Federal budget: Hunter dudded again

Treasurer Scott Morrison delivers the budgetA COUPLE of mentions of Williamtown RAAF base and the PFAS controversy were the only direct mentions of the Hunter Region in the main books of this year’s federal budget.
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Although Treasurer Scott Morrison and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull have been highlighting the government’s “rolling infrastructure program” promising $75 billion in spending over 10 years, none of that money found its way to the Hunter this year.

Although the lack of Hunter-specific funding came as little surprise to the region’s Labor MPs – who were not expecting much from the budget – it comes in contrast to the amount of money and projects lavished on the western suburbs of Sydney, which is increasingly being seen as a region in its own right.

A sign of western Sydney’s political heft was outlined in a budget statement dedicated to Regional by Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack. In this statement, Mr McCormack, who is also Infrastructure Minister, lauded a Western Sydney City Deal signed on March 3 by Canberra, the NSW government and eight local councils – a “20-year agreement between the three levels of government to deliver jobs, rail and investment for the people of Western Sydney”.

As far as the Newcastle Herald can tell, no such agreement has been suggested by government circles for the Hunter region.

With the budget built on better than expected terms of trade, the Hunter coal industry has again played its part by helping to bolster revenues, with Treasury basing its revenue forecasts on a basket of commodity prices that include the region’s main product, thermal coal, selling at a healthy $US93 a tonne.

With a federal health taskforce having handed down its PFAS paper on Monday, the budget papers confirmed $55.2 million over five years from July for a drinking water program to be shared between the communities surrounding the Williamtown, Oakey, Tindal and Pearce RAAF bases, providing bottled water for those affected until alternative water infrastructure is provided.

The budget also recognised the class actions under way at Williamtown and Oakey as a potential financial risk to government finances, but no dollar figure was attached.

As a major RAAF facility and soon to be home to the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, Williamtown RAAF is a perennial target of federal spending, with a number of initiatives outlined in a detailed statement by the Defence Department.

On the JSF, Defence says the planes destined for 3 Squadron have an approved expenditure of $15.2 billion, with $2.7 billion spent so far and another $1.8 billion committed for the coming financial year.

In other RAAF spending, $123 million has been set aside this year for maintaining Hawk Lead-in fighters at RAAF Williamtown and Pearce.

New Air Combat facilities at Williamtown are scheduled to receive $94 million this year, on top of $798 million spent already.

A stage two redevelopment of the base is scheduled to receive $83.3 million, with $104.6 million spent so far and a total price tag of $274 million and a finishing date of 2021.

Air traffic control receives $13.4 million, on top of $21.1 million spent so far, with $4.5 million allocated for aviation refueling infrastructure.

At Singleton army base, a “mid-term refresh” of facilities is being considered, with a decision expected in 2019.

Although the lack of Hunter-specific spending programs was unofficially confirmed by Treasury spokespeople, they did point to the Roads of Strategic Importance Initiative as a program that was likely to see a share of the $3.5 billion in 10 years spent in the region. The same applied to other road programs including Roads to Recovery, the Black Spot Program and the Bridges Renewal Program.

On the child abuse royal commission, the government is in the second-year of a two-year program costing $1.6 million to work on an apology to victims, with $6.3 million over three years to develop and implement the government’s response to the commission’s recommendations, using unspent commission funding.

Although there is $123.6 million over five years until 2022 for 5000 Commonwealth supported student places at regional universities, none of that money will flow to the University of Newcastle.

Instead it’s being delivered to campuses at Moreton Bay, Burnie, Launceston and Coffs Harbour.

A budget statement by Mr McCormack noted that the National Disability Insurance Scheme, for which the Hunter was a trial site, was “one of the largest job creation opportunities in ’s history”.

The statement sai the NDIS workforce was expected to grow from 73,000 full-time equivalent jobs in 2013 to about 162,000 by 2020. NDIS providers would need to cater for an estimated 460,000 participants when the scheme was in full swing.

In a nod to families in rural and regional areas, the statement said parental income cut-off for Youth Allowance would rise from $150,000 to $160,000, rising by $10,000 for every sibling.

Labor Shortland MP Pat Conroy said the Hunter Region had been “completely dudded”.

Mr Conroy said the personal tax cut would equate to a saving of about $8 per week for the average worker in his electorate, while people earning $200,000 stood to save thousands by the time the seven-year package had been rolled out.

He said a lack of money for infrastructure projects in the Hunter, reduced Centrelink staff and cuts to TAFE funding were particularly disappointing for the region.

“I think it’s underwhelming and, despite all the spin, it still shows the priorities are completely skewed,” he said.

“If you boil down the budget, there are significant tax cuts for high income earners. It keeps cuts to hospitals and schools and cuts TAFE [funding] even further, which affects our region given high number of tradespeople.”