Is it the end of the RfR gravy train?

30 Mar, 2017 02:00 AM
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The RfR gravy train will continue to run, but with a new driver and stopping at different stations.

IT was a perfect storm, the stars lined up and all of the ducks were in a row, or in plain speak. The National's had the balance of power in the first Barnett government.

Around eight and a half years ago, after a State election, support from the resurgent Nationals could have given government to either the Liberal or the Labor parties.

The price for that support was simple, a concept called Royalties for Regions (RfR), a program that we have become used to, with debate centring on whose idea it was in the first place.

RfR survived two terms under the Barnett government, but following the ALP's massive win, people are pondering whether that program will be scrapped, retained or changed.

Its future will depend mainly on how successful it has been in the past and no verdict on that assessment will have the word "perfect" in it, especially based on its early days.

I can remember interviewing several country shires and the story was the same: a cheque arrived in the mail with a request that after the money was spent, the authorities would be informed what they had spent it on.

The three major parties all went into the election with the intention of retaining the program, but the ducks, stars and storm would probably declare that changes will be made.

Comments from new Treasurer Ben Wyatt provide a clue, where he reported that Treasury revealed that it had been "cut out of spending decisions, particularly surrounding RfR".

He went on to reveal that he was stunned to discover that The Nationals-run Department of Regional Development would get a "one line RfR budget of $1 billion per year".

"This was then spent under a shadow budget process without reference to Treasury or Cabinet," he said, with Treasury informing him that "it would be very difficult for either to make informed decisions on the merits of particular projects".

Concerns flagged with the writer by ALP Legislative Council member Darren West, about maintenance responsibilities left for recipients of RfR projects, were also highlighted.

The treasurer noted that a $14.4 million RfR project for the Paraburdoo Community Hub would saddle the Shire of Ashburton with annual operating costs of $730,000.

Muresk becomes a major concern, for after showing no interest while Curtin University ran the infrastructure down and then closed it, Barnett's government allowed it to merely exist for two years before providing RfR money to allow it to re-open, offering degrees through another university.

Likewise, the Liberal National government starved the Department of Agriculture and Food (DAFWA) almost to the point of irrelevance, then threw it a lifeline with a major RfR project.

This means that Muresk and DAFWA exist outside the normal Cabinet/Treasury system and, presumably, could be forced to disappear just as easily.

Perhaps the treasurer's main concern will be on whether the government can afford to take so much money out of its budget to fund what many believe to be a political slush fund.

One thing would seem to be a sure bet is that he will not allow the RfR to continue to operate outside the scrutiny, or even control, of Treasury and/or Cabinet.

Perhaps government will embrace the other suggestion made by Mr West that the RfR should concentrate more on boosting economic activity in the regions, rather than just building monuments.

I would guess that the RfR gravy train will continue to run, but with a new driver and stopping at different stations.

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