Departing Business Chamber head Robyn Hendry says Canberra is booming, but there’s work to do. Hendry, who left the role this month after four years, says she is “full of optimism” and believes Canberra has reached a major turning point economically and socially.
“Just as I started at the Chamber, I recall having a meeting with Zed Seselja. He said to me that the major cuts to the Federal workforce were over and that we’d seen the worst effects of those roughly 16,000 jobs lost.
“It couldn’t be more polar opposite today. At that point, we had 50 per cent maximum private sector employment. Now it hovers between 64 and 66 per cent private sector, the highest it’s ever been. The population is growing strongly, and we’re verging on full employment.”
Hendry says that the last contraction didn’t progress into recession because the economy had the firepower to re-absorb people into the private sector, although others also left town creating negative population growth. Now, she says, “It’s chalk and cheese. We have everyone coming into town, about 50 per cent natural growth, and 50 per cent people moving to Canberra.
“People used to say that Canberra had been comfortably numb, not challenged enough. We relied too heavily on the Federal government. Now we’re getting more out of our educational institutions, we have start-ups and scale-ups that take advantage of that. Service exports grew 6.5 per cent last year alone. It’s remarkable.”
In our favour, she says that congestion in Sydney and Melbourne has been increasing. At the same time, Canberra’s liveability has hit its stride with growth in retail around hubs like New Acton, Braddon and the Kingston foreshore.
“I think the 2013 centenary contributed to the mood. It was a genuine turning point. We realised as a community that we don’t need to go elsewhere for fun. The penny has dropped that we have a full life in Canberra.” The other game changer has been the growth at the airport, which she describes as “a pride-point on what we can be as a city”.
So what are the challenges for the future? Better connectivity to the wider community, for starters. Hendry believes that while there’s good progress through the Canberra Region Joint Organisation, Canberra’s relationship with the region is still maturing.
She identifies a number of important transport priorities including duplicating the Barton Highway, better rail links and the possibility of regional flight connections between Canberra and Merimbula.
“The region is a major economic driver for Canberra but I don’t think we’ve realised the full benefit,” Hendry says. That requires more attention to factors like housing costs, often prohibitive for people moving to Canberra for education and employment.
“If we get that relationship right, then we’re helping to skill the region. People return home, take their skills with them, but create benefits in both directions.”
The Business Chamber’s five key measures, developed during Hendry’s time, were liveability, being connected, agile, resilient and international. For the future, she’d like to see those concepts fuel our growth in areas like the movement towards an environmentally sustainable economy and excellent transport.
“When we reach a population of 500,000 people around 2030, we’ll have a critical mass that will support better internal transport systems. One light rail route doesn’t make a network or a system on its own, it’s how it all integrates.
“Hopefully, people will also continue to work diligently on bringing back a flight to New Zealand, especially if it went through Auckland to the United States. But we’re a small jurisdiction, so to quote Chief Minister it’s about staging and timing.”
Hendry’s key drivers for the future centre around vitality, ideas and innovation, and she says there is real value in our continuing human scale. “People in Canberra have reasonably certain employment, there’s plenty of work here in the near future at least. When people are confident it seems to me we can manage our growth well.”
There are no specific plans for her own future, although Hendry says “I would love to work in Canberra. I’m not sure what that looks like just now, but I do know that I want to continue doing meaningful work that makes a contribution to the city.”