Federal Budget 2023: Mid West locals react as low-income households, GPs and the hydrogen industry benefit

Anna Cox and Jamie ThannooGeraldton Guardian
Federal Treasurer Jim Chalmers.
Camera IconFederal Treasurer Jim Chalmers. Credit: LUKAS COCH/AAPIMAGE

The Albanese Government’s first full-year budget may not have had much specifically for Geraldton and the Mid West, but its focus on cost-of-living relief, as well as large funding increases for GPs and the hydrogen industry look likely to have an impact on the region, as will the increased costs coming for farmers and truck drivers.

Welfare focus as inflation increases

The Budget includes several measures to relieve the impact of the rising cost of living, such as a $40 a fortnight increase to JobSeeker, Austudy and Youth Allowance payments, a raise on the cut-off for single parenting payments from eight to 14 years old, and $350 rebates on electricity bills for WA households.

Greater Geraldton Mayor Shane Van Styn said the added focus on welfare would especially benefit low-income areas such as Geraldton.

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“The Budget was very clearly skewed towards providing income support to welfare recipients. That that will no doubt go a long way for a lot of welfare recipients here in Geraldton, we’re a lower-income city than many,” Mr Van Styn said.

Geraldton-based charity Centacare Family Services welcomed the measures but said more could be done.

“We know that cost of living pressures are increasing every year, and we’re pleased to see that our government is taking steps to address this,” Centacare said.

However Federal MP for Durack, Melissa Price said the Budget will still hurt many households, as she said it fails to address inflation.

“The Government’s Economic and Fiscal Strategy removes addressing inflation as a priority,” Ms Price said.

“This means everyone will pay the price with higher interest rates, rents, fuel, and groceries.”

A conservative approach on infrastructure and small business

Mr Van Styn said that while the focus of the Budget was on welfare, there was less attention given to infrastructure, especially in regional areas.

The City will receive $2 million from the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program, but that has been tempered by the fact the Building Better Regions fund has been scrapped.

“Overall we weren’t expecting much from the Federal Budget,” Mr Van Styn said.

“Obviously there’s been an extraordinary amount of money borrowed and spent, so I think any realistic person wold want to see the budget rung in a bit as we try to claw down the debt.”

Ms Price said the cuts to infrastructure spending will make it more difficult to address housing and rental shortages.

“I am disappointed to discover that there is very little additional support in this budget for small businesses, therefore restricting their ability for growth and entrepreneurship,” she said.

More funding for GPs

More than $5.7 billion will go to support GP doctors in what the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners has described as “the largest investment in general practice care in decades.”

This includes $3.5b over five years to triple the bulk-billing incentive, $445.1m to increase the Workforce Incentive Program by 30 per cent, funding for longer telehealth items and $145m to support after-hours care, with a focus on homeless and multicultural patients.

Dr Richard Taylor and his father Doctor Ian Taylor with a picture taken at a gathering of Geraldton doctors 30 years ago.
Picture: Ian Taylor
Camera IconDr Richard Taylor and his father Dr Ian Taylor with a picture taken at a gathering of Geraldton doctors more than 30 years ago. Credit: Supplied/Supplied

Dr Richard Taylor, a Geraldton doctor and chair of the Midwest GP Network, said it was an important step to addressing the issues facing GPs such as workforce challenges, and would make bulk billing more viable.

“I think it’s quite clever because the Government is specifically targeting the vulnerable in our communities. The under-16s, the pensioners, the healthcare cardholders, they’re trying to help GPs support those vulnerable groups,” Dr Taylor said.

Dr Taylor said convincing young doctors to become GPs, and especially regional GPs, had been a serious challenge for the sector, which he hoped the funding boost could fix.

“With the chronic underfunding of general practice, lot of younger doctors question ‘well why would I go into general practice when I can specialise in another area and be more comfortable?’” he said.

Hydrogen-fuelled future for Mid West?

The hydrogen sector and other renewable industries were clear focuses of the Budget, with $2b announced for the new Hydrogen Headstart program to invest in large-scale projects.

The State Government has emphasised the Mid West’s future as a key green hydrogen producer, with the Oakajee Strategic Area in its planning stages, and State Hydrogen Minister Roger Cook said the program “is a positive first step” to make hydrogen production more viable in WA.

Lara Dalton MLA, Hydrogen Minister Roger and Derek Councillor at the Oakajee site.
Camera IconLara Dalton MLA and Hydrogen Minister Roger Cook at the Oakajee site. Credit: Supplied/RegionalHUB

“It will help bridge the commercial gap for early commercial hydrogen production projects and help accelerate development of the hydrogen industry in WA,” Mr Cook said.

Mr Van Styn noted the Federal Government had listed areas such as the Pilbara, Gladstone in Queensland and the Hunter region in NSW as potential sites for hydrogen investment, but the Mid West hasn’t had as much attention on the Federal level.

“I don’t think that bodes well in the short or medium term for all things hydrogen at Oakajee,” Mr Van Styn said.

Farmers pay for biosecurity push

Farmers will be facing the cost of new measures designed to protect Australian agriculture pests and diseases with a new biosecurity levy.

An $845m package in new biosecurity operations will be funded by an important levy described as “modest” by Agriculture Minister Murray Watt.

Dee McKeown, CEO of the Mingenew-Irwin Group said he welcomed the new measures but said it was disappointing the cost would be fronted by farmers, especially at a time when he said farmers were struggling with rising costs and difficulties housing workers.

Mr McKeown said other sectors, such as major importers and tourism, should be paying more.

“We need more biosecurity but I think coming after going after growers is not the right way. More responsibility needs to be laid on tourism,” he said.

Costly freight

The transport industry takes a loss, as heavy-vehicle road user charges are set to increase.

Heavy-vehicle charges are recovered through Road User Charges on diesel fuel, gaseous fuels, and road components of registration charges.

Pictures of Cam Dumesny CEO of Western Roads Federation, at the viewing area overlooking the airport runways, Perth.
Camera IconCam Dumesny, CEO of Western Roads Federation. Credit: Ross Swanborough/The West Australian

The cost of diesel will rise 6 per cent a year over the next three years, which is expected to save the government $1.1b in four years.

“The people that are always going to be paying the bigger cost disproportionately are regional. It’s mostly road freight, smaller volumes and longer distances — so fuel costs become a significant cost” Western Roads Federation CEO Cam Dumesny said.

Mr Dumesny explained the increased charges were “just another one-percenter increase flowing through the freight and transport sector — at which operating costs are already high”. The cost raises individually are not entirely devastating, but cumulatively can be difficult to grapple.

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