New England, Australia

Friday, November 22, 2019

Introducing Armidale Diaries

One ABC National Radio programs that I really like is The Fitzroy Diaries: Dispatches from the inner-city suburbs of Melbourne. The ABC describes the program in this way:
Award-winning audio fiction series from the ABC. Walk the streets of Fitzroy, Melbourne, shaped by gangsters, migrants, Aboriginal activists, the working poor. Now, it’s fancy shops and hipster bars. Until you really look.
Now I'm not totally sure about the fiction part. I think that its more observations, imaginings and anecdotes that paint a vivid picture of life in Fitzroy. I find it fun. Having just moved back to Armidale, I thought that it might be fun to try the same thing here. I also thought that it might be a break from the historical or analytical stuff I normally write, something that would give me more freedom to experiment and roam.

The first episode, Armidale Diaries 1 the smoke rolls in, appeared yesterday on my personal blog. My old friend Noric Dilanchian wrote on my public face book page:
Jim’s mise en scène. The style works. Recalls quirky French rural townlife films of old, one from the 1980s that I recall by Claude Chabrol. Awaiting this style’s evolution. 
Stretch target, find a videography and music researcher to deliver audiovisual justice for the smoky scene you set.
Mise en scène literally means the arrangement of the scenery, props, etc. on the stage of a theatrical production or on the set of a film or, alternatively, the setting or surroundings of an event. That's not a bad definition, but I think of it in terms of the texture of life within a frame. 

I am going to try to run the series every Thursday. in terms of Noric's challenge, think of it as something like a script that audio can be added later.  

Monday, November 18, 2019

Stories Connect - Armidale, the Ezidis and creative expression

Back in August 2017 (Armidale to settle 200 refugees - overview and discussion) I reported that Armidale long fight to become a refugee resettlement centre had finally been successful.
Khalid Adi and his family colouring in. Photo Armidale Express.
Two years later Armidale is home to some 400 Ezidis.

Earlier in 2019, the New England Writers' Centre launched Stories Connect, a major program focussed around encouraging creative expression and making connections between newly- resettled Ezidi refugee families and other members of the Armidale community, through the sharing and creation of stories, pictures and music.

Supported by generous grants from the Regional Arts Fund, the Country Arts Support Program, Create NSW and Settlement Services International, with much-appreciated support from Armidale Regional Council, Arts North West and NERAM, Stories Connect launched in June. Over several months it featured a range of activities and events, from creative workshops for school age children and teenagers to community storytelling sessions; from the creation of documentary photographs by emerging photographers.

Stories Connect showcased the wide range of local talent and potential, both within the Ezidi and wider segments of the Armidale community. It’s been a great success, culminated in a popular exhibition at NERAM (the New England Regional Art Museum). Now a short documentary film has been released showcasing the project. It's rather good.

I have been asked not to embed the video because the Centre wants people to view it on its website. You will find the link here. The Armidale Express story on the launch of the NERAM exhibition is here

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Fires, drought and climate change within New England

The land has been on fire. Across the broader New England fires have raged with loss of property and life. ABC Coffs Coast reproduced a poem by Armidales' Troy Gerdes based on I love a sunburnt country that caught the situation.

"I love a Sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains.
But I’ve gotta tell ya mate, I like it better when it rains.
The countryside is dying and there’s just no end in sight, and just to rub salt in the wounds, the bush has caught alight.
The landscape is on fire from Brisbane to the Gong
And everybody’s asking “where the hell did we go wrong?
But we can get through this one if we help each other out, take care of your neighbour , that’s what Aussies are about.
The rain is going to fall again , the good times will return. But living in Australia means at times it’s going to burn.
So if you need a helping hand, just give a mate a call. We’re all here to help you out and catch you when you fall.
The RFS, the SES, the Firies, and police, all put their lives upon the line to help to keep the peace.
So hats off to these heroes and thanks for all you do
And I hope when this is over we can make it up to you!"

