By HARRY CLARKE
RURAL health, inland freight and telecom black spots are among funding initiatives welcomed in this year’s so-called ‘pandemic budget’, but the Morrison Government’s cash splash is also being criticised for omitting money for several important infrastructure projects throughout regional Queensland.
Communities outside major centres could benefit most directly from the $65 million being set aside to incentivise doctors who practice in the bush to bulk bill their patients.
For the first time, the government will implement a “progressive incentive schedule” which increases bulk billing payments for doctors based on remoteness.
“Scaling the Rural Bulk Billing Incentive will better recognise that doctors in rural and remote areas face higher operating costs, smaller patient populations (and) increased complexity in patient care,” budget papers state.
The Rural Doctors Association of Australia told the ABC that doctors in the most remote parts of Australia may receive up to $50,000 extra a year under the plan, helping retention and recruitment of medics and benefiting communities.
Agriculture groups have generally approved the 2021-22 budget, but Queensland’s peak farming body said the funding plan lacked strategy.
As the Caller reported from Rockhampton last week, biosecurity management has been allocated an additional $370 million, bringing biosecurity funding to $1.25 billion since October last year.
Queensland Farmers Federation (QFF) praised the extension of tax breaks for purchases of small business assets such as farm machinery and equipment for farmers.
But the QFF echoed complaints by the Queensland Government that of $15.2 billion being spent over ten years on agricultural infrastructure, only $1.2 billion had been allocated for Queensland projects.
CEO Dr Georgina Davis said Treasurer Josh Frydenberg had “all but forgotten Queensland” regarding ag infrastructure and that “some of the critical and important bigger picture issues the agriculture sector was facing (have) been ignored.”
QFF’s budget response named the Emu Swamp Dam near Stanthorpe and the Bundaberg East Flood Levee as examples of infrastructure projects missing out.
Dr Davis also said $4.2 million set aside for the National Agricultural Innovation Agenda was disproportionate to huge boosts in productivity and returns which could be gained by maximising investment in agtech opportunities.
“With this budget widely considered the last before the next federal election, the government has failed to demonstrate strategic intent and deliver joined up investment to enable the Queensland agriculture sector to fully capitalise on the exciting opportunities that are unquestionably there,” Dr Davis said.
Queensland Treasurer Cameron Dick led the criticism of the federal budget, labelling it a “rotten rip off” in state parliament and saying Queensland has been “taken for granted”.
Mr Dick is furious that no extra funding has been allocated for Toowoomba’s Wellcamp Entertainment Precinct, or Townsville’s Haughton pipeline and Landsdown Eco-Industrial Precinct.
North Queensland MP Bob Katter praised continued funding outlined for water projects such as the Hughenden Irrigation Project and Hells Gates Dam, but said he was disappointed there was no new funding for CopperString 2.0, a major trasnmission lined aimed to connect the Mt Isa mineral region to the national electricity grid.
Maranoa MP and Agriculture Minister David Littleproud, however, has touted big infrastructure spending in the regions.
Some $400 million is being put towards the Inland Freight Route, which Mr Littleproud said would “help boost our economic recovery, keep our families safe and back local jobs,” by employing 610 workers.
Bob Katter welcomed $68.5 million being budgeted over two years for the Regional Connectivity Program and Mobile Black Spot Program in northern Australia, saying mobile connectivity was the “number one issue” raised with him by constituents.
“I’ve worn out the carpet visiting the Minister and it’s great to see recognition with budget funding. My office will be working closely with the Minister to ensure this funding is well spent,” Mr Katter said.
But the National Farmers Federation has been underwhelmed by Mr Frydenberg’s overall telecommunication spend of $153 million, given that $68.5 million was “quarantined from existing funding” for northern Australia.
“This falls short of securing the future of the Mobile Blackspots Program beyond this year, as called for by the NFF. The NFF implores the Government not to become complacent in its funding for regional communications,” NFF president Fiona Simson said.