Strong Australia Snowy Valleys panel interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

Event: Strong Australia Snowy Valleys panel interview with Kieran Gilbert, Afternoon Agenda, Sky News

Speakers: Kieran Gilbert, Sky News; Jennifer Westacott, Business Council of Australia; Dean Lynch, Snowy Hydro; Mayor James Hayes, Snowy Valleys Council; Matthew Lucas, Tumut Regional Chamber of Commerce

Topics: Regional economic recovery, Snowy Hydro 2.0, skills, NSW budget

E&OE

Kieran Gilbert, host Sky News: Now to the Business Council of Australia's series the Strong Australia program. Basically, looking at the regions and where the local economies are at in regions right around the nation. Today, we're in the Snowy Valleys and looking at how it's responded and recovering, not just in the wake of the fires, but also amid the COVID pandemic. I caught up with a panel of senior figures in the region, and also the BCA chief, Jennifer Westacott. Joining me this afternoon in Tumut, we have Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, Dean Lynch, relations manager, Snowy Hydro 2.0, councillor James Hayes, mayor at the Snowy Valleys Council and Matthew Lucas, the vice president at the Tumut Regional Chamber of Commerce. It's great to see you all, thanks for being here. Jennifer, Strong Australia is a program that the BCA is running. We find ourselves in Tumut today, like so many parts of the country, it's had a tough year. What are its prospects, this town and the region around it?

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia: It has had a tough year. It obviously started with the fires, which had a pretty devastating effect on the timber industry and on tourism, and then COVID struck. But what's incredible is the resilience of the community, the plans of the community, the opportunities that are still here, the massive opportunity that comes from Snowy 2.0, the big opportunities that still exist in agriculture, obviously a much better season, the huge opportunities that I think will exist over time in the timber industry, all of those things. And then on top of that tourism, which I think is a really underscored and underrated place. I haven't been here for quite a while, but I'll be back here quite a bit to play in this nice golf course. And we just got to get that focus on the infrastructure that people need, that long-term plan so that we get places like Tumut back up on their feet, but not just back up on their feet, powering up into the future, which I think is good for the country.

Kieran: Dean, once in a generation, a project as Snowy Hydro 2.0. How does that play into this town and the region more broadly? How can you get the workforce here involved as much as possible?

Dean Lynch, relations manager Snowy Hydro 2.0: Yeah, what an exciting point in time. Seventy years ago, Snowy brought a hundred thousand workers here and it changed the nation 70 years ago. We're probably reliving the past here now. We have the largest infrastructure project in Australia, in the region right now, and also the largest renewable project right here. Four thousand workers for the life of the project, that's direct jobs, let alone indirect jobs. So that's everything from digging holes in the ground to actually, we've got to deliver two million meals every year on-site to those workers and every job in between. So we are really keen to come here and activate the local community and the workforce. We want to see anybody that wants an opportunity to get an opportunity. Paul Broad, our CEO, really wants to leave two legacies, the legacy of the build legacy, again like the Snowy 1.0 and then Snowy 2.0, which is a great infrastructure project renewable, but that's the build legacy. The second legacy is a skills legacy. We are really committed to activating this region at a time where we've just gone through a triple whammy. We had droughts, worst drought in, well, in my living memory, through two bushfires, which was absolutely devastating to now living through COVID. So, we're here, this is our territory, we want to make the best of it and we've got to do it right now.

Kieran: James Hayes is Mayor of Snowy Valleys Council. This is such a beautiful town and beautiful part of the world. For those that haven't been to Tumut it's a lovely place. How do you attract people here? What are the keys to getting people to not just visit here, but to relocate here? 

James Hayes, Mayor, Snowy Valleys Council: We've got a wonderful place to live and it looks beautiful after the drought and the rains came, it's just sprung into life and it's a wonderful place to visit. But we want people to come and stay here, so we want to build our population. We want people to come and make a change, move from the cities, move from wherever they are and live here and make this their life. So for that, we need really quality educational facilities, we need quality health facilities, and we've just started the build on a $50 million hospital. And we need quality recreational and social facilities and we've started upgrading a lot of those.