The fires have been dreadful. Last night's NBN News, (the link is to NBN News general site; I couldn't find the specific story), contained some of the most gripping and dramatic coverage that I have ever seen. They deserve an award for the coverage.

Community reaction to the fires has been truly remarkable in terms of those who fought and those that responded to events in whatever way they could. 

I would have followed the story anyway, but now living back in the area  I followed with particular interest. Exactly where were the fires, what did it all mean, who did I know who lived in the immediate area? I followed the social media feeds from people I knew especially on the Tablelands wondering if changing wind directions would bring the fires towards them.

The fires have become caught up in the debate about climate change especially among the political warriors of left and right, but also among worried citizens.

The fires have been hailed, if that's the right word, as exceptional, a much misused word, evidence for climate change. This has led to responses pointing out, correctly, that there have been worse fires and that the fires of themselves prove nothing.

The problem with these generalised discussions is that they lack practical content. If anything, they sidetrack discussion on the problems we face.

To avoid becoming caught in unnecessary arguments over climate change, I suppose that I should make my own position clear. 

As an historian, I am well aware that climate varies over time. As a simple example, sea levels have varied by around 130 metres over the last 100,000 years. I therefore have no problem with the idea that the climate may change. Indeed, I would expect it.

I also find the idea of human induced climate change intuitively plausible because I find it hard to see how the pumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution could not have an effect. I accept too, if cautiously, that part of the effects of climate change is likely to be increased variability in climate, more extreme events. However, this is where my problem with some of the discussion on the New England fires comes in.

Climate change is a macro problem and has to be dealt with first at that level. This requires action to limit the emission of green house gases.

My personal preference here has been some form of carbon tax because it provides a market mechanism. The tax could have been set low and then adjusted as more evidence became available. Among other things, this would have taken a lot of the heat out of the debate over coal.

This is a macro debate. Accepting that climate change is happening, it is already clear that the effects will be a geographically distributed, creating a pattern of winners and losers. If one is going to respond in a sensible way to things like changes to the risk of fire in a particular area, one has to know what the changes might be. Otherwise discussion becomes sound and fury signifying nothing. Generalised statements won't cut it except at a very high level of generality. 

This is where the debate over the Northern fires come adrift. They lack real policy content because we just don't know what the specific effects of climate change might be in the broader New England. Here I want to put forward a specific hypothesis based on history over the last few thousand years that is potentially testable by those more knowledge in climatology than me.

Northern NSW is generally wetter than Southern NSW. The reason for that is that the area lies in the overlap between northern and southern weather systems. The dividing line is traditionally based on a line running inland from around Port Macquarie. South of that line, southern patterns dominate. North of that line to the Queensland border, systems overlap. Further north, northern weather patterns dominate.

I accept that this simple analysis is a gross generalisation. I stick my head up with a degree of trepidation. However, given all this, what happens if the effect of climate change is to move the northern systems north, the southern systems south? The result is likely to be a drought/fire zone in what was a previously a relatively well watered area.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Art Connections (31 Oct to 4 Nov 2019) - a creative journey through the New England North West



Created by Arts North West, Art Connections (31 Oct to 4 Nov 2019) is a large-scale arts trail experience and coordinated open weekend showcasing the diverse arts and cultural venues of the New England North West.

This event connects communities and highlights the significant contribution made by artists and cultural workers to the region’s economy and community identity.

Nestled in the mountains of the New England and scattered throughout the plains of the North West are numerous hidden gems waiting to be discovered. Creatives busily working away on their kitchen tables, in the garden shed, a shop in the main street, converted shipping containers or a purpose-built studio, drawing inspiration from the landscapes and environments that surround them in the beautiful New England North West to make and produce unique and diverse works.

Art Connections, has been developed to capture the creative venues of the New England North West, from the larger-scale venues such as commercial galleries and volunteer-run museums to the quirky artists run initiatives and studios off the beaten track, compiling a comprehensive database disguised as the North West Arts Trail Directory and Open Weekend.

