IT is perhaps not surprising that the Audit Office of NSW has decided to investigate the Coalition state government’s Resources for Regions program, after a series of articles highlighting concerns in the way that funds have been allocated under the scheme.
At first glance, there seem to be substantial disparities between the size of the allocations when compared across regions, and the Labor opposition has raised legitimate questions about the way that Singleton Council is managing the Singleton saleyards, which are the subject of a $7.76-million upgrade, majority funded from a $6-million grant from the state program.
But the greater issue at play here may well be the trend in modern Australian politics to turn one of the basic jobs of government – to fund or deliver critical infrastructure – into an election-driven process, rather than a sober appraisal of what is needed, and when.
Both sides of politics have contributed to this phenomenon, in which infrastructure funding announcements tend to be made toward the back end of parliamentary terms.
They become more about the level of government “giving” the money – courtesy of taxpayers, of course – than they are about the organisation or project receiving it.
The Resources for Regions program was unveiled early in the term of the O’Farrell government, which was elected in March 2011. It was March 2014, a full three years later, that Singleton Council said it had received the $6 million in funding that would underpin the saleyards upgrade. Construction began earlier this year.
Labor is criticising the fact that the new council, elected in 2016, is exploring the possibility of selling or leasing the saleyard even before the upgrade is completed – a move that Singleton mayor Sue Moore acknowledges as a source of potential community concern.
But we should be careful before we criticise one elected body for varying the policy of its predecessor, especially as the council says it is committed to keeping the saleyard open. It can be argued that in looking for ways to alleviate the saleyards’ operating shortfall of $250,000 a year, the council is doing the responsible thing with ratepayers’ money. Hopefully, the audit office will consider the saleyards issue in its review of the Resources for Regions program. Any suggestions it may have to take the politics out of such funding would also be appreciated.