Kieran: Matthew Lucas as the vice president of the local chamber of commerce and someone who works in hospitality, what do you see as the key to having this town prosper as much as it can? I guess one project is the Brindabella Road which goes from Tumut over the Brindabellas to the nation's capital, but at the moment you need a four-wheel drive basically to drive it.

Matthew Lucas, vice president Tumut Regional Chamber of Commerce: Yeah, exactly. We're only 70 kilometres, as far as the crow flies from Canberra. Yet we have to drive two and a quarter, two and a half hours via Yass to actually get to Canberra. So we'd really love to see that upgraded occurs and just increases our attractiveness to both the Canberra tourism market, but also could actually create Tumut as a dormitory suburb of Canberra. And we've seen through COVID how people are able to work remotely, we have NBN here, decent communications, and that allows us to actually attract people to our area. They can earn Canberra dollars, but live in Tumut, and have the lifestyle. 

Kieran: Yeah, indeed. It sounds very attractive to me. And the idea that the dormitory suburb or a satellite suburb almost of Canberra, this is something that makes a lot of sense.

Jennifer: It sure does. You think about it, I think a lot of people are going to work Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursdays in their offices, and they're going to work home on Monday, Friday. And they'll still be productive because we found ways of working on Zoom and Microsoft Teams and we've found ways of working at home. So for people to then have a shorter drive over the Brindabellas, being able to get a house here, probably get a house that, a very different price than what you'd be paying in Canberra. Fabulous kind of environment to bring up your kids, terrific kind of place to live, it looks really attractive. People cashing up from their house in Canberra, coming here. What we need though, is the land release, the land supply, the housing, the infrastructure. And I think as the mayor was talking about earlier, getting that done now, because trying to catch up is too hard. So getting the forward vision to say, "Well, actually let's make this actually a suburb or a kind of extended suburb of Canberra."

Kieran: Well state budget yesterday, Dominic Perrottet, he's on the show this afternoon coming up on the program shortly. But he's committed $300 million to a regional growth fund, $100 million to a regional jobs fund, surely some of that money could make it's way here.

Jennifer: I hope so. The budget yesterday is fantastic and it's off the back of the announcement the state government made a couple of weeks ago around Jobs Plus where if companies bring forward their investment, they're going to get four-year payroll tax relief. That's going to mean a lot to many businesses. But yeah, now is the time, I think, to keep these big spending initiatives of governments, which are terrific. And say, "How would we actually not just help someone recover to where they were, but position a town like Tumut to be a real powerhouse in this region?" And I think that just helps the country as well.

Kieran: It certainly does. And Mayor Clr Hayes, when you look at say Canberra, a population of nearly half a million, many people do commute 40, 50 minutes into town, let alone the changes in the economy that we've seen in a COVID world where people work from home more. This does open up that opportunity quite a bit. What's the land release situation like? Is there the land to build the homes?

James: There's land available. Some of it is crown land and we're working with the state government to have that released, but there's also some private land that's been developed so there is land available at the moment, but we would like more to be released by the state government.

Kieran: And so what needs to be done? Is it purely the state government's responsibility there in terms of opening up that opportunity to get developers in?

James: Yeah, it is crown land so it's got to be expedited by the state government, yes.

Kieran: Okay. And what about the other support elements here, Matthew? In terms of a few of those other areas that the mayor spoke about, education, recreation, for families it's crucial.

Matthew: Certainly, and that comes back to the livability of the region. We want to make sure that we're able to have high quality educational facilities here. I think James mentioned earlier that the Tumut High School was actually built alongside the original Snowy scheme. And not much has changed at that facility. And so we really need to see an update of that, we have a Catholic school here that only goes to year 10, and if people are wanting their children to stay in the Catholic education system, they have to send them away to boarding school. And that's one of the things that I think Dean, you mentioned yesterday that if people move away for education, only 20 per cent of them are going to return to your area. So there's that real brain drain that ends up occurring and that means that those educated individuals are no longer able to work for a Snowy or work for a Visy or in our local council. And so we really lose those people out of the area.