Art Connections is more than one event – it is, in fact, a series of over 50 destinations across almost 100,000 km2. It will bring visitors into the smaller villages and towns of the New England North West, to explore and experience regional New England. This project connects communities and highlights the significant contribution made by artists and cultural workers to the region’s economy and community identity.

These trails will reveal what locals have known all along, there is something special and unique about our region. The self-drive Open Weekend on the weekend of the 31 October to 4 November provides the perfect opportunity to meander through the picturesque changing landscapes of the New England North West, the environment in which creativity and inspiration is drawn from.

Arts North West covers an enormous part of the New England North West. From bustling regional centres, to rural towns and remote villages, the vast differences between these communities include the obvious; size and location but there is an overarching similarity between them all, individuals and collectives building community identity through the power of creativity.

Artstate Tamworth will be held as part of Art Connections featuring a number of interconnected activities. 

You can download a copy of the Art Connections directory here or pick up a hard copy at one of the many participating venues and tourist centres. 

Monday, September 09, 2019

Return to Blogging

Cross posting to the Personal Reflections and New England History blogs.

Well, I am now in Armidale. I still don't have the internet working properly, that requires connecting to the NBN, but can access the internet using a hot spot created on the mobile. This is potentially very expensive, but meets my immediate needs.

After such a long delay in blogging, the move was creating distractions and delays long before the intensive move period, traffic to my blogs has declined greatly. I have to rebuild and that will take time.

I will write about the move, after all it has been a big and all consuming one, but for the moment I simply want to record that I am back blogging.

I look forward to a return to regular posting, to the on-going conversation with blogging friends old and hopefully new!

Monday, July 29, 2019

New England Writers' Centre announces a major new opportunity for writers living in the New England Federal Electorate

In partnership with Varuna, the National Writers’ House, and with the support of the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, the New England Writers’ Centre is delighted to announce a major new opportunity for New England writers.

Applications will open on August 5 for the inaugural Varuna/New England Writers’ Centre Fellowship, which, through a competitive process, will offer the Fellowship winner a week’s inspirational writing residency in the beautiful surroundings of Varuna, in the Blue Mountains. The Fellowship package will offer full board and accommodation at Varuna, funds towards travel, a one-on-one consultation with a Varuna expert and more
.
The Fellowship will be open to all writers, at any stage of their career, and working in any literary genre, who are either currently living in the New England region (defined as the federal New England Electorate) or who have previously lived there for at least five years. Assessment of applications will be conducted by a panel of New England-based literary professionals to establish a shortlist of three finalists. From this, Varuna will select the winner, to be announced in early December, with the Fellowship to be taken up in 2020.  For all details of the Fellowship and information on how to apply: see here.
‘We’re so delighted to be partnering with New England Writers’ Centre on this new fellowship,’ said Veechi Stuart, Executive Director of Varuna. ‘Supporting the arts in regional Australia is key to what we do, and we’re keen to be part of the rich tradition of poetry and writing that New England inspires.’ 
We are very grateful for the support of the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, whose generous sponsorship has helped to make this inaugural Fellowship possible.  The Copyright Agency is a not-for-profit rights management organisation that ensures artists, writers and publishers are fairly rewarded for the reproduction of their work. Its Cultural Fund provides grants to creative individuals and organisations for a diverse range of projects which aim to enrich Australian cultural life.
New England has indeed many writers. I used to be able to follow them all, but that became impossible a few years ago  with all the growth. I hope that this initiative really pays off.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

How Canberra's growth continues to shift relative economic power and influence from Northern NSW to the south

In December 2016 I examined the Ernst & Young cost-benefit evaluation of the proposed move of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Authority (APVMA) from Canberra to Armidale.
Proposed Canberra High Rise
It's fair to suggest that I was not impressed with the way E&Y presented the costs of the move compared with the benefits, I thought that it was shoddy analysis in methodological terms. I also thought that it ignored the dynamic benefits of the move, something I was going to write more on.

