By Madeline Link

Updated May 10, 2023 – 8:38am, first published 5:15am

SLASHING cost-of-living pressures is a central feature of Labor’s Federal Budget announcement which politicians and Hunter leaders have lauded as a win for locals.

Federal Treasurer Jim Chalmers announced a raft of measures to help boost household budgets, including up to $500 million off power bills across five million households, increased access to medicines and a $3.5 billion boost to bulk-billing.

He also announced an increase in rental assistance of $31 a fortnight and 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 federal government doubled down on its clean energy commitment, expected to deliver opportunities for the Hunter.

The Newcastle Herald spoke to the Hunter’s leaders in politics, business, social housing and advocacy to get their take on the spend.

Hunter federal Labor Paterson MP Meryl Swanson, Hunter MP Dan Repacholi, Shortland MP Pat Conroy and Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon.

Households will ‘breathe a sigh of relief’

Hunter MPs have applauded a “responsible” and “sensible” budget they say will put money back in the pockets of local families.

Newcastle Labor MP Sharon Claydon said the tripling of bulk-billing incentives was a huge win for the Hunter region which has struggled with affordable and accessible healthcare.

“I know there will be tens of thousands of Newcastle households breathing a sigh of relief tonight with assistance to get them through higher prices, the cost-of-living has been made much more difficult than it should be,” she said.

“We know how hard it is to find bulk-billing GPs, so this coupled with the restoration of GP Access will go a long way in helping our universal healthcare system.”

The federal government will spend $3.5 billion to triple the bulk-billing incentive that GPs receive, giving doctors more options to bulk bill.

It will also establish eight new Medicare urgent care clinics open for longer hours with no out-of-pocket costs, and increase access to some medicines.

Shortland Labor MP Pat Conroy said the announcement marked a responsible budget that meets the challenges of the times.

“It provides targeted cost-of-living relief while returning 82 per cent of increases in revenue to pay down debt and repair the budget from years of neglect,” he said.

“Particularly in Shortland, people are really struggling to find a doctor that bulk bills so this will be hugely positive for our region.

“The money we are allocating to reduce energy bills will also reduce inflation, for me this is a budget that keeps the pressure down on inflation, helps with the cost-of-living, provides better healthcare, cheaper medicines, better childcare and reduces the cost-of-living which is critical for Hunter families.”

Federal Member for Paterson Meryl Swanson said she was “particularly rapt”.

“The Medicare increases and the fact it’s being indexed, which is very important because it’s been frozen for so long, will be one of the big things for our electorate,” she said.

“Also the energy assistance, whether it’s through direct bill relief or energy efficiency for homes is a very important thing for people across the Hunter.”

Committee for the Hunter chief executive Alice Thompson.

Social and affordable housing is ‘key’

Housing was at the top of Committee for the Hunter chief executive Alice Thompson’s priority list for the region.

She said that while there were measures to encourage more build to rent and financing for social and community housing, Hunter advocacy groups had been clear that the problem needed direct funding to build the supply of social, affordable and private housing.

“While government clearly recognises the issue, it remains to be seen if these budget measures make any more of a dent on this complex issue than policies in previous budgets,” she said.

The federal 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.

It also announced more financial support for low-income renters, increasing Commonwealth Rent Assistance by 15 per cent from September 20.

A Home in Place social and affordable housing development at Adamstown. Picture supplied.

Home In Place is a not-for-profit community housing provider based in Newcastle that manages more than 7000 social, affordable and disability housing properties across the country.

Public affairs and research manager Martin Kennedy has been calling for the construction of more social and affordable homes to help put an end to the housing crisis, arguing the problem is bigger than the state’s combined solutions.

He welcomed the $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund supporting the build of 30,000 social and affordable homes in its first five years, but said more still needs to be done.

“I guess the issue is that $2 billion sounds like a lot, but it disappears quickly if we get the same yield out of the Housing Australia Future Fund, that’s another 5000 to 6000 dwellings,” he said.

“It’s not nothing, but there are 170,000 households on waiting lists right now.

