Independents join backlash against federal budget cuts to regional and infrastructure programs

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Independent MPs have joined a backlash against the $9 billion in cuts to regional and infrastructure programs, warning that funds must be reinvested and not diverted for Labor election commitments.

Helen Haines and Zoe Daniel called for funds freed from the Building Better Regions Fund and the Urban Congestion Fund to be reinvested, while Sophie Scamps protested the $75 million cut from the Wakehurst upgrade Parkway.

Tuesday’s budget slashed $4.7 billion from the infrastructure portfolio, including $769 million from the urban congestion fund that delivered on 2019 coalition election commitments, such as the commuter parking fund.

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An additional $1.4 billion was saved through regional investments, including reducing the Community Development Grant and creating better regions.

Instead, Labor will spend $1 billion over three years on competitive grants in growth regions, regional constituencies and partnership schemes.

But two new programs will be implemented through closed grants: $1 billion over five years for the priority community infrastructure program and $350 million over five years to deliver community, sports and infrastructure projects in Small scale.

Haines criticized the government for cutting overall funding for regional development funds and for the fact that ‘most new regional funding is confined to closed grant schemes which will be used to fund Labor election promises’.

‘Labour criticized the previous government for similar non-competitive grant processes and spoke of a big game to bring integrity and transparency to regional funding,’ she said.

“It’s not enough to do the same thing over again.”

Daniel, the MP for Goldstein, noted that five suburban car parks in her constituency – North Brighton, Sandringham, Bentleigh, Hampton and Elsternwick – had been cut.

She said it was “expected” because the commuter parking fund was “emblematic of the lack of transparency and the pork barrel”.

‘I am confident that the government will consider new infrastructure projects within the electorate on their merits and on the basis of a well-established business case,’ she told Guardian Australia.

Scamps said it was “very disappointing” that the Albanian government had cut $75 million from the Wakehurst Parkway upgrade, but partly blamed the New South Wales Coalition government for having broke its promise to build the northern beaches tunnel.

Liberal state infrastructure minister Rob Stokes dismissed Scamps’ claim that the NSW government was to blame, issuing a statement explaining that it was “two separate projects.

“I’m disappointed that Dr. Scamps got personal,” he said. “Ultimately, my experience is that the community will judge you not on who you blame or what you say, but on what you offer them.”

Infrastructure Australia has suggested that the Wakehurst Parkway upgrade will help ease congestion on Sydney’s northern beaches.

Scamps said the federal and state governments “must do more to address the major problem facing the Wakehurst Parkway, the recurring flooding that is leading to its closure.”

“It is unacceptable that one of the main arteries leading to the only public hospital in the northern beaches is closed several times a year due to flooding.”

NSW Roads Minister Natalie Ward noted that the state government had provided $18 million to the Northern Beaches Council for flood mitigation on the promenade.

“I am disappointed that since Dr. Scamps [was elected] it only took one federal budget for the people of the northern beaches to be forgotten by the new Labor government,” she said.

The budget cut two subsidy programs announced by the Coalition in the March budget as part of an agreement to secure national support for net zero: $6.4 billion was cut from the energy security plan and regional development and $1.8 billion was cut from the regional accelerator program.

On Wednesday, Nationals leader David Littleproud told the lower house that the Labor Party had “tipped the financial ax towards dedicated regional funding which we have fought so hard for”.

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Littleproud said the Coalition’s “worst fears have come true” in a budget in which rural and regional Australians have been “shamelessly forgotten”.

Earlier in a statement, Littleproud said the cut regional grants and funds “support smaller councils that lack the capacity to build critical local infrastructure for regional communities.”

“Labour has ripped the guts out of regional and rural Australia…Labour has broken promises, broken hearts and shattered bank balances for regional and rural families.”

Delivering the regional ministerial budget statement on Wednesday, Infrastructure Minister Catherine King said “all regional Australians need to have confidence in regional grant processes”.

She promised that the $1 billion for growth regions, regional ridings and partnership programs would provide “equitable and just funding for capital works across our country.”

In a statement, King said community development grant projects would have six months to enter into contracts if developers could demonstrate “that they can be delivered in accordance with new government guidelines.”

Labor’s two closed grant programs “deliver on election commitments in regional and rural communities,” King said.

Haines also praised the budget for withholding $80 million for the Albury Wodonga regional agreement and $9.8 million for road improvements in Mansfield.

“During the elections, crucial projects were promised to Indi by the former government, and through my discussions with the new Minister for Infrastructure Catherine King, I have been able to ensure that they are still delivered,” she said.

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