour.
But in the two decades since the closure of the steelworks in 1999, we have seen an acceleration of a trend that was already under way back then: the closures of the regional branch offices of major corporations that had traditionally been a source of stable, well-paying Newcastle jobs.
Unfortunately, the decentralisation that was promised by the arrival of the internet and the digital age does not seem to have eventuated to any real degree. Perhaps more tech firms will move here once the NBN is fully up and running. But for the time being at least, relatively few employers seem interested in making the journey up the M1, despite the promise of cheap land and a captive workforce.
For young people – especially university graduates – who don’t want a career in the mining industry, the relative lack of higher-tier white collar jobs means that many will find themselves turning to Sydney, more by necessity than desire, to find work.
Some may eventually return to the region, but the more our best and brightest are forced to look elsewhere for the fruits of their education, the more that we as a society lose. It is fair to say that our civic leaders are aware of this problem. It’s an answer to the brain-drain that eludes us.
With the Newcastle CBD in the midst of a once-in-a-century makeover, conditions have probably never been better when it comes to attracting big, white-collar employers. And if the coal industry is the dying beast that an increasing number of thought leaders believe it is, then there has probably never been a more urgent time for this region to put real effort into really competing with Sydney.