Election focus on jobs as Victoria’s unemployment hits 13-year high

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The Age: Election focus on jobs as Victoria’s unemployment hits 13-year high. November 24, 2014. Shane Green

Victoria’s unemployment rate is at its highest level in 13 years and the third worst in Australia. With a booming population and a withering manufacturing base, what’s the answer for creating jobs? Shane Green reports.

Symbol: Ford worker Stuart Harris at the Broadmeadows plant: “I’ve been proud to be a part of it.” Photo: Jason South

Adem Atmaca considers what it would be like to be in a marginal seat in the middle of an election campaign, and settles upon the simple and evocative. “Heaven,” he says, with a hint of longing.

It’s what you see in third world countries, or countries in Europe that have got an economic crisis at the moment. Those are the figures that you don’t expect in a prosperous Australia.

Broadmeadows mayor Adem Atmaca on the local unemployment rate.

Atmaca is the newly-installed mayor of Hume in Melbourne’s north-west, which includes the state seat of Broadmeadows. With a margin of about 20 per cent, it is one of Labor’s safest seats. The problem Broadmeadows faces is that its unemployment rate exceeds the ALP’s margin: a crippling 26.4 per cent – the highest in Victoria.

Focus: Geelong mayor Darryn Lyons at the Alcoa plant in Geelong after its closure was announced in February with the loss of 800 jobs. Photo: Jason South

Nearby suburbs are not far behind: Meadow Heights and Campbellfield-Coolaroo all at 22.9 per cent.

At one level, as an ALP member, Adem Atmaca is obviously pleased that Labor’s heartland beats so strongly. Yet he knows that being in a safe seat means that there is limited love as the main parties cajole and persuade voters in marginal electorates. “Everyone in Victoria wishes they lived in a marginal seat,” he says.

Atmaca has watched politicians lavish attention on Geelong, hit by job losses, including Ford’s decision to stop making cars in 2016. But Broadmeadows is a Ford town: it will lose 650 jobs, while 510 will go from Geelong. Those job losses will hurt both communities.

But Geelong has something Broadmeadows doesn’t – three marginal seats in South Barwon, Bellarine and Geelong itself.

The tale of these two towns is a critical dimension in any discussion about the importance of jobs policy in this election. Victoria’s unemployment rate now sits at 6.8 per cent – the highest level in 13 years and the third worst in Australia, only behind Tasmania and Queensland.

The broader picture is of a state economy where jobs growth has not kept pace with a booming population, while its industrial manufacturing base has withered. Ford is a symbolic example.

Both the Coalition and Labor have placed job creation as a frontline issue. Labor moved first, pledging $1 billion to create 100,000 jobs over two years and giving payroll tax relief to companies that employ the long-term jobless and young people.

The Coalition has promised to create 200,000 jobs over five years, with a price tag of $33.4 billion – most of which are the big infrastructure projects, such as the East West Link and the Melbourne Rail Link. More than $100 million will go to skills and jobs schemes.

If the policies succeed, they would invariably benefit people seeking work regardless of where they live. But based on the attention bestowed upon marginal seats in recent weeks, Geelong would be a far better place to be than Broadmeadows if you are looking for a job.

There has been a procession of politicians down the Princes Freeway, and promise upon promise made. Labor launched its campaign in Geelong, while also providing Geelong its own jobs plan – including $3 million to support a new manufacturing hub in the the city. (The Liberals launched in Ballarat.)

In September, there was a hint of what was to come, when Labor leader Daniel Andrews went to Geelong to announce a $100 million redevelopment of Simonds Stadium and the Geelong Performing Arts Centre. In a Freudian slip that went to the heart of the matter, Andrews declared the projects would create “650 votes” – he meant jobs, of course.

Geelong’s mayor Darryn Lyons acknowledges that marginal seats have a fair bit to do with the attention. But he also argues the area’s growth is also part of the story.

Lyons says he’s pushed the boundaries on bringing a focus to the city since being elected in November, 2013. “I’m not the archetypal mayor, as you know,” says Lyons, the former paparazzo with the dyed hair. “I think there’s been a real focus on sending out the message that we’re open for business.” Geelong, he says, had to “go out loud and proud and get positive about where we come from.”

