By Michael Parris

Updated May 9, 2023 – 9:13pm, first published 7:33pm

Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen and Hunter MP Dan Repacholi announcing the national Net Zero Authority at Liddell Power Station on Friday

Labor’s second federal budget prioritised cost-of-living relief over nation-building infrastructure spending, but the government’s pumped-up clean energy commitment offers opportunities for the Hunter.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers announced a range of measures that he said would “prioritise those most in need”, including increasing JobSeeker by $40 a fortnight, outlaying $3 billion in energy bill relief, raising the age cut-off for single parent unemployment benefits from eight to 14, increasing aged care workers’ wages by 15 per cent, bumping up Commonwealth rent assistance by 15 per cent and offering $3.5 billion in bulk-billing incentives for doctors.

The government’s commitment to supporting clean energy initiatives, an issue of keen economic interest in the Hunter, also received a boost with a further $4 billion in funding to support green hydrogen production and modernise industry.

The government doubled down on its vision to make Australia a “renewable energy superpower” with a $2 billion Hydrogen Headstart fund to help underwrite large-scale green hydrogen projects through “competitive” production contracts.

The budget allocates $1.4 billion through the Powering the Regions Fund to support industrial decarbonisation and develop clean-energy industries in the regions through three new grant streams.

The government says it has now set aside $40 billion in various programs to help establish a thriving renewable energy industry in Australia.

“Our regions need to be supported to harness their immense potential, build new industries and create jobs, because the regions that power Australia today will be the regions that power Australia tomorrow”.

Jim Chalmers

The budget reaffirmed a $100 million commitment – $25 million in each of the next four years – to Port of Newcastle’s hydrogen-focused Clean Energy Precinct under a program it says has been “reclassified as a payment to the states since the October budget”.

The budget confirmed the establishment of a long-awaited Net Zero Authority to help regions such as the Hunter attract new energy industries and prepare workers for the looming decline in coal production.

Budget documents show total allocations of $83 million for the authority over the four years of forward estimates, but the government said it would “consider future funding” after a precursor agency had designed how it would function.

The government said it had “provisioned ongoing funding for the Authority in the Contingency Reserve”.

“In the global race for new energy jobs and investment, we were falling behind the pack,” the budget papers say.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers at Parliament House on Tuesday. Picture by Sitthixay Ditthavong

“Our regions need to be supported to harness their immense potential, build new industries and create jobs, because the regions that power Australia today will be the regions that power Australia tomorrow.

“That’s why, in addition to targeted household rebates to provide energy bill relief, this budget is funding a plan to ensure households and communities can take advantage of the savings from smarter energy use, and ensures our nation is prepared to capitalise on the global boom in clean energy investment.”

Mr Chalmers said in his budget speech to Parliament that Labor wanted Australia to be a “world leader in producing and exporting hydrogen power while reducing our emissions in heavy industry here at home”.

“Hydrogen power means Wollongong, Gladstone and Whyalla can make and export everything from renewable energy to green steel,” he said.

The budget also confirmed continued government interest in high-speed rail, starting with a line from Newcastle to Sydney, though forward estimates show a relatively small allocation of $13.58 million over the next three years for the new High Speed Rail Authority.

The budget appears to offer little in new concrete investment to increase housing supply, an issue Committee for the Hunter chief executive Alice Thompson said on Monday needed direct government spending.

The government said it would enable an additional $2 billion investment in social and affordable housing by boosting the guaranteed liabilities of the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation from $5.5 billion to $7.5 billion.

The budget also hopes to achieve the government’s Housing Accord promise of a million new homes by 2029 by changing taxation arrangements for investments in build-to-rent accommodation.

The government hopes its $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund will support the building of 30,000 social and affordable homes in its first five years.

The budget allocates $100 million over four years to expand the number of maintenance bays for the F-35A Joint Strike Fighters at Newcastle Airport from two to six to meet forecast service demand.

“The construction of the additional bays will provide opportunities for local jobs, local suppliers and subcontractors,” the budget documents say.

The documents do not mention four already-budgeted road projects in the Hunter, the M1 Motorway extension, the Singleton and Muswellbrook bypasses and Mandalong Road upgrade at Morisset, but Infrastructure Minister Catherine King confirmed last week that they would be quarantined from a 90-day review of the nation’s $120 billion road and rail construction pipeline.