For a variety of reasons, including time and the rapid unfolding of events I did not follow up. Now I want explore one element of what I was going to say, the implications of Canberra's continued growth. The trigger here was a 27 May 2019 piece by Katie Burgess, The areas in Canberra flagged for intense urban infill. To quote from one part of the article. 
Canberra's population increased from about 375,000 in 2012 to 402,500 people in 2016, but is expected to rise by a further 7000 people a year to 589,000 by 2041. 
Around 100,000 new homes will need to be built between 2018 and 2041 to meet that demand, the planning strategy says, equating to nearly 12 new homes a day. Canberra Times
When I moved to Canberra to work, the population was around 65,000, a bit over four times Armidale's population. Armidale plus Tamworth's population was around Canberra's total. Now in considering the population of the ACT, you have to consider the over-flow effects. When I moved to Queanbeyan to live, it's population was quite a bit smaller than Armidale, Now it's population is around 37,000, well over Atmidale and not far from Tamworth's. . 

When I moved to Canberra, inland New England had two full seats and bits of others, Canberra had one seat, Now Canberra has three seats, inland New England one and a little bit of another. Between now and 2041, and ignoring flow-on effects, Canberra is expected to add around another 187,000 people, more than the present population of inland New England. By then in the absence of change, inland New England will be down to one seat that will have to spread east and west to maintain the required numbers.     

While many factors have contributed to these trends, the single over-whelming one is the decision to establish a capital at Canberra. 

Now for all the hyper-ventilation in the Canberra Times over the APVMA move, you can see that it has negligible impact in Canberra beyond a marginal reduction in the growth pressures facing the city, a marginal reduction in the new infrastructure spend.required to  ease growth pressures. For Armidale with a population around 24,500, the move is relatively more significant, but can still be absorbed without requiring additional infrastructure.

I now want to broaden my focus a little to bring in the remainder of New England, Hunter to the border by considering the dynamic effects of Canberra's growth, .

When I moved to Canberra, the trip to Sydney along the narrow highway took over four hours. Now it's down to three hours on the expressway and will shorten. Along that highway strip, the expansion of both Sydney and Canberra is slowly crawling towards each other, creating a single conurbation. The establishment of fast rail, this seems likely, will accelerate the trend. A Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne fast rail would further consolidate the dominance of the South-East.  

I remember the first grapes being planted around the ACT. Now the growing Canberra market, the most affluent marketplace in the country, has provided a base for rapid expansion that in turn draws visitors and adds to the tourist trade. While parts of the country are experiencing some rural depopulation, Canberra people are moving out looking for new experiences. Then down on the South Coast, Canberra is driving the development of coastal tourism. 

This southern growth process is being further driven by other factors. Wagga Wagga, one of the fastest growing cities in regional NSW, is only a bit over two hours from Canberra. Albury-Wodonga is a bit over three hours from Canberra, about the same from Melbourne. Further north, the line from Sydney to the Blue Mountains to Bathurst to Orange is another growth line. Bathurst benefited from early NSW Government shifts in public administration, while both Orange and Bathurst have benefited from relative closeness to Sydney facilitating weekend traffic and the growth of food and wine. Both Orange and Bathurst are presently a bit over three hours from Canberra.

I haven't attempted to fully analyse the way all these bit fit together, but perhaps i can use an example to illustrate, The growth of Charles Sturt University has been solidly based on its expansion in the regional cities of Southern and Central NSW. 

If we now turn to New England, we find a very different picture. In the south, the growth of Newcastle has been influenced by the growth of Sydney. In discussions including discussion on "regional development" Newcastle is often seen as an out-rider, a place to absorb Sydney population pressures. The linkages that once existed between Newcastle and the broader North have diminished to the detriment of both, in part because of the southern focus. 

