Infrastructure fund 'pork-barrelling'

THE $350million centrepiece of the Coalition’s historic Hunter election sweep in 2011, the Hunter Infrastructure and Investment Fund, is ‘‘dressed-up pork-barrelling’’ that even its chairman has labelled ‘‘disappointing’’.

Fund chairman and Maitland mayor Peter Blackmore this week confirmed what the Hunter already knew – the infrastructure and investment fund had not delivered what was promised.

‘‘I am disappointed. I would have thought some of these projects [such as  road projects at Nelson Bay and Maitland] would have been funded by the Roads and Maritime Services,’’ Mr Blackmore said.

But an apology from Port Stephens MP Craig Baumann this week for public comments about the fund, and incorrect statements about  projects from Maitland MP Robyn Parker before and after the election, showed even government representatives were unclear about its purpose.

The lack of transparency, the controversial government decision to gouge more than $220million from the fund to pay for Coalition election promises, and the failure to allocate any money  to the Upper Hunter, led University of Newcastle economics professor Bill Mitchell to describe  the fund as ‘‘dressed-up pork-barrelling’’.

The Coalition had ‘‘pulled off an election coup’’ in the Hunter in 2011 by sweeping Labor from all but two seats, and the Hunter Infrastructure and Investment Fund became a source to meet its unexpectedly high pre-election commitments, he said.

His comments came in the week the Upper Hunter’s infrastructure crisis was on embarrassing display when the Newcastle Herald revealed the ageing Muswellbrook sewer plant could stop Drayton South mine, despite numerous warnings from the local council to the government.

Mr Baumann has apologised  for a media release only days before the March 2011 election in which he said $40million to upgrade Nelson Bay Road, $20million for Dungog Road and $5million for a Lemon Tree Passage project were on top of the $350million allocated to the infrastructure and investment fund.

‘‘If I misled somebody in that March 19, 2011 press release then I apologise,’’ he said.

The Nelson Bay Road project has since blown out to $63million. Asked whether the shortfall should come from the Roads and Maritime Services budget, and not the Hunter fund, Mr Baumann replied that there were signs the NSW government was considering ‘‘topping up’’ the fund.

Environment Minister Robyn Parker did not respond to questions about when she became aware a $45million Maitland roundabout project would be covered by the infrastructure and investment fund, after saying it would be ‘‘in addition to’’ the fund’s $350million budget a month before the 2011 election.

The comment was made at an election function in February 2011 attended by Premier Barry O’Farrell. Mr Blackmore, who also attended the function, said there was no mention of the Maitland project being funded through the Hunter fund.

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