THE tenor of today’s NSW budget was set earlier this year when the federal government laid out its own accounts.
Consumers had cut back spending, so GST receipts were down. That meant less money for the states, with NSW facing an estimated drop of about $5.4billion over the next four years.
For the O’Farrell government, the political and electoral implications were alarming. With such a cut to revenue, the Coalition’s big promises to its Sydney heartland were immediately at risk.
Suddenly, Mr O’Farrell’s apparent preference for a steady approach to economic management became incompatible with his government’s infrastructure timetable.
If it wants to keep its important promises and retain political favour, the NSW government has no choice but to slash costs and boost revenue to make up for the GST shortfall.
In recent weeks a variety of measures have emerged, ranging from a sharp increase in the number of revenue-raising traffic cameras and in the value of the fines they yield, to plans to sell off electricity distribution networks and to slash 10,000 public service jobs.
The Coalition is hoping to raise more than $2billion by privatising Port Botany and there are rumours that the ports of Newcastle and Port Kembla might be next on the auction block.
Such belt-tightening talk will be regarded as especially ominous by many residents of regional NSW. History suggests that state governments intent on preserving their standing in the electorally critical metropolitan area may be likely to sacrifice undertakings to the less politically powerful regions.
The Hunter has been waiting for an announcement on a promised $350million regional infrastructure fund. It isn’t clear whether the budget will contain any information about this fund or whether the region will have to wait until later in the year when the Infrastructure NSW chairman, Nick Greiner, reports on priorities.
Of more immediate importance to the Hunter is the question of additional recurrent funding for cancer services.
While the Hunter’s entire public hospital system is under pressure from years of chronic underfunding, the region’s oncology resources are impossibly inadequate.
This has been confirmed by numerous reports and reviews and the minister for health, Jillian Skinner, promised in February to make a start on rectifying the dangerous shortfall.
The minister’s subsequent refusal to reiterate her promise, and her decision not to comment to this newspaper on recent reports outlining the tragic human toll of government underfunding, have caused immense anxiety in the Hunter.
The Coalition’s decision to break a $1million promise to fund a Newcastle bid for International Expo 2017 was met with disappointment and derision. That was poor politics, but it didn’t put lives at risk.
If the O’Farrell government walks away from its promise to start fixing the Hunter’s cancer services the black mark on its record will be extremely difficult to erase.