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Rail will keep Canberra wages high and unemployment down

"If we want things to stay as they are," the maxim goes, "things will have to change." This is true for Canberra today. 

Canberra is rated one of the best cities in the world to live in. It has the highest average wages and lowest unemployment in Australia. To ensure that Canberra stays the way it is, with good job prospects, strong wages and civic engagement, things will have to change.

One of those things is building light rail.

Light rail will change Canberra. The first phase of the light rail system from Gunghalin to Civic will transform the inner north, increasing the density of living and working spaces, and attract new knowledge workers and high-tech businesses. As new businesses move in, attracted by the certainty of fixed, long-lasting light rail stops, supporting services will develop, including recreation, restaurants and entertainment. 

If we want to keep Canberra as a vibrant, exciting, diverse city, then we need to invest in creating an urban environment attractive to new businesses. Most of the jobs created from this urban transformation will be in the private sector, which importantly over the long term will reduce Canberra's vulnerability to the federal government public service employment policies. 

In the past 18 months, over 7000 public sector workers have had their jobs wrecked by the Abbott government. Thankfully, while the federal government was wrecking public service jobs and cutting funding for social services, the ACT government committed to protecting local jobs, in the public service, and in schools and hospitals. 

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Canberra is a public service town. Local businesses rely on the spending of public servants. When there are mass redundancies and pay freezes from the federal government, it hurts the entire ACT community.

If, as a community, we want to keep unemployment low, then we need to ensure we are continually creating new jobs. This is never more important than during difficult economic times, when smart, long-term government investment can boost employment in the short-term.

Building light rail will deliver a short-term boost of 3500 jobs from 2016-18, just when we need it, and will build a transformational piece of public infrastructure.

These jobs will be a mix of skilled and unskilled. Not everyone in Canberra has a university degree. It is important to ensure that our economy works for everyone. Around 40 per cent of the jobs from light rail will benefit people who don't currently have a job, and most of those will require no more than a high-school certificate. This cohort of workers are currently experiencing significant under or unemployment – especially young people and people from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

What's more, the tradies, labourers and apprentices who will build the light rail live in every suburb of Canberra, from Tuggeranong and Weston Creek to Belconnen. The workers building light rail will spend their wages in their local shops, eat at their local restaurants, and use local services. Even if you rarely use the light rail, the jobs it creates will benefit the entire ACT community.

Critics of light rail generally cite the cost of building the new transit system. Surely, the critics ask, we could spend more on buses, duplicate more roads, or construct a new convention centre? Surely the $700 million price tag for light rail is too much to pay for creating 3500 jobs?

The cost and the inflexibility of light rail are in fact its main advantages.

The cost means an immediate jobs stimulus, resulting in the creation of thousands of secure, local jobs right when we need them. The alternatives posed by critics simply won't result in the scale of job creation that we need now.

The inflexibility – the tracks – means that businesses, developers and investors have certainty. This builds the confidence we need to transform our economy over the long-term. New businesses know that the light rail tracks and stops will be there for decades to come. Buses are an essential part of an integrated public transport system, but bus networks alone don't result in this significant urban and economic transformation.

UnionsACT supports a strong, vibrant economy that works in the interest of Canberra's community. We realise that for Canberra to remain a great city with low unemployment and strong wages, then some things will need to change. One of those changes is building light rail.

Alex White is secretary of UnionsACT, the peak council for unions in the Canberra region. UnionsACT's assessment of the light rail project, focusing on the impact for workers, is being released today at canberraneedsjobs.org.au.