By Alice Thompson

May 11, 2023 – 9:00am

Treasurer Jim Chalmers.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers.

While the region looks to elections for a windfall, it is the quiet work behind the scenes on annual budgets that delivers. The outcomes for the Hunter in the federal budget reflect smart and persistent advocacy over years by a range of stakeholders, working together with Hunter MPs to secure the support our region needs.

Elections are won or lost in the lower house, driving a local view on priorities within the tight boundaries of electorates. This leads to announcements for community infrastructure and programs which is arguably quite democratic, providing people with what they want.

But wants are different to needs. And conversations on what a community or nation needs can be hard for governments and work against the politics.

We can see the Treasurer walk that tightrope in the budget as the government sought to provide cost of living relief while avoiding pressure on inflation.

The Committee for the Hunter works across members, stakeholders, experts and evidence to identify what the Hunter needs, and we bring these priorities to government with a unified voice.

As a large population and economy entering disruption as the world transitions to clean energy and net zero, the Hunter needs coordination across levels of government and sectors to get better outcomes from existing focus and funding. And we need big investments in infrastructure, precincts and human capital that will catalyse new business and jobs.

These major projects, programs and tricky reforms rarely fall out of election war chests. They are drawn from central revenues and determined in budgets.

This year’s federal budget demonstrated a strong understanding of what the Hunter needs to ride the transition and come out even stronger.

The budget confirmed the Net Zero Authority to support coal regions diversify and grow through change. There wasn’t sufficient resourcing for economy-growing infrastructure and precincts, but it’s early days. Government has already written to stakeholders promising collaboration to shape the authority and their work.

There was comprehensive investment in the Hunter’s emerging clean energy economy, the biggest opportunity for new business and jobs building from our strengths in resources, R&D and manufacturing.

This includes funding for clean energy transmission infrastructure, support for the Hunter’s portfolio of hydrogen projects to achieve scale and reduce risk, and help for SMEs to enter clean tech value chains. Hunter industry covered by the Safeguard Mechanism will be able to access funding to decarbonise, while other local manufacturers will benefit from the National Reconstruction Fund.

Building the clean economy literally requires a contemporary Green Army. The budget seeks to grow human capital by providing thousands of new fee-free TAFE and university places, support for apprentices, increasing the teacher workforce, and reforming vocational and tertiary training.

But we can’t support the workforce we need if we are unable to house them affordably. While government clearly recognises the problem, it remains to be seen if measures to encourage more build to rent schemes and financing for social and community housing make any more of a dent on this complex issue than previous budgets.

We welcome confirmation that the Sydney to Newcastle corridor is a top priority for high-speed rail, although there remains a high level of cynicism on how fast we can get shovels in the ground and tangible benefits for commuters. We hope that commitments to improve rail in the near term aren’t kicked into the long grass with planning for the high speed rail network.

It is easy to look at this budget in isolation and just ask what’s in it for the Hunter today.

Achieving our, and the government’s, positive vision for the Hunter requires longer term planning and investment horizons. This provides strong signals to the 10 councils of the region and the private sector to lock their resourcing around our shared plan for growth and prosperity.

These announcements build on previous budget commitments for the Hunter like the $16 million Clean Energy Testing and Training Centre, the $50 million Australian Trailblazer Recycling and Clean Energy Program, funding for hydrogen project pilots, the Port of Newcastle’s Clean Energy Precinct, major road projects and Newcastle Airport.

More investment in big catalytic projects and housing will be needed for the Hunter’s transformation. But as the title of the glossy brochure states, “Budget 2023 provides Stronger foundations for a better future”.

Alice Thompson is the CEO of the Committee for the Hunter