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Why Victoria, and the Premier, can’t afford to shut down construction

The think tank estimates Victoria’s economy would have shrunk by 0.8 per cent since December 2019 if the level of infrastructure spending had remained at the level before the Andrews government was elected. Instead, it has continued to grow.

Notably, workers in the industries of comparable size – healthcare professional services, retail trade and education – are mostly still working from home or, in the case of healthcare workers or click-and-collect retail staff, at their workplace.

But despite the best technological advances, a house still can’t be built on Zoom.

Deloitte Access Economics’ Chris Richardson says the industry is “vital” to Victoria’s economy. He says governments are required to make trade-offs between the health risks of keeping an industry open and the economic harm caused by closing it.

“There’s no perfect answer,” he said. “The sector is stunningly important to Australia, and it’s even more important to Victoria than the Australian average.”

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As the Treasurer noted, the average COVID-infected construction worker lives about 20 kilometres away from the outbreak site. This compares with an average spread of four kilometres for retail workers.

To travel those 20 kilometres, the hundreds of thousands of building hands, electricians and plasters are buying fuel and queueing at cafes, service stations and fast food drive-throughs. The small chunk of Melburnians who’ve seen the CBD in recent months would know labourers are the main thing keeping city outlets alive.

Labor MPs know how crucial these workers are to maintaining public acceptance for lockdowns. Talk to a party strategist and they will tell you how important suburban and regional tradespeople are to Andrews’ electoral fortunes.

In the “tradie belts” of Melbourne – down the Frankston line which runs through key marginal seats, and in the outer south-east, north-east and west of Melbourne – Victorian Labor secured big swings in 2018. In many of these areas, Scott Morrison’s federal Coalition polled strongly.

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Many thousands of these workers are building one of the 75 government projects on the State Critical Infrastructure List that allows public works like the North East Link, West Gate Tunnel and school, hospital and public-housing builds to continue during lockdowns. An indefinite shutdown would add to delays and blowouts on these projects.

Ban construction and Mr Andrews loses support from workers and their families who have avoided shutdowns as the rest of the state has turned their kitchen bench into a home office.

The Premier’s motive is to keep these voters onside, not to please construction union bosses like John Setka from the CFMEU, who is famously no fan of the Premier.

Construction bosses need to ensure their sites are COVID-compliant to avoid a shutdown that Victoria, and the Andrews government, can’t afford.

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