26 December 2020

As we crawled to the finish line for another year, Christmas greetings for 2020 were darker than usual. Let us never speak of this year again, we agreed, and compared memes on how it started versus how it’s going.

On reflection, it’s true that we were all challenged by the Biblical horror show that we were presented with. Fires, floods and pestilence (in the form of a virus) had a very human cost. But dare I say it was not all entirely bad. In fact, we have a lot to be grateful for, to be happy about, and moreover, to look forward to in 2021.

The first reason to celebrate is that the economists got it wrong. Not for nothing is economics known as the ‘dismal science’. When the virus hit, border shutdowns followed and soon after we were locked away in our homes. The global economy trembled, and economists became modern-day prophets of doom.

We were warned of double digit increases to unemployment rates, and a recession that would drive down property prices and hurt every business sector.

Business advocates, including us, argued successfully for broad-based government support that could keep the wheels turning while we waited for a re-opening and eventually a vaccine.

In reality the damage was concentrated on the hospitality, events, retail and tertiary education sectors. The others didn’t escape unharmed but with unemployment now back to pre-COVID levels in the Illawarra we can certainly say it has weathered the storm. The job market has bounced back too, with people returning to work in their droves since October.

We can only look at the gloomy Christmas unfolding in the United Kingdom under lockdown to truly appreciate how well the virus has been managed here; despite the pre-Christmas outbreak on the Northern Beaches.

Consumer confidence has absolutely rebounded, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has attempted to buy a new home, a vehicle or certain household items. The nesting phenomenon happening in our community has seen trades completely booked up, furniture stores stripped of stock and even garden appliances are hard to come by.

If the national housing market has held up surprisingly well, then the Illawarra’s is going gangbusters. All this is easier to finance with record low interest rates trending down below two percent. Good news for investors and home owners. Not so great for renters and others at the bottom of the property ladder.

On top of this, disposable incomes are rising across the board, due to tax cuts passed on by the federal government, lockdown savings to household travel and entertainment budgets, bank-approved mortgage holidays, and of course the $1.1 trillion in government support washing around the economy.

No doubt this support was the right thing to do as we faced the economic calamity in March-April, but once the pandemic is behind us expect to see critics of the government’s untargeted spending out in force as we begin the stomach-churning process of rebalancing the books.

Closer to home, the times have suited business advocates, including Business Illawarra.

Governments have been looking for shovel-ready projects to fund, in order to stimulate the economy by creating jobs and demand in the construction sector and the civil infrastructure supply chain.

Thanks to the research funded by our members, we were able to mount powerful arguments for our region to get its cut of the action, and the COVID-induced Zoom revolution meant we were more efficient advocates due to less time on the road to Canberra and Sydney.

First, our Picton Road Motorway Coalition had a huge win in the state budget, which contained a $44 million commitment to commence planning for a major upgrade to divide and widen the road and redevelop the interchanges at each end onto the Hume Highway and the Princes Motorway.

Then, our long-term push for progress on the Mount Ousley Interchange saw $21 million announced to continue the work to transform Wollongong’s most notorious intersection.

We finished the year off with the release of our major rail study with the SMART Infrastructure Facility at the University of Wollongong. This challenges established thinking on our future rail connectivity and demonstrates beyond doubt that a connection to south-western Sydney will be needed by 2036.

Our advocacy on this will continue next year, but for now we are downing tools and wish everyone a wonderful and prosperous new year.