In the far north, the rapid population growth in the Tweed Valley and, to a degree further south, have been driven by the growth of the South East Queensland urban conurbation, creating a degree of isolation and dislocation. Along the coastal strip between the Hunter and the border, the rapid increase in population associated with sea change including retirement brought people but largely without jobs beyond service jobs. Of course there are some pluses, but now these are some of the lowest income areas with some of the highest youth unemployment in the country. Unlike the growth  high income Canberra, the growth of say Coffs Harbour has had very few broader spin-off benefits. 

I find it interesting that the biggest infrastructure issue on the North Coast, the re-development of the Pacific Highway, is focused on a road whose primary purpose is to link Sydney and Brisbane. Of course it's important because the congestion on that road from through traffic has caused deaths and great local inconvenience. You can see why locals are concerned.But it's not actually going to add any new jobs of the type the coast needs. 

Inland, the towns and cities have been struggling just to hold. Growth has increased, but the puffery associated with each town's boosters with their local focus sets towns against each other. Armidale wants the APVMA. The Mayor oft Tamworth was critical because Tamworth needs jobs and this is special pleading for Armidale. Tamworth wants a university campus, its the only city of its size in NSW that does not have an equivalent. I don't see Armidale Council rushing to support. 

Meantime, the North's relative decline continued. This will continue until the North starts focusing in a more integrated way on cross-linkages and mutual support. Take the dynamic effects of the APVMA re-location as a simple final comment.

The E&Y study compared the local expenditure benefits by comparing the whole ACT with the then Armidale Dumaresq Council area. The ACT benefits would be greater because more of the flow-on effects would be retained there as compared to to the Armidale Dumaresq LGA. Let me turn that on its head. The dynamic benefits will be greater in Armidale just because the benefits from the spend will flow onto a wider area. That includes expenditure in Tamworth and on the coast. 

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Thursday, May 09, 2019

Antony Catalano's challenge -a possible ten time profit but only if he discovers his papers ' local and regional roots

Returning to posting after a gap of almost two months. I want to focus on our media.

With the exception of a few independents, Fairfax and Newscorp ended controlling every press outlet in the broader New England. Once Newscorp came in, access  to their papers fell behind paywalls. Then Fairfax introduced a maximum of five views fro certain regional publications. 

I got totally pissed off. There were three reasons for this. 

One was that people from outside the local area  could no longer access local news about the area they had come from, while the papers had lost their idea of a broader regional role, had become totally local.  

The second was purely personal. I started as a columnist at the end of 2008, I think. That's a long time ago.

I did not get paid in cash.The only reward i got was a subscription to the paper. I wrote for my own reasons. Then with the shift to the Fairfax pay model I lost even that.  I really protested through multiple emails, but could never get a satisfactory response.. Nobody could tell me why I couldn't  have my subscription back. It was just Fairfax rules I guess. Today I was trying to check a past column but could not because I was over my five views.

The third reason? I was totally pissed off because I thought that what Fairfax was doing was simple commercial stupidity. They simply did not understand their market possibilities. This is an issue that I will come back too elsewhere. For the moment, I simply note that a Sydney based enterprise focused on metrics struggles to understand local or regional markets.  

Now that Antony Catalano has taken over Fairfax regional we may have a chance. But what a value loss.  From $3 billion to $115 million including $60 million real estate. From a very profitable business to one that, on reports, is now unprofitable. Mr Catalona  clearly has a challenge in front of him. 

I believe that this is a brilliant deal. I believe that he can make a tenfold return on his investment within ten years. But this will happen if and only if Mr Catalano can ditch the Fairfax legacy and go back to the local and regional roots of his various papers. It may be our last  chance.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

A review of Valerie Morton's Blame it on the Rain: life around Byron Bay

"Northern New South Wales is a big, fat, subtropical, coconut - and turmeric - laced cliché of heavenliness.

Here in Northern New South Wales, people like to go about barefoot." 


