Alice Thompson reporting for the Newcastle Herald

21 September 2023

It was a challenging budget for the new NSW Government, facing trade-offs between paying down debt, funding essential services, providing cost of living relief, underwriting election commitments and transforming the electricity grid.

With all the talking down of government’s fiscal position, expectations for the Hunter were duly subdued despite promises of the ‘sharp elbows’ of local MPs, several of whom sit on the front bench.

Funding for schools, education, health services and workers, and regional roads will improve quality of life for Hunter communities and help bring education outcomes in parity with NSW and metro Sydney – key advocacy objectives of the Committee.

We would have liked to see a more balanced budget that also boosted the Hunter’s capacity to grow the economy, provide housing and improve living standards for all NSW citizens through productivity-generating precincts and infrastructure.

Our post-election advocacy implored for continuity between terms of government. We argued that the foundations were in place. Any reviews should strengthen and accelerate delivery of key projects, not embed further delays and uncertainty.

Instead, major Hunter projects and precincts were pulled from the agenda or failed to secure resourcing to progress. Initiatives that with a longer-term horizon, it seems unfathomable that they wouldn’t be part of the Hunter landscape, so why delay now only to restart later at higher cost?

This includes Hunter Park where the business case for a new entertainment and conference centre has been completed and presents the obvious, shovel-ready first stage of development. The NSW Government owns the land and all the levers on Hunter Park. We expect them to pull them after six years.

The Minns Government’s housing plan speaks of rebalancing population growth around infrastructure and ‘significantly higher’ density close to central Sydney.

If ever there was a project that could redistribute settlement more sustainably across the State and deliver affordable housing at scale without relying on Hong Kong style development, the Sydney to Newcastle fast rail program has also been canned.

While the Housing Infrastructure Fund provides new resourcing for enabling infrastructure, $100 million across regional NSW is a fraction of the $500 million required to unlock 40,000 new homes in the Hunter. At least there is access to new funding to help break the backlog of transport infrastructure on housing developments in planning pipelines.

There was no direction on the commitment for a Hunter authority to support the region’s economic and social transition. Not a bad thing for NSW to take their time, with the Australian Government progressed in the design of a national Net Zero Economy Authority. There is obvious scope for these proposals to consolidate, or at least coordinate tightly.

We welcome smart restructuring of grants to deliver targeted funding to communities in need. But pulling Resources for Regions funding from Hunter councils who directly bear the impacts of coal mining while generating State royalties does not communicate this is a Government serious about targeted support for coal regions to transition.

While complex to deliver, the Williamtown SAP offered significant benefits. It is disappointing to see it scratched from the NSW agenda without an alternative plan to maximise our new international airport and grow defence industries.

And that’s one of the main problems of the 2023 NSW budget. It took focus and investment away without replacing this with a better vision and plan for the Hunter and our role in a modern state economy.

The Committee will continue to work with MPs, ministers and the opposition on the case for investment so when the budget is in surplus as projected in 2024-25, the Hunter is first in line.

As a $65 billion economy in transition, essential to NSW’s clean energy, decarbonisation and industry future, the development of the Hunter must be at the top of Government priorities. And with the low hanging fruit of productivity gains exhausted or very expensive to deliver in Sydney, the State needs the Hunter to help fix future budget bottom lines.

The setbacks in the 2023 budget didn’t quell cynicism that safe seats miss out. Instead, it confirmed the Hunter still has a long way to go to get to the front of the queue, despite the ‘sharp elbows’ of local MPs who we know join us in forthrightly advocating for the investment our region deserves.

Alice Thompson

CEO Committee for the Hunter

21 Sept. 2023