With one eye on the polls

NOT marginal enough to matter, appears to be the Gillard government’s assessment of the Hunter, based on the 2012 budget.

Perhaps that makes political sense for a government that all the polls suggest faces a terrible drubbing at the hands of the Coalition in the next election.

In his speech to Parliament last night, treasurer Wayne Swan made great play of delivering a budget that was ‘‘true to Labor ideals’’. Mr Swan painted a picture of a government scrimping and saving to claw its way into surplus, while still managing to find some modest goodies for the battlers and ‘‘working families’’.

Throwing cash bon-bons at low to middle income earners might keep enough of Labor’s core constituency onside in enough winnable seats to stop the ALP winding up a risible rump in the next Parliament. Goodness knows, voters will need something to cheer them up once the carbon tax starts ratcheting up their power bills.

As for the Hunter, most of its Labor-held seats still have relatively comfortable margins, so cold hard logic suggests it won’t be a top priority for special treatment in the minds of electoral strategists.

That might be why – even though Treasurer Wayne Swan continually claimed in his budget speech to be ‘‘spreading the benefits of the resources boom’’ – the coal powerhouse Hunter Region has been overlooked yet again.

The government has stuck with Hunter programs to which it was already committed but it hasn’t offered anything new. None of the important items on the regional wish-list has even rated a mention in the budget.

Of course, not every piece of spending that might occur in a given financial year is necessarily identified as a line item in the budget.

It is still possible that the government might honour its acknowledged obligation to spend a substantial portion of its regional infrastructure fund in the Hunter.

So far Queensland and Western Australia have managed to get about $2billion each from this mining-related fund, with just $2million coming to NSW.

The fact is, the net benefit from the watered-down mining tax is expected to be no more than $3billion in the budget year.

That suggests that, contrary to the rhetoric about spreading the benefits of the boom, the budget may be more about spreading the benefits from other measures, such as the sacking of 3000 public servants.

The rhetoric about a ‘‘true Labor’’ budget isn’t so far from the mark, however. Tripling the tax-free threshhold, boosting family tax payments and mailing out cash bonuses to parents of school-aged children will appeal to Labor’s core constituency. So will the money spent on aged care, dental health and disability insurance.

The government will be hoping these sweeteners might draw enough straying ALP voters back into the fold to enable Labor to form a worthwhile opposition after the next election.

It’s a long-odds gamble from a government with a shrinking range of options.

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