At Christmas time I took some book vouchers and went across to Harry Hartog's to try to but some books with a connection to Northern New South Wales, my broader New England.  The pickings were very thin, the worst they had ever been. Even the second hand book section gave zero results. In the end, the only book I could find was Valerie Morton's Blame it on the Rain: Life around Byron Bay (:Red Flower Books, 2018).  

Lavishly illustrated with photos, the book is a series of vignettes about beach, bush but mainly locals - with a dash of cane toads, ticks and gold top mushrooms. Did you know that some people lick cane toads because the poison contains a powerful hallucinogenic? That was certainly news to me. 

While the book references  Northern New South Wales, it is actually about the Northern Rivers, more precisely still that part of it covered by the Byron Shire, even more precisely the town of Mullumbimby and surrounds. 

It is not clear to me when people started to call the Northern Rivers  Northern New South Wales. It seems to link to administrative naming  by the Sydney Government, most recently the decision to name the local health district covering the Northern Rivers the Northern New South Wales Local Health District. Whatever the cause, the misuse of names has become an absolute pain. It's not easy when naming conventions take away the identity of your entire area. 

Valerie moved to Byron Shire some twelve years ago and now lives in a rain forest near Mullumbimby. a very pretty town. Nearly everyone that features in her book is a new arrival. I could only identify one local born person. That reflects the changes that have swept across the North since the 1970s. 

Australian poet and artist Edwin Wilson's The Mullumbimby Kid: a portrait of the Poet as a Child (Woodbine Press, 1973) present a picture of life in the area  before the changes, as does Shirley Walker's Roundabout at Bangalow (University of Queensland Press 2015), . When I was at university, some of my friends came from Mullumbimby, following the path of Wilson and Warlker out into the broader world via education in Armidale. 

First the counterculture and then the sea change movements brought great changes, changes facilitated because the  decline in dairying made relatively cheap land available .A proper history of these changes remains to be written, but they were quite profound. 

This is reflected in Valerie's book. This is a very local world made up of people with particular view who seem to have very little linkage with the surrounding regions, more in common with the patterns of life in Australia's inner city areas. Except, perhaps, that those in Byron Shire have developed particular patterns linked to their local environment. They are the same, but different, with trends accentuated by .smaller size. According to Wikipedia, link above, Mullumbimby has the lowest vaccination rates in Australia.  

This is not a criticism of the book, simply a reflection on my reactions to it. The book is not high literature, although it's well and simply written. Rather, it presents a clear and interesting picture of a some ways unique life in a particular area at a particular point in  time. It's worth a read whether you are in Australia or elsewhere. .     

Monday, February 25, 2019

Port of Newcastle. another example of the malign impact of Sydney centric decisions that ignore the North?


Port of Newcastle. another example of the malign impact of Sydney centric decisions that ignore the North?


On 25 February 2019, the Newcastle Herald carried a story by Michael Parris (NSW port privatisation inquiry finds key details kept secret from Parliament, calls for policy review)  reporting on the preliminary report of the NSW Public Works Committee Impact of Port of Newcastle sale arrangements on public works expenditure in New South Wales.

I first reported on the proposed sale of the Port of Newcastle back on 28 January 2014: Competition heats up for Port of Newcastle. It was only a very brief note in which I said that there appeared to be little opposition to the sale within Newcastle, perhaps because part of the sale proceeds was to be allocated to Newcastle infrastructure. Even then, I was quickly corrected when regular commenter Greg wrote :

"Actually Jim, there has been a fair amount of opposition in Newcastle. The port of Newcastle is substantially different to both Port Botany and Port Kembla in that the government would not be selling a business so much as a) a tax stream (ie. charges for use of the port facilities) and b) an awful lot of prime harbourside land which will severely restrict what can be done on and around the harbour for the next century. In particular, a container terminal was promised for the port a decade ago. That would have been logical to service the north of the state and help relieve congestion around Port Botany. This government has canned that and it is likely that the sale of the port will see hopes fade of a container terminal ever being built in Newcastle. 