“There’s more to be done but it’s headed in the right direction, we went through a lean period for a while where the federal government didn’t seem to think funding social and affordable housing was part of its job and it’s refreshing to see that’s no longer the case.”

He said there are about 50,000 people in NSW waiting for social housing, 2000 of those are in the Newcastle area.

The Urban Development Institute of Australia predicted earlier this year that with the right planning and investment, the Lower Hunter could handle significant growth and become a major contributor to the country’s economy.

Port of Newcastle plans unlocked

A hydrogen and ammonia manufacturing hub at the Port of Newcastle will be unlocked with the release of $100m in Tuesday night’s budget.

Earlier this month the Port of Newcastle unveiled artist impressions for the first stage of the project, which is expected to bring with it almost 6000 jobs.

It was welcome news for Port of Newcastle chief executive Craig Carmody who said he was appreciative of the ongoing commitment to the precinct.

“We are currently finalising the funding agreement with the Commonwealth Department of Infrastructure for the $100 million for hydrogen readiness, which will see the funds released in line with agreement,” he said.

Business Hunter policy and public affairs manager Sheena Martin. Picture supplied.

Energy transition ‘front and centre’

The budget has confirmed the establishment of a Net Zero Authority which Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen announced at Liddell Power Station on Friday.

The authority is designed to help the Hunter attract new energy industries, remove obstacles to job creation and investment and ensure a smoother transition for workers.

Business Hunter policy and public affairs manager Sheena Martin said the budget would stimulate opportunity in the new energy economy and protect vulnerable businesses and communities from surging energy costs.

“We welcome confirmation of the Net Zero Authority, small business energy incentive and bill rebates for small business, and news tonight of a $2 billion Hydrogen Headstart program to scale up production of renewable hydrogen is of keen interest here in the Hunter,” she said.

“The Albanese Government’s vision to make Australia a “renewable energy superpower” is very much in line with the Hunter’s efforts to diversify and transition to new energy economies. We are ideally placed to support the nation in this ambition.”

Ms Martin said she looked forward to exploring the opportunities on offer in the Hydrogen Headstart program in more detail, arguing it along with $100m for the Port of Newcastle Clean Energy Precinct and the Net Zero Authority could accelerate the region’s transition.

“As a nation we recently marked the closure of Liddell, and as these traditional assets are retired renewables must arrive to take their place. Currently this isn’t happening quickly enough,” she said.

City of Newcastle lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes. Picture by Simone De Peak.

The authority will commence operating as an executive body of government on July 1 with a budget of $23 million in its first year.

Budget documents show total allocations of $83 million for the authority over the four years of forward estimates.

City of Newcastle lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes said funding for the authority was “vital” and would help regions like Greater Newcastle, its industries and people to manage the transition to clean energy in what would be a “game changer” for local jobs.

It was a sentiment mirrored by Hunter Labor MP Dan Repacholi who said the authority would give security to Hunter families concerned about their future amid energy transition.

Fast rail and investment in local roads 

IMPROVING travel times and the condition of local roads was a big priority for local leaders and the budget has delivered $13.58 million across three years for a new High Speed Rail Authority, which will be formed in the next month.

The state government has committed $1 billion, and the federal government $500 million to improve a section of track on the Central Coast designed to speed up travel times by 15 minutes.

The federal government has also committed $500 million for planning and corridor acquisition from Newcastle to Sydney, but the future of a fast rail project between the two cities remains unclear.

Hunter Labor MP Dan Repacholi said funding commitment is a good start.

“This is a step in the right direction, no matter what when we look at budgets we want more here or there, but this is a budget that delivers for the Hunter which is responsible and practical as well,” he said.

Major road projects like the M1 Motorway extension to Raymond Terrace, the Singleton and Muswellbrook bypasses and the Mandalong Road upgrade at Morisset will push ahead.

However, Business Hunter policy and public affairs manager Sheena Martin said she noted the key projects were absent from the budget documents.

“We had hoped to see the projects reaffirmed tonight, but remain optimistic, per Infrastructure Minister [Catherine] King’s recent advice that they would be quarantined from the national infrastructure review,” she said.

More to come.