Newcastle Herald, by Alice Thompson

WELCOME: Anthony Albanese in Cessnock during the election campaign.
The ABC series Utopia has become an enduring cultural reference. A satirical take on interactions between ministers, political advisors and departments on infrastructure, it popularised the phrase ‘nation building’ and ensured that no politician could utter these words and escape mockery.
As minister for infrastructure, Anthony Albanese established Infrastructure Australia (IA) – widely considered to be the inspiration for Utopia. I was part of the foundation team, charged with setting up a long-term, strategic and evidence-based approach to national infrastructure priorities and funding.
This was the first time I had dealt with ministerial offices – and, yes, some of the mild references in Utopia reflect truisms of these interactions. But it was no joke when the Global Financial Crisis hit and IA worked urgently with Minister Albanese and his office on a $22 billion infrastructure stimulus package.

This advice led to the largest investment in passenger rail by any Australian Government and defined a substantive role for the Commonwealth in cities. A baton subsequently dropped by the Tony Abbott administration and then revived under PM Malcolm Turnbull, where I served as his infrastructure and cities advisor.

The Morrison government will be remembered for a return to ad hoc, short-term and hyper-political decisions on infrastructure. All sides are guilty of “pork barrelling”.

It was the sheer blatancy in how this was conducted and the increasingly large dollars that distinguish the Morrison government from any other I’ve worked with in these portfolios.

“The Morrison government will be remembered for a return to ad hoc, short-term and hyper-political decisions on infrastructure.”

The Hunter benefited from having several marginal seats in the 2022 election. Seizing the opportunity for more focus and funding, the Committee for the Hunter presented regional priorities for investment. We pushed the projects that were in the long-term interest of the Hunter through the short-term, partisan lens of the election, and secured commitment to many priorities.

These include the Newcastle Airport Terminal, funding for high speed rail on the Sydney to Newcastle corridor, restoration of GP Access After Hours funding, and support for the emerging hydrogen hub at the Port of Newcastle. There were commitments to housing, including direct investment in social housing and enabling infrastructure such as Mandalong Road, Morisset, that unlocks new homes and commercial developments.

The University of Newcastle achieved $50 million to establish a recycling and clean energy program that will accelerate technologies from research to market, along with a clean energy testing and training centre. We welcomed the commitment to co-locate an APS Academy hub with the university, building the digital skills now essential in the delivery of government services while providing entry level positions for graduates.

As we engage with the new government, the committee’s priorities are to ensure these commitments are locked in and being delivered. We are seeking Labor’s support to honour the Coalition’s promises for key priorities we advocated for. This includes funding to progress the Newcastle Container Terminal as part of a $750 million program to diversify the Hunter economy. Ad hoc approaches to infrastructure investment will not be sufficient for this task or to fix our national productivity crisis. That was a key problem to which Infrastructure Australia was an answer.

Albanese gets this.

While the Hunter won this election, we cannot always rely on being a marginal seat. It has not served our region well in the past, and it won’t in the future.

The region will benefit from a strategic, evidence-based approach to infrastructure. When our projects are assessed by merit, rather than politics, the Hunter will stack up. A long-term approach to planning will provide the certainty that councils and the private sector have always sought.

Funding is not the only support that government can provide. The federal government holds the power of coordination – the ability to bring levels of government together with industry, business, institutions, experts and communities to address complex problems of national significance.

The Hunter is of national significance. We are a $63 billion economy in structural adjustment on which Australia’s net zero and clean energy future depends.

We need all three levels of government, business, industry and communities aligned on a vision and plan for the transformation of the Hunter. This is an opportunity for leadership for the new government.

I am hopeful for these reforms now there is “nation building” Prime Minister in Parliament once more.

Alice Thompson is the CEO for the Committee for the Hunter