Tuesday, 3 March 2020
Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2019-2020, Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2019-2020; Second Reading
I point out that, without doubt, the greatest thespian in this House has just endowed his wisdom on us, so thank you very much to the member for Goldstein. I want to talk about the Indo-Pacific Task Force, a trade task force that I lead, and trade in general. Trade remains the domain of federal government agencies, ranging from DFAT to Austrade, and increasingly of state and territory agencies, including the Northern Territory government's Department of Trade, Business and Investment, which I must say does a fantastic job of promoting the investment opportunities we have in the Northern Territory of Australia.
While the federal government obviously retains overall competence in negotiating agreements with foreign governments that should be advantageous to Australian businesses, workers, unions, investors and, of course, exporters, the Indo-Pacific trade task force that I lead was set up last year to help feed into a trade policy agenda that a federal Labor government would take to the next election, with a particular focus on markets in our immediate region, those that have five to six per cent growth, as in South-East Asia and the subcontinent. This government could be doing a lot more on trade, particularly to tackle those nontariff barriers that Aussie investors and exporters continually face in many markets, which does penalise them unfairly. We need to be doing a lot more. This government does very little, to be honest, to address this issue—particularly the nontariff barriers—because it is much harder than signing trade deals.
So we need to think about how agencies like Austrade work: whether they could function better—I think there's no doubt about—and whether they are adequately resourced to do their job. They need to be supporting businesses that are investing or setting up a nationally. Austrade needs to be adequately resourced to do that important work. As part of the work of the Indo-Pacific trade task force, I and my colleagues have held a number of consultations with stakeholders in Cairns, Darwin and Melbourne and soon will hold them in Adelaide, Perth and Townsville. The feedback we're hearing consistently is that much more could be done to support Aussie exporters to export their goods and to export services and digital trade opportunities, which is a new frontier that Australians are well-placed to be at the forefront of