Kieran: And James, as a former teacher yourself, you look at that school, as you mentioned, and we've discussed, built at the time of the original Snowy, the kids still get in the high nineties in terms of their HSC. Some of them doing brilliantly, they just need a bit more support.

James: That's right. Fabulous students, great staff, but the facilities are dated.

Kieran: And from the Snowy Hydro perspective, Dean, what's your education vision from Snowy Hydro 2.0 to get kids skilled up to the jobs that are needed in this project?

Dean: Yeah. As I said, the two legacies, of course, the build and the skills. We are really committed to upskilling the local community. We had the minister here, Geoff Lee here last week discussing that at a high level. So we're trying to work out a way to actually to give everyone an opportunity that wants an opportunity. We've had probably 2,000 people express interest in working on the project from school-based apprenticeships (SbAs), school-based apprenticeships. We've already started that at one high school in the region by getting kids from year 9, getting them ready, getting them on the project. So we already started that. We told the minister about that. We want to do more, we really do. We're very committed to it, but we're going to need a little bit of help to make sure all training organisations, including TAFE are on board to be able to upskill. There might be an older person, or it might be younger person, but we want to make sure we can upskill them to get them ready to work. Because currently, the current local workforce, probably only 30 per cent of them are employable directly onto the job right now. That means that percentage, that aren't skilled need to be skilled up right now. They're employable, they just haven't quite got the skills.

Kieran: Jennifer, this is one of your passions is the skills story and the need for reform in this country. But it seems a no brainer that the TAFE and certainly the local TAFEs in Tumut and elsewhere would be focusing, zeroing in 100 per cent on that project, Snowy Hydro 2.0. 

Jennifer: Absolutely. And looking at the growth opportunity, sitting down with the industry, with the employers and saying, "What do you need to upskill people?" And that's got to be probably a collection of shorter courses, not just long courses. Maybe blending that with some university subjects. Why wouldn't we have a multi-pronged campus here. It can be a virtual campus too, we've discovered a lot in COVID. Where an employer says, "Well, I need someone to do this short course here. I need them to do a bit of this at university, which is two of these courses." Put that together in a set of credentials and then suddenly, people are going to get attracted to come to Tumut, not just to work at Snowy 2.0 and work at Snowy more generally, or work in other industries here, but because it's got a fantastic skills system. So that's the sort of stuff we need to do. We can't just do this the old way. We can't just say to Dean and his colleagues, "Well, here's our list of courses, and you enrol in them." No, no, no, they've got to sit down and partner with them and partner with the other employers and get an approach that's quite different to what we do now.

Kieran: Yeah. Well, it's going to need it isn't it Matthew? Because you look at the area and the industry, it relies on in large part, the timber mills, but that's going to hit quite an obstacle in a couple of years from now because of the fires. At the moment the workers are processing burnt timber, but that's going to run out and then there's going to be a shortage in terms of that production supply. How do you see that gap in terms of the workforce being made up? Is it all at Snowy Hydro? Is it tourism? Where should it be?

Matthew: Yeah, I think that it's going to be a mix of those two. Probably the easiest solution initially is trying to get the softwoods industry to talk directly to TAFE and also get the contractor at Snowy 2.0 to actually sit down with them and have a real understanding as what skills are currently available? When are those skills going to become available to future generation? And then how can we actually upskill those workers that don't have the necessary skills? Put that in place now, not in 18 months time when we've got 2,000 job losses. And that's a substantial amount of jobs that are going to be lost in this area when we only have an LGA population of 14,500 people. So this is a really critical time now for organisations like TAFE who, unfortunately, here locally, really is just a collection of buildings. Doesn't really offer any substantial courses here locally, and people have to travel outside the area. In addition to that, obviously, then the destination management plan that Snowy Valleys Council have in place, we need that funding to come through from state government so that we can develop those tourism opportunities that are there. We have a great natural environment. We have a cave system that is larger than Jenolan Caves, that is not very well known. It's fantastic, but not very well known. And so all those types of things that we can actually have as part of our tourism offering need to actually be developed from now on, and then we'll actually reap those benefits in a couple of years.

