Has the Baird government lost Newcastle in translation?

BETTER TIMES: Former NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell paying a visit to Newcastle in 2013, before the drama of Operation Spicer. PICTURE: Peter Stoop

BETTER TIMES: Former NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell paying a visit to Newcastle in 2013, before the drama of Operation Spicer. PICTURE: Peter Stoop

Like the United States' “short-lived infatuation” with Australia in the late 1980s, Newcastle seemed briefly to be at the centre of the O'Farrell government's attention after it came to power in 2011.

For a while, the Hunter was awash in the glow of a fledgling government on the rise. 

There was money for a new hospital in Maitland, and a plan to revitalise our impoverished city-centre. 

There was a $350 million local infrastructure fund - the only one of its kind in NSW - that was later topped up with another $100 million.

Then there was the lease of the Port of Newcastle. It marked the centrepiece of Mike Baird's 2013 budget, and saw millions more flow into the city through the government's light rail project. 

For some reason, we thought it would be a permanent thing.

But then came Operation Spicer and the 2015 election. The Liberal Party, briefly ascendent, resumed regular programming in the Hunter. 

It now holds no seats anywhere in the region, and there is no expectation of that changing at the state level any time in the near future.

As a result, and as the government has been forced to turn its attentions elsewhere (Orange, for example), we’ve drifted out of focus.

There have been no new major funding announcements in the region in the last two state budgets, and anticipation about the government’s agenda has been replaced by a tinge of disappointment. 

The Hunter Infrastructure and Investment Fund, having used up its funding, has been shuttered. The new Maitland Hospital, it turns out, will be privately operated. 

To exacerbate things, the same issues plaguing the government state-wide (read: greyhound ban, council mergers) are hurting it here too.  

And yet the government, for its part, could probably be forgiven for feeling like it doesn't get a lot of credit for the investments it has made here. 

Newcastle, as one government figure described it to me privately this week, is a "labour of love”. The city is unquestionably a better place to live than it was five years ago, and actions taken by this government are to thank for much of it. 

But the obvious and vaguely uncomfortable truth is that we have fought them bitterly on almost all of the investments they've made in Newcastle. Much of that opposition is par for the course. It’s no less than they get in Sydney, and we should never apologise for holding Macquarie Street to just as high a standard.

But there is in Newcastle’s DNA a touch of the NIMBY, and we’d be foolish to pretend otherwise. 

Take the rail corridor for example. Save Our Rail is perfectly within its rights to have prosecuted its case over the train line’s removal in the courts, and the government’s pursuit of the group for costs it knows it will never recover is, to my mind, a dangerous misstep.

But there are also times when some of us oppose change qua change. 

Consider the howls of protest from some last month when the redundant footbridge linking Hunter Street and the Queens Wharf was removed.

And so there seems to be something lost in translation between the Baird government and the Hunter at the moment. 

While we feel neglected, the government wonders what we want from it.

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