Brissie or the bush: The delicate task of carving up Qld’s infrastructure riches

Still winning the annual scramble for their share of Budget largesse, Queensland’s regions continue to hold sway at the ballot box, writes Greg Hallam

Jun 21, 2023, updated Jun 21, 2023
The ongoing improvement of the Bruce Highway is one commitment that keeps regional powerbrokers at bay. (Image: Department of Main Roads).

The ongoing improvement of the Bruce Highway is one commitment that keeps regional powerbrokers at bay. (Image: Department of Main Roads).

Every Queensland State budget carries an attestation that around two thirds of the capital infrastructure spend occurs outside Greater Brisbane, such is the paranoia in the rest of the state about Brisbane-centric governments .

That capital funding split up is a real selling point the day after the budget in the provincial newspapers and ABC coverage of budget night. Both sides of politics adhere to the formula, and in some ways they rouse on the geographical spending break up.

State Governments go to great lengths to present capital spending on a regional basis, both in budget speeches and papers , and with specific tailored documents and media releases pre-packaged to highlight commitment to rural and regional Queensland.

When she was Treasurer, Jackie Trad went so far as post coding budget outlays – a good and transparent move .

This year’s recent state budget forecast an $89 billion, four-year capital spend across the state, the so called “ Big Build” and,  surprise- surprise, bang on two thirds of the money will head north and west.

The trick or rouse is of course that Greater Brisbane does not include the Gold and Sunshine Coasts. It does cover Brisbane , Ipswich, Logan, Redlands and Moreton Bay council areas. If the capital funding ratio were to cover all of South-East Queensland it looks more like a 55/45 percent split , slightly favouring the regions.

Interestingly, councils aside, no one in South-East Queensland gives a toss about the funding split up – whereas in the north and west of the state it is holy writ.”We are owed” is the catch-cry, alongside  “all the wealth is created in the regions”.

Better still, per capita is either a latin heretic or the invention of southerners to dispossess regional and rural Queenslanders. Rest assured, southerners are not located south of the Coolangatta Tweed Heads border.

The envy upon which rural and regional Queenslanders base their negative view of a George St Parliament is historic and not shifting. If anything it’s strengthening .

The separate state north of Rocky movement is still alive and well. The envy beast is well fed by the Katters, One National and populist local mastheads, mayors and politicians. It equals votes in the ballot box. Make no mistake, those sentiments still run deep and feature come election time.

What has changed is the ever-growing preponderance of state and federal seats in the South-East corner of the state. They continue to grow at a pace mirroring population growth in this part of Queensland, with another 1.5 million SEQ locals forecast before 2040. Notwithstanding that irreversible march of political power to the verdant southern coastal strip, it makes provincial seat residents even narkier.

It’s quite extraordinary the ire created in other parts of the state that building the new Lang Park, aka Suncorp Stadium, the Brisbane’s three tolled traffic tunnels, or Cross River Rail has created.

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Rightly or wrongly those projects are absolute confirmation to rural and regional Queenslanders of a big city bias.  We want what they’ve got is the mentality. It’s front bar and coffee table fodder.

That mindset makes it very hard for state governments of all complexions to work the fine line of funding growth while satisfying the pique in the rest of the state. The current make up of seats in the current state parliament, with Labor largely having locks on Greater Brisbane and regional seats, while the LNP rules on the Gold and Sunshine Coasts and rural Queensland, feeds into the delicate balancing task.

My lived experience is that rural and regional Queenslanders especially enjoy being the sole beneficiaries of government programs. The prize is that much sweeter when the South-East corner misses out. Royalties for the Regions and Working for Queensland are two such recent programs exploited by the Newman and Palaszczuk Governments.

Historically,  spending on the Bruce Highway, inland highways, new hospitals, ports, power stations and dams were big rural and regional vote-getters. Increasingly, smaller more believable, more immediate and easier-delivered projects are coming up trumps. Keep it real is the theme.

Both sides of politics will be war-gaming and honing their regional seat strategies for the October 2024 State poll, and that inevitably will have some “ regional specials”. The Palaszczuk Government are in poll position to exploit that opportunity with one more State Budget up their sleeve.

The $64 question is will they, or will the Opposition, beat them to the punch with a big regional announcement.

Game on.

Greg Hallam is a former Chief Executive of the Local Government Association of Queensland. He writes regularly for InQueensland.

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