The starting date and cost of the extension of light rail through to Woden may be “still as foggy as a Canberra winter morning” but the nation’s capital continues to benefit from public spending and population growth, according to the latest Deloitte Access Economics report.
The June 2019 business outlook report released this week said that Canberra remains one of the best performing economies in the nation with reduced risk of cutbacks in public sector spending due to the Federal Budget being in its best shape since 2009.
However, the report states that “efficiency dividends in the Commonwealth public sector remain a headwind” for Canberra following the unexpected return of the Federal Government.
“When it comes to public sector spending there is both good and bad news for the ACT,” the report states.
“The push to relocate public service jobs to bush towns is gathering steam. Efficiency dividends are too, with the Commonwealth Government announcing it will maintain the 2 per cent annual efficiency dividend for another two years, easing back to 1.5 per cent in mid-2021 and 1 per cent the following year.
“This will weigh on the public sector headcount, particularly as those departments and agencies that are exempt – such as the financial regulators – tend to have large shares of their workforces outside the nation’s capital.
“That said, the renewed focus on the NDIS will support public sector employment in the ACT, as well as broader employment in the health care and social industry where the ‘on the ground’ staff are located.
“There is also some good news. Sky-high commodity prices and spending restraint have helped the Federal Budget balance into its best position in over a decade. This should reduce the need for any further staff cuts for now.”
Public sector not the only game in town
The business outlook report also says that, luckily for the ACT, the public sector is not the only game in town.
“There has been substantial job creation in areas outside the public sector, including in construction and the tertiary education and research sectors.”
The ACT has the second-highest rate of population growth in Australia and the report says this has propped up spending at the Territory’s shops despite Canberra sharing in the weak wage growth evident across the country.
“Strong rates of population growth have also kept a floor under housing market activity and supported jobs in the construction sector even though construction of Stage 1 of the Light Rail project wrapped up earlier this year,” the report stated.
“While housing prices have fallen, they have not fallen nearly as far as those in most major Australian markets. That healthier tone to housing markets also explains why residential rents continue to grow well above the rates seen elsewhere in Australia.”
The ‘light rail is now running’ slump
The business outlook report says that engineering construction activity in the ACT has fallen into a ‘the light rail is now running’ slump.
“The value of work done has fallen by a fifth from a peak in early 2018, due in large part to an almost halving in rail work following the opening of the first stage of the ACT light rail.
“Elsewhere, there were some pretty big falls in the telecommunications sector as work also wraps up on the NBN.”
However, the report states that there is some good news as well, with the latest ACT Budget setting aside more than half a billion dollars for new capital works over the next four years, up from a quarter of a billion last year.
“A further $1.2 billion has been promised beyond the forward estimates as well. Some of that $1.2 billion is likely to be for the big project that’s sitting in the pipeline: the second stage of the light rail.”
However, the report notes that because of the complex approvals process, extending the light rail to Woden “could be a way off yet”.
Commercial construction set to cool
The report says that Canberra’s commercial construction sector has been “running hot” for a while, but the latest data suggests that things are set to cool.
It says that the value of work underway has pulled back, particularly in the retail, education and entertainment and recreation sectors. However, there are some bright spots, particularly in the offices, accommodation and health sectors.