HEAVY reliance on a handful of big employers or industries is always dangerous for any city or community.

When conditions suit those employers and industries, all is well for jobs and prosperity. But when they change, over-reliance can cause painful dislocation.

The Regional Australia Institute has established a national index of regional competitiveness, comparing regions around Australia.

Hunter people won’t be too surprised to learn that parts of their region have been judged to lack a healthily diverse economic base.

This used to be said of Newcastle when BHP’s steelworks was operating and the city was seen to lean too heavily on steel for jobs and wealth-creation.

Nowadays the same comments are levelled at the city’s relationship to coalmining and shipping.

To a certain extent that may be unfair. Indeed, just as pundits were proven wrong in their cataclysmic predictions when the steelworks closed, Newcastle’s reliance on coal might also be overstated.

But that doesn’t mean that those who make decisions on the city’s behalf are doing all they should to foster diversity and resilience.

The structure of Australia’s federation means capital cities soak up an inordinate share of resources and administrative attention. Regions tend to suffer from a lack of effective political and administrative advocacy and this is reflected in a leaching of services, jobs and wealth towards the capitals.

In the case of Newcastle, it seems to suit the state government to bolster the coal industry, since shipping coal earns huge sums for Sydney’s coffers.

That’s reasonable, to a point.

It would be better, however, if governments at state and federal levels pushed past the entrenched inertia and encouraged the growth of more and different economic strands in the Hunter community.

Much could be done to boost tourism in Newcastle, for example, if the government would provide money and marketing expertise.

Better and faster transport links would make a big difference too, creating incentives and opportunities for new job-creating industries and businesses.

As the retiring chief executive of the Hunter Valley Research Foundation, Wej Paradice, wrote this week, the combined Hunter and Central Coast region contains almost a million people – twice as many as Tasmania and four times the Northern Territory.

In a fair federal system such a region would receive an appropriate share of revenue, advocacy and attention to aid the growth of a truly diverse and resilient economy.

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