Why the extractive industry must take the fight to politicians

As I write, New South Wales voters are off to the polls – the third state election on the eastern seaboard in five months.

Unlike the Victorian and Queensland outcomes, the Baird Government will not suffer the ignominious exits of the first term Napthine and Newman governments.

Nevertheless, the NSW campaign debated partial privatisation of infrastructure assets, which was likely to have an influence in the outcome. A Fairfax/IPSOS poll in the week before polling day implied that 62 per cent of NSW voters did not favour partial privatisation. However, in an encouraging sign for the NSW Government, support for privatisation rose to 48 per cent – provided the proceeds ($20 billion) were committed to roads, rail and infrastructure funding. It was also encouraging news for the Federal Government which has urged the states and territories to embark on an overambitious asset recycling scheme to kickstart new projects.

The Queensland election outcome, coupled with the expected fall of some NSW Government seats, indicates a strong anti-privatisation sentiment amongst Australians. This doesn’t bode well for the quarry industry which is reliant on new infrastructure initiatives to stay active. Having promised that it will not undertake the ambitious privatisation program mooted by the Newman Government, the new Palaszczuk Labor Government may find it difficult to lift infrastructure activity in Queensland in the short term if it doesn’t have ready sources of capital and assets for sale.

In Victoria, which privatised assets in the 1990s, the East-West Link project symbolises the contradictions of infrastructure planning at state and federal levels. The Abbott Government believes it can get the country moving through more road and freight rail infrastructure; the Victorian Andrews Government is committed to urban rail infrastructure projects. While the latter would not be as lucrative as the former for Victorian quarrying interests, it’s preferable to the deadlock between Spring Street and Canberra, which is seeing Victorian construction and earthmoving contractors laying off or not paying staff because infrastructure activity has slowed.

Canberra has reluctantly conceded that it may have to fund other projects that will address Melbourne’s traffic congestion – although again this seems to reaffirm how much Canberra is wedded to roads and commercial rail funding, implying there may still not be room for manoeuvre.

With business confidence at its lowest ebb and construction activity almost at a standstill, the quarry industry cannot afford 12 more months of indecision by governments, coupled with state/federal and partisan rivalries. Leadership is demanded from all tiers of government.

As we went to press, SkillsDMC released a report that outlined the skilling needs of the Australian resources and infrastructure industries. The report also contained a section on future challenges for the quarrying industry. It predicted there would be slow investment in new quarrying capacity over the next five years. Surely, this is a call to arms for the industry – it needs to emphasise to all governments the importance of kickstarting infrastructure activity now, addressing rising compliance costs, protecting quarry reserves from urban encroachment, and communicating to a volatile electorate the value of privatising assets.

The CCAA has actively promoted some of these issues in the recent Queensland and NSW election campaigns – but it’s a message our politicians are ignoring. Clearly, a more aggressive campaign is needed – unfortunately, the relative size and clout of mining, compared to quarrying, always means quarrying will get less attention. The extractive industry needs to be more innovative and outspoken – and take the fight to the politicians.

Still, maybe all hope is not lost. All three tiers of government have vowed to finally fill the long disused Hornsby Quarry in inner Sydney. Co-operation isn’t out of the question – although Hornsby Quarry should have been resolved sooner!

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