EDITORIAL: Baird government disbands Hunter Infrastructure and Investment Board

THE Coalition was always going to win the 2011 state election, but Barry O’Farrell’s promise to give Hunter people a major say in the spending of a $350-million infrastructure fund probably helped loosen Labor’s historically tight grip on the region.

Then came the ICAC’s Operation Spicer. Mike Baird replaced Mr O’Farrell as premier in April 2014, and although he put another $100 million into the Hunter Infrastructure and Investment Fund, Labor regained its lost seats at the 2015 election.

Since then, good news from Macquarie Street has been a rare commodity in the Hunter.

With at least $50 million left in the kitty, the infrastructure fund board chaired by Maitland Mayor Peter Blackmore, gave the government a list of 10 projects to consider in December last year. Since then, the government line has been to “watch this space”, but there’s been nothing to see.

Now, with the Newcastle Herald investigating why the South Coast town of Eden appeared to have gained a jump on Newcastle in terms of cruise ship visits, it emerges that the infrastructure board was given its marching orders at the end of June, with no word from the government or from the body tasked with taking over the infrastructure board’s duties, the Hunter Development Corporation.

The office of Planning Minister Rob Stokes has justified the decision to disband the board, saying that it had had provided all of the advice that the government needed.

The minister’s spokesperson says the Hunter has been the only region to have its own infrastructure fund advisory board, and that its term had already been extended for a year beyond the original four years.

The government says, too, that the projects to be funded under the final $50 million will be announced this month.

While the funding confirmation is welcome, the government’s statements do not explain why the board was disbanded so quietly, or why it was not kept on for longer, given the long-term infrastructure aims the government professes to have for this region.

It may be true, as Mr Stokes’s spokesperson says, that the government has overseen “a significant investment in Newcastle and the Hunter’. But at the very least, disbanding the board as it has, before the latest funding announcements are made, does little to convince sceptical voters that the Coalition cares about this region.

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