Kieran: It makes a lot of sense, it certainly does. And the Tumbarumba Chardonnay is also pretty good too.

Matthew: Yeah, western facing slope. And so cool climate whites. Yeah, really, really good, really, really good whites.

Kieran: It's a compelling argument, but I guess in the short-term with 2,000 plus workers going off the mills, can you absorb them into Snowy Hydro 2.0?

Dean: Yeah. In a short answer, we would love to. But remember that the flip side of this, we met at National Cranes this morning and they were concerned, a local business, they were concerned that they may lose workers from their business into the project. So we've got to be very cautious on how we do that. We need to sit down and understand what's actually happening. We like to use the word transition. If we can transition those people who were affected from the bushfires particularly in the timber industry into 2.0. And then potentially transition them back out so we know that industry can, it'll still be here after 2.0, or 3.0 whatever is finished. But we want to make sure that we don't harm the businesses which are the lifeblood for this local community. So, see the short answer, yes, we can handle them, but it has to be managed.

Kieran: James Hayes, speaking of lifeblood of the area, agriculture is a huge one. How has it rebounded after the drought?

James: We lost a lot of fences, about 45 per cent of the whole council area was burnt, we're 9,000 square kilometres, so it was quite a large fire and it burned for 50 days. It burned a lot of farms as well as the softwood industry, burned a lot of farms. So they lost all their fences, they lost a lot of infrastructure. Funnily enough, the thing that was saved on most places was the house, which was probably the only thing insured, everything else got burnt. So they've rebounded pretty well, Blaze Aid's been fantastic. We've got lots of help from the government for the grants and the properties are looking really good. Cattle prices are through the roof, so if you didn't buy back in early you're going to have difficulty doing that. Sheep prices are good. So there's a very buoyant mood amongst the rural producers so they're very happy, I think, in most cases. There's still a legacy of the fire and that's really hurting. But I think rather than recovery, I've been talking about renewal and renewal and build it back better. And that's what we've been looking to do with those farmers.

Kieran: Well that's great and it means more dollars into the local community and the businesses and so on as well. Jennifer, finally to you, it would be remiss of me if I didn't ask you about the broader state budget yesterday. Because obviously it's got implications right across this particular state and I think nationally as well, in terms of the New South Wales government leading the way in some of this difficult tax reform.

Jennifer: Yeah, it's an absolute cracker to use a technical term. The focus on payroll tax, the focus on tax reform, getting rid of stamp duty, hopefully, or giving people a choice to come out of stamp duty and go to a longer term land tax. That's hugely important because stamp duty is a killer in terms of people moving and businesses moving. So it's one of the worst taxes we have. Things like $107 billion of infrastructure, the regional growth fund that you talked about, all of it focused on not just recovering, but to James's point building back better so that the state is positioned for long-term growth, for long-term renewal. And to be, I think, an economic powerhouse of southeast Asia, not just the economic powerhouse of Australia. So, I think it's one of those times where in 30 years' time we'll look back and we'll say, "Who were the people who had a bit of foresight?" And I think that budget is one of those budgets.

Kieran: Yeah, well as I said before, the Treasurer joining me a bit later in the program. But for the moment, Jennifer Westacott from the BCA, Dean Lynch from Snowy Hydro, James Hayes from Snowy Valleys Council and Matthew Lucas from the Tumut Regional Chamber of Commerce. Great to have you all here and thanks for your company.