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Illawarra hopes for more industrial growth amid federal campaign commitments

With manufacturing jobs on the rise in the Illawarra there is an expectation it could again join the nation’s industrial powerhouse, alongside Newcastle and Western Sydney, regardless of who wins the federal election.

In its heyday in the 1980s the Port Kembla steelworks alone employed around 20,000 mostly migrant workers, while thousands of migrant women worked in clothing factories.

Today, the clothing factories are offshore while a highly mechanized steelworks employs just 3,000 people directly and supporting a further 10,000.

But there a signs local manufacturing could be turning the corner with more than 1,000 new jobs created between 2017 and 2022.

“We saw manufacturing jobs being affected quite badly by the COVID pandemic but clearly that trend has reversed and we added jobs over the past five years to the tune of probably 200 a year, so that’s a positive story,” policy manager with Regional Development Australia (GDR) Illawarra, Alex Spillet said.

The Shoalhaven Starches plant at Bomaderry, just north of Nowra, employs about 350 people.(Supplied: Manildra Group)

Mr Spillet was referring to the announcement that Port Kembla was shortlisted as a possible location for an east coast nuclear submarine base.

Economic modeling from RDA found it would generate a net benefit to the Illawarra of $3.2 billion annually.

In other potential boosts to manufacturing in the region, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in his second election visit to the seat of Gilmore detailed a plan for 13 new MH-60R Romeos to be based at HMAS Albatross in Nowra.

The company servicing the helicopters, Lockheed Martin said this would create 90 additional local skilled jobs.

Also during the campaign, Minister for Energy Angus Taylor confirmed $85 million for a gas-fired cogeneration plant at the Manildra starch plant in Bomaderry, helping to secure about 350 existing manufacturing jobs.

Liberal candidate, former NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance made the most of the high-profile visits.

While sitting Labor MP Fiona Phillips welcomed more defense jobs, she said it was a politicized re-announcement, and likewise described the Manildra visit by Mr Taylor as another “reheated announcement”.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese visited the same manufacturing plant just two weeks earlier, with no substantial announcement.

Union focus on supply chains, training

For the trade union movement, supply chain issues also need to be addressed to bolster local production so consumers can buy Australian.

“It’s not enough to just throw money at the Manildra plant for example or any other corporations or companies,” Arthur Rorris, secretary of the South Coast Labor Council, said.

“That’s great, but at the end of the day we want to make sure we have policies in place that back up the industries as a whole, that encourage people to buy Australian-made products,” he said.

Arthur Rorris
South Coast labor council secretary, Arthur Rorris.(ABC Illawarra: Nick McLaren)

This is reflected in the Labor party’s plan for local manufacturing, which is directly linked to its renewable energy plans.

In his 2022 budget reply speech Mr Albanese outlined plans to build more trains, trams and ferries in Australia, and to “power that manufacturing with Australian-made renewable energy”.

Labor more recently announced 3,000 homes in southern Wollongong with rooftop solar to be attached to community batteries, but there is no plan yet to manufacture these batteries locally.

Labor also announced this week a $12.5 million commitment to develop renewable energy skills at the University of Wollongong and Wollongong TAFE.

Mr Morrison has so far visited the marginal seat of Gilmore twice during the election campaign, along with two visits from his wife Jenny and defense Minister Peter Dutton.

Mr Albanese has visited the seat held by Labor with a 2.6% margin just eleven, while other senior Labor figures to visit include Tanya Plibersek, Mark Butler and Catherine King.

Greens leader Adam Bandt by contrast is the only party leader to have visited Wollongong during the election, pledging $500 million for steelmaking regions such as the Illawarra to stop using coal as they accelerate the transition to green steel.

Still a way to go

Manufacturing in the Illawarra currently employs about 7 per cent of the workforce, compared to 14.5 per cent in health and 12.6 per cent in education.

“Labor market statistics show a decline in manufacturing as a proportion of the total workforce in our region, but that only tells part of the story,” Adam Zarth from Business Illawarra said.

No matter the result on May 21, industry, unions and politicians remain upbeat the Illawarra has a strong future in manufacturing.

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