Coalition pet projects in marginal seats, including the inland rail from Toowoomba to Gladstone, which environmentalists warn would unlock a “carbon bomb”, have been showered with a $2.3bn cash splash in the mid-year budget update.
The update, released on Thursday, gives the green light to the controversial inland rail extension in the seat of Flynn, which Queensland Labor is targeting, and provides $10m for the project business case.
The $2.3bn infrastructure package delivers an injection of $908m to projects in New South Wales, including hundreds of millions in Nationals seats and the ultra-marginal Labor seat of Macquarie.
Projects in states with the seats most likely to determine the 2022 election received the next highest levels of funding: Queensland ($616.5m), Western Australia ($362m) and Tasmania ($247.8m).
Victoria – with about a quarter of Australia’s population – received a paltry $21.3m, less than 1% of the new money for infrastructure in the mid-year update.
Barnaby Joyce, the deputy prime minister and infrastructure minister, boasted in October while negotiating Nationals’ support for net zero emissions by 2050 that the inland rail project to take coal from Toowoomba to Gladstone could be “booked in”.
The Lock the Gate alliance said it was concerned the government was preparing to fund the “disgraceful” project, which is set to unlock nine new coalmines and an estimated 150m tonnes of carbon emissions a year.
The mid-year economic and fiscal update confirms the project has received in-principle agreement but adds that it is “subject to the outcomes of the business case demonstrating the project is economically beneficial”.
The business case will identify the preferred route and “commercial development and private sector funding opportunities”, which may reduce the level of government funding, which “has not been quantified at this time”.
The infrastructure package delivers $907m in New South Wales, including:
$298.4m to the Coffs Harbour Bypass project in the Nationals seat of Cowper
$200m to the Hawkesbury River third crossing, in the ultra-marginal Labor seat of Macquarie
$96m for the New England highway Tenterfield heavy vehicle bypass in Joyce’s seat of New England; and a further $90m for the Tenterfield to Newcastle corridor
$80m for the M1 Pacific highway to be extended to Raymond Terrace, in the Labor-held, Coalition-target seat of Paterson in the Hunter
Queensland projects to be funded include:
$316.1m for the Coomera to Nerang connector
$243.1m for projects along the Bruce highway corridor
$29.3m for the Bowen Basin service link Walkerston bypass
Western Australian projects will get: $300m to support the Metronet, $32m for the Newman to Katherine corridor upgrade, $25m for the Canning Bridge bus interchange, and $50m for a road duplication at Wanneroo Road.
Tasmania will get $167.8m for the New Bridgewater bridge and $80m for the freight capacity upgrade program.
The mid-year update also confirms a $100m cash injection for the fifth round of the Building Better Regions fund, and $250m for the sixth round, taking the regional grants program up to a total of $1.4bn over its life.
The update contained $16bn of mystery spending, including decisions taken but not yet announced.
Labor has taken aim at discretionary programs, promising a future national integrity commission will examine grants decisions after numerous analyses showed they disproportionately flowed to Coalition-held seats.
Labor has promised real-time reporting of ministerial decisions that reject departmental advice on grants but stopped short of removing discretion for where grants are allocated and infrastructure investments are made.
On Thursday the shadow treasurer, Jim Chalmers, told reporters in Brisbane the mid-year update “doubles down on the rorts and waste in the budget”.
“Remarkably, it pours billions of extra dollars into secret slush funds for the election,” he said. “It shows that the government has learned absolute nothing from the furore over politically motivated rorts and corruption, which has chased this government for much of its time in office.”