There is also resentment that the money for infrastructure in Newcastle is tied in to the port sale, yet the dollar figure is set in stone. If the port gets sold for closer to say $1bn (highly likely), Newcastle won't see a zac more than that already promised from the sale. The state has made that absolutely clear. I don't think that there are too many people who believe that it is a good deal for Newcastle. The sale of the port will benefit Sydney more than it does Newcastle."

In April 2014, then NSW Premier Baird announced that a 98 year lease over the Port of Newcastle, the world's biggest coal port, had been sold for $1.75 billion. Of this amount, $340 million would go to Newcastle projects to aid the city's revitalisation. So it was sold for much more than projected, with just under 20% going to Newcastle projects.

What was not known at the time was that previous sale agreement of the leases to NSW Ports over the southern Port Kembla and Port Botany provided that the State Government would provide a financial reimbursement to NSW Ports should container traffic at the Port of Newcastle pass a certain trigger point. This clause was inserted to maximise the immediate cash to the Government in Sydney. The subsequent sale agreement for the Port of Newcastle included a clause that the new owners would have to reimburse the NSW Government should container traffic trigger the compensation clauses under the original agreement for the sale of Ports Botany and Kembla. The effect was to make a new container terminal un-economic.

These restrictive practice clauses were confidential, but inevitably peaked into the public domain. partly because the Port of Newcastle began to seek to develop a container port 

On 10 December 2018,  the ACCC (Australian Competition & Consumer Commission) announced that had instituted proceedings in the Federal Court against NSW Ports Operations Hold Co Pty Ltd and its subsidiaries Port Botany Operations Pty Ltd and Port Kembla Operations Pty Ltd for making agreements with the State of New South Wales that the ACCC alleges had an anti-competitive purpose and effect.
“We are alleging that making these agreements containing provisions which would effectively compensate Port Kembla and Port Botany if the Port of Newcastle developed a container terminal, is anti-competitive and illegal,” said ACCC Chair Rod Sims.

The following day, 11 December 2018, the Port of Newcastle released a commissioned report on the economic impact of a container terminal at the Port of Newcastle. This suggested (among other things) that a modern container terminal would cut land transport costs for northern NSW businesses by $2.8 billion by 2050. This would, according to Port of Newcastle CEO Craig Carmody, increase exports from Northern NSW including the Hunter by $1 billion by 2050

"Businesses in Newcastle, Singleton, Tamworth, Gunnedah, Port Macquarie, Kempsey, Liverpool Plains and Narrabri can look forward to savings of more than $500 per standard container, if they shipped their goods through Newcastle rather than Port Botany or Port of Brisbane," Mr Carmody said.

With these actions, the originally secret agreements preventing the Port of Newcastle competing against Port Botany and Port Kembla in the container trade finally entered full public gaze. It had been some time coming.

NSW Public Works Inquiry

On 10 November, 2018, a month before the ACCC action, the NSW Public Works committee established an inquiry into the matter. It's terms of reference were;  

"1. That the Public Works committee inquire into and report on the impact of Port of Newcastle sale arrangements on public works expenditure in New South Wales, including: 

(a) The extent to which limitations on container port operations currently in place following the sale of the Port of Newcastle contribute to increased pressure for transport and freight infrastructure in New South Wales, specifically: 
(i) the Westconnex Gateway project (ii) the Port Botany Rail Line duplication 
(iii) intermodal terminals and rail road connections in southwest and western Sydney 
(iv) other additional public road infrastructure requirements due to the additional road freight movements in Sydney under the existing port strategy.

 (b) The nature and status of the port commitment deeds, the extent to which they contain limitations on container port movements, and the terms and binding nature of any such commitments.

 (c) The extent to which container port limitations contribute to additional costs for NSW industries who are importing or exporting from New South Wales, especially in the Port of Newcastle catchment.

(d) Any other related matters.

