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Brass in pocket, but getting the cash in hand is not always so simple


There’s no shortage of funds being set aside for regional communities, but getting Canberra to part with the dollars can be the hardest part, writes Greg Hallam

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Vast rivers of taxpayer funds, budgeted at circa $16 billion, have been committed to Queensland federal regional seats in flagship programs over the last seven years.

To the Federal Government’s eternal chagrin just short of $200 million has been spent as election day looms. This is on top of another $800 million in a raft of various other grants that the government’s Senator Susan McDonald said this week that did find their mark . Cumulatively its huge money in anyone’s terms.

These are not your so-called boondoggle programs but properly thought through and constructed initiatives such as the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund , the National Water Grid, Future Drought Fund, Disaster Mitigation Fund etc.

Voters rightly ask why is it so . There are a host of reasons, none the least is the sheer size of the programs.

The wheel takes an extraordinary long time to turn in Canberra. New agencies, independent charters, staffing complements, agreed working relationships with the states and territories all need to be established.

Then there’s the venerable Australian National Audit Office and Australia’s own inquisition, the annual Senate Estimates process .

Program guidelines end up being written so tightly no actual money can be spent,  and isn’t. The never-ending tensions between the Coalition partners lay not far below the surface.

The Liberals, largely resenting such programs, are genuinely fearful they will turn pear-shaped. It’s no wonder these mega big billing programs struggle.

The system has ultimately failed when these chronic underspends simply disappear off the radar.

The minor parties have been silent, traditional media and the NGOs have gone missing and it’s only since Labor’s Senator Murray Watt has taken up the cudgels over the last year that the totality of what’s occurred has come to light. Governments need to be held accountable for such failure, in this case they haven’t – yet.

John Howard,  astute politician that he was, inherently knew little fish were sweet and in a time of acute political need in the late 1990s developed the Roads to Recovery Program – every community a winner, bitumen on the ground in months , projects completed within a year .

Better still, a Federal Government sign to be erected and a ribbon to be cut. Further programs such as the Building Better Regions Fund, Telecommunication and road safety Blackspots, local community infrastructure programs, rounded out the here and now grant offerings. Almost always these programs were delivered by the local council, so no argy bargy.

State Labor took a leaf out of Howard’s book with the hugely successful Works for Queensland Program. Local improvement projects popped up everywhere.

At the end of a term of parliament local members could rattle off a dozen or more completed local projects.

Voters are quite rightly sceptical and as soon as the billion prefix is added to any program, the collective hackles go up. We will believe it when we see it, say the cynics.

Think never-ending Bruce Highway upgrade promises and dams such as the Burdekin and Fairburn that span multiple federal elections and take decades to eventuate. Its no wonder voters feel shop-worn.

This federal election, indeed the next few weeks now postal ballots have been set out, expect to see attempts to repurpose or reheat the massive underspend in the so far failed regional flagship programs and a plethora of bite sized believable projects to be trotted out by both sides of politics.

Would you believe it, a federal grant coming to a place near you.

Greg Hallam AM PSM is a recently retired CEO of the Local Government Association of Queensland. He writes occasionally for InQueensland

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