THE $350million Hunter Infrastructure and Investment Fund was a centrepiece of the Coalition’s election campaign, carrying as it did the promise of substantial extra spending above and beyond the normal budget allocations.
Hunter voters, disenchanted with long years of Labor failing to fulfil its promises, were attracted to the Coalition message, electing Liberal members in seats that were once Labor fortresses.
But as the O’Farrell government approaches the halfway mark of its first four-year term, even the government’s own appointees are admitting that the $350million fund has not delivered on its promises.
After any number of assurances that the fund would be put to uses chosen by Hunter voters, it now emerges that two-thirds of the money has already been allocated, with little or no promised community input into how the money is spent.
The chairman of the fund, Maitland mayor Peter Blackmore, says he is disappointed its books have been tapped for more than $100million in roadworks that would have otherwise been paid for by the relevant department, Roads and Maritime Services.
Included in these works are projects that Maitland MP Robyn Parker and Port Stephens MP Craig Baumann had promoted as being on top of the $350million during the election campaign.
Mr O’Farrell says the Coalition was always upfront about funding road works and other election promises from the investment fund, but the confusion from his own MPs over what was in the fund and what was not is evidence enough the government could have been clearer in its announcements.
It is little use complaining over the money already spent or allocated. The works themselves are defensible enough, even if economist Bill Mitchell – a noted critic of both sides of politics – describes them as pork barrelling.
But two important questions present themselves. What happens to the rest of the money? And will the government top up the fund, as Treasurer Mike Baird promised during a visit in July last year?
Even though two-thirds of the money is gone, the remaining $120million is a substantial sum, even more so if the government adds to the kitty.
The Upper Hunter has strong claims for urgent government spending on a range of fronts, and the infrastructure needs of the coastal Hunter – the Glendale transport interchange, for starters – are well known. It is up to the government to prove the fund is a real vehicle for improvement, and not just an election stunt.