OPINION: Researching 30 years of change in Hunter

FAREWELL: Dr Wej Paradice outside the Hunter Valley Research Foundation. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers FAREWELL: Dr Wej Paradice outside the Hunter Valley Research Foundation. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
Shanghai night field

WHEN I joined the Hunter Valley Research Foundation in 1982, the Hunter Region had a population of 473,000 people. Newcastle’s population had declined from 145,000 in 1976 to 140,000 in 1981.

The Hunter’s population now stands at 630,000 people. The Central Coast population was only 94,000 people in 1981 and this has now grown to over 320,000 people.

Between the Hunter and Central Coast we now have a combined population of almost one million people, a sizeable market in Australian terms. Tasmania has only 511,000 people while the Northern Territory has 231,000.

Up to the 1980s, Newcastle and the Hunter Region were synonymous with the image of iron and steel making and the dominance of basic heavy industries. Yet the seeds of change had well and truly been planted.

While BHP was then employing over 11,000 people, the writing was on the wall that this would not continue forever. The State Dockyard was beginning to wind down operations, with its last two ferry construction contracts for Manly ferries almost complete.

However, alternative industries were already developing, with aluminium production having begun at Kurri Kurri in 1969 and construction of the Tomago smelter under way with completion in 1984.

Saleable coal production from the region was about 28 million tonnes and the Port exported only about 13 million tonnes (133 million tonnes in 2012).

Most of the coal came from underground mines. Also at this time the Electricity Commission of NSW was still building Eraring and Bayswater Power Stations.

We found unemployment in the 1980s region was in the order of 16 per cent or more. Getting to year 10 was aspirational for students in the region.

As you can tell, the Hunter Region was a very different place. Even though I had grown up in the Upper Hunter, I was fortunate to be able to gain an even better appreciation of the Hunter by having spent time away, both outside the region and outside the country.

I lived in Sydney when you could pick up a townhouse in Paddington for $15,000, as well as a number of years in the US, all of which was great preparation for working for the Hunter Valley Research Foundation.

One of my early tasks on joining the foundation was to assist in recording data from the foundation’s weather station. The task was to take weather readings at 9am and 3pm every day, 365 days of the year. The data was recorded in a weather book and then a phone call to the post office was made in the morning and afternoon to send a telegram to the Bureau of Meteorology with the recorded readings.

Reflecting upon these types of memories gives one pause to consider the significance of the changes we have experienced as a community and as an organisation over these last three decades.

The Hunter has changed dramatically, moving from a heavy industry base to an economy in which services, innovation and creativity are the key generators of jobs and wealth.

BHP was the previous paternalistic presence within the region, but now the university, alongside major health institutions, are the employers of note, while trade and capital investment have been the characteristics of the resources sector that have been contributing to the local economy in recent years.

Technology, and the digital revolution, has played a critical role in how we relate to each other and how we do business. When I was undertaking my PhD we stored data and ran statistical programs through main-frame computers using punched data cards.

These major changes in the structure of the regional economy and how we all do business have meant redefining what information the foundation collects and how we collect it.

In those early years the foundation had a focus on collecting physical resource information. As the needs of the community changed so did the demands on the foundation. The community wanted current information that was relevant to their needs.

As a result, the foundation developed its regional economic monitoring program, which collected information directly from households and businesses and which could be benchmarked to similar information collected at a national level.

Over the last decade the foundation began its work to track the overall well-being of our community. Our research demonstrates that personal relationships, individual health and perceived relative wealth are the main contributors to a person’s feeling of life satisfaction.

In closing, I would like to remind those in decision-making roles that investing in regional research is an investment in the future of NSW. The foundation has been an integral part of the evolution on one of Australia’s pre-eminent regional economies and should serve as an excellent example of how governments can help regions to help themselves.

Let’s hope we can re-establish that partnership in the near future.