2. That the committee report by 28 February 2019".  

The committee members were:
  • The Hon Robert Brown MLC   Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Chair  
  • The Hon Taylor Martin MLC Liberal Party Deputy Chair*  
  • Ms Cate Faehrmann MLC The Greens
  • The Hon John Graham MLC Australian Labor Party   
  • The Hon Trevor Khan MLC The Nationals   
  • The Hon Scot MacDonald MLC Liberal Party
  • The Hon Lynda Voltz MLC Australian Labor Party
The Committee reported on 25 February 2019. It found:
:
  • Finding 1: The Port Commitment Deeds including the conditions of sale and the levy were not disclosed to the public or the Parliament:  
  • Finding 2 26 That the limitations on Newcastle container port operations following the ports transactions have not significantly impacted expenditure required on transport infrastructure projects in Sydney.
It recommended:
  • Recommendation 1: That the Legislative Council consider establishing an inquiry into the ports transactions, and specifically container limitations and associated financial obligations contained within the Port Commitment Deeds, at the conclusion of the Federal Court proceedings involving the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and NSW Ports or at such time as the House determines. 
  • Recommendation 2: That the NSW Government conduct a detailed investigation of freight rail options between Ports Botany, Newcastle and Kembla, including options for line duplication and dedicated freight-line construction, to ensure strategic future corridors are preserved, to optimise rail modal share of freight transport, to better align capacity to meet future demand and to improve the rail service reliability. 
  • Recommendation 3 35 That the NSW Government conduct a review of the state's ports policy, including the potential for a container terminal at the Port of Newcastle, at the conclusion of the Federal Court proceedings involving NSW Ports, or at such time as the House determines.


Commentary

I am still working my way through the analysis, However, some things stand out. Note that I am looking at the report from a Northern NSW, a broader New England, perspective. I make no apologies for that.

The analysis is very Sydney centric. I have seen this type of analysis before dating right back to the Cohen Commission inquiry into a proposed Northern state. There the analysis focused on railways, the apparent economies associated with the Sydney port rail network and the additional costs associated with developing an alternative system. Leaving aside costing and pricing issues, the way that then NSW rail freights were set provided an artificial surplus to the Sydney railway network carrying Northern good that then became a cost, the analysis was based on what was not what might be.

I thought that was the case here too. It is heavily set within existing plans, existing structures. The Port of Newcastle is seen as an extension of the Sydney network and analysed in that context. In a way, the approach adopted by the Port of Newcastle in emphasising certain savings that would accrue to Sydney through (for example) reduced infrastructure spend encouraged that approach. Disprove those, or at least cast doubt on them, and the case starts to fall to ground.

Assuming that I understand the arguments correctly, the evidence ran that the majority of container traffic was Sydney bound and that, further, the economic locus was shifting to the south and south west, effectively isolating Newcastle, The argument here seems to have been two fold. That expenditure and planning should be focused on the existing infrastructure and that these trends made it unlikely that a container port at Newcastle could be viable.

I have commented before about the way in which present development dynamics are progressively disadvantaging and indeed fragmenting the North The evidence presented to the committee seems to support that view. However, the whole analysis misses certain key points.

The anti-competitive clause itself should never have been there in the first place. It artificially increased the price that was paid for the long term lease at the cost of the Port of Newcastle, Newcastle and indeed importers and exporters across Northern NSW who might have benefited from alternative shipping options. It also artificially increased traffic through the Botany Bay and Port Kembla, creating an economic incentive for further investment to manage the increased traffic.

One can argue about the quantum, one can argue about the extent to which container traffic at Newcastle would be viable, but it remains an economic distortion introduced by the Sydney Government whose costs are born by those in the North.

In this context, and this in part reflects the way the committee's terms of reference were written., there is actually no recognition in any of this of the North as an economic and geographic entity with its own interests. How might we use a container terminal at Newcastle? How might we combine it with other infrastructure to encourage Northern development.? I think that these questions are worth asking.