Lyons says he has also been a regular visitor to Spring St and Canberra. “You’ve got to go out and you’ve got to ask,” he says.

But the Geelong mayor is also aware of the area’s political importance. “There’s no doubt regional Victoria will win or lose this election,” he says.

So the political compass spins towards places such as Geelong, while trips to Broadmeadows have been irregular.

On the assembly line at Ford in Broadmeadows, a regular conversation among the workers revolves around what the future might hold when their jobs go in 2016.

Stewart Harris has assembled cars on the line at Ford for 24 years, his first full time job when he arrived from New Zealand as a 20-year-old in 1990. If you have driven a Falcon or Territory, the father of two young children has probably been involved in putting it together.

“I’ve been proud to be a part of it. It’s a bit sad to see it go, to be honest with you,” says Harris, who would have liked to finish his career at Ford. “But unfortunately things get taken out of your hands. Things have changed in the last 10 years – for everybody, not only us in manufacturing, but a lot of industries have changed a lot.”

Harris is working out his next move. As part of the assistance package provided by Ford and government money, he can retrain. He is contemplating something completely different. With a young family, he needs to keep working. “I don’t want to be chopping and changing too much when I actually leave Ford but when we talk about manufacturing, I know it’s going to be difficult into the future,” he says.

That difficult future that is occupying the minds of his fellow workers. “It’s something that’s talked about a lot on the floor, about the uncertainty about what the future holds for a lot of people eventually when we leave,” he says.

The knock-on effect extends beyond Ford. Luke Hilakari, the new Trades Hall secretary, says researchers have estimated about 50,000 jobs will be lost across Victoria in the auto and component industries as Ford and other car makers shut down.

Hilakari acknowledges the dilemma of the safe seat. “Everyone who lives in a safe seat, whether it be a National Party seat, or a Liberal Party seat, or a Labor safe seat, they would say they get dudded at state elections. Political parties put a lot of money into the seats that will determine the outcome of government.”

In Broadmeadows, mayor Adem Atmaca is considering the same frustration. Former Labor premier treasurer John Brumby was the previous MP. Atmaca says that under Brumby, there was a regeneration of schools in the area.

Former journalist and son of Broadmeadows Frank McGuire took over at a byelection. McGuire, a champion for the area, was a driving force behind the establishment of the Hume Global Learning Village, a place where residents can do, among other things, online university courses. There are 1600 hours of classes a month. Before it opened 10 years ago, Broadmeadows didn’t have a library.

Atmaca says McGuire has been very active, but in opposition there is a limit to what can be achieved. The council is upset that close to $100 million of state money allocated to Hume for ready-to-go projects was taken away. “We were just devastated,” says Atmaca.

McGuire has described the 26.4 per cent unemployment rate as a social disaster. The mayor agrees, warning of a pending social catastrophe. “It’s what you see in third world countries, or countries in Europe that have got an economic crisis at the moment. Those are the figures that you don’t expect in a prosperous Australia.”

Hume is only 15 kilometres from the city. “And to have this unemployment rate basically in metropolitan Melbourne to me is just staggering.”

Atmaca takes me on a tour of the streets of Broadmeadows, the good and the bad. The former includes a new community hub that hums with local residents, and a mothers’ group with smiling babies on floor mats.

The bad involves the empty factories that were once the pumping industrial heart of the area, where big names such as Nabisco and Ericsson made things and employed people. We pass a run-down area known locally as the Bronx. A third of the homes are public housing, concrete houses built 40 years ago and now riven with cracks.

Atmaca is looking beyond the election and the attention given to the marginal seats. He plans to write to whoever is premier, and the Prime Minister, to invite them to Broadmeadows to see what 26.4 per cent unemployment means. He wants the area declared a priority enterprise zone, getting special assistance.

“It’s a bit a like family,” he says. “If one of your kids is a bit wayward and the others are fine, you spend more time with him to try get him on track. Well, I see Broadmeadows like that. This is part of the Victorian family, part of the Australian family that need a bit more help than others.”

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