If you only listened to the Opposition on budget night, you’d be excused for thinking that the Labor Government had ripped the heart and soul out of regional Australia. The reality is, the Government have axed several Coalition funding commitments, including some in the regions, but it was often done with good reason.
The alleged $20 billion deal between the Liberals and the National Party to drag the junior Coalition partner, kicking and screaming, to the net zero table appears to have been torn up. Billions of dollars that were committed to dams ‘that didn’t hold economic water’, according to The Australia Institute’s report Dam Bad Ideas, have been rescinded. Another controversial project, the Wyangala dam, has been deferred to be reconsidered once a “viable pathway to delivery” is determined.
The sixth and final round of the Building Better Regions Fund was also on the chopping block. However, after the Australian National Audit Office found 65% of approved projects had not been assessed on merit, this comes as no surprise. As a result of this, the Government has committed an additional $1 billion over three years for a range of regional programs that the Treasurer said in his Press club address would “introduce a level rigor and robustness to spending”.
Other regionally focused announcements in the budget include $4m for an inspector-general for animal welfare, $12.3m for regional trade events, and $20.8m for drought preparedness. $8.1m has been announced to develop Australia’s seaweed farming industry, which has become all the more important with the Government signing onto the US-led methane reduction pledge over the weekend.
In April the ALP made election commitments regarding regional telecommunications and mental telehealth services. Despite the 2021 Coalition budget being dubbed the ‘mental health budget’ our budget wrap that year showed, regional and rural Australia had missed out.
This budget includes restoring regional mental telehealth services, with $47.7m committed over the forward estimates. Further spending on rural health is reflected in the $185.3m set aside for the Rural Workforce Package, which is designed to ‘attract, support and retain more doctors and health professionals’ in the regions.
There are elements of the budget that will likely be unpopular with regional folk, including an additional 0.8 cents of tax per liter of fuel for truck drivers. Lifting the Heavy Vehicle Road User Charge will result in $215.7m decreased expenditure on fuel tax credits over four years, however this was a decision made by Infrastructure and Transport Ministers before the recent election. It is not all bad news for truckies though, with $80m in additional funding being allocated to the Heavy Vehicle Rest Areas Program.
Many Australians will benefit from significant investments in early childhood education and care, however the continuing issue of ‘childcare deserts’, often in regional and remote parts of the country, does not appear to have been addressed in this budget.
As we can see, there is a range of reasons that people in regional Australia could be pleased or disappointed with the scope of this budget, but there’s certainly no cause for alarm in the bush, as the Opposition would have rural folk believe.