Budget pain and pluses

Those who feared that the O’Farrell Coalition government would not honour a promise by health minister Jillian Skinner to top up funding for Hunter cancer services have sadly been proven right.

The best the minister could salvage from the snub after yesterday’s budget let-down was to say that Hunter New England Health had been given some extra money and it might choose to spend some of that to address the cancer treatment crisis.

It was a weak sop, not dissimilar to that offered by the government when it broke its promise to fund a Newcastle bid for International Expo 2017 and said that it might, instead, explore supporting a future bid.

The disappointments are accumulating.

It would be unfair, however, to characterise treasurer Mike Baird’s second budget as all bad news for the Hunter. The region does gain some benefits above and beyond expected spending levels, although it must be noted that these represent relatively small steps after many years of neglect.

The appalling underfunding of the Upper Hunter has been partly addressed by about $10million for road and hospital improvements.

Other road funds will flow to projects including the stalled Newcastle inner-city bypass, Maitland’s clogged highway roundabouts, the widening of Nelson Bay Road and upgrades to the ludicrously poor roads of Cessnock’s wine country.

Coal royalty rise

Of special interest is the decision to lease Port Kembla and the announcement that the Illawarra will be the official overflow port when Sydney reaches capacity. That’s a resounding slap in the face for Newcastle, which is once again being relegated to the role of a virtual single-commodity port – a dangerous status if and when the coalmining boom falters.

On the subject of coal, the government’s brinkmanship with its federal counterpart over the mining tax doesn’t augur well for the Hunter either. Labor’s mining tax left a loophole that let states raise royalties at will on the understanding that mining companies would be reimbursed from federal funds.

On that basis the Coalition has cranked up royalties (claiming the move is compensation for the federal carbon tax) and will extract an extra $235million in the coming year. The federal government has already warned that such a move would put funding for mining regions at risk, so the net result may well be negative for the Hunter.

Government plans to pay first home buyers $15,000 if they buy a new house might help encourage some much-needed new residential development in the Hunter, perhaps taking some pressure off the tight rental market.

The great unknown in the budget is how hard the Hunter will be hit by the government’s plan to slash 10,000 public service jobs. Past experience suggests the impact is likely to be disproportionately heavy, with regional government offices – already trimmed numerous times in budgets gone by – approaching the unviable staffing levels at which closure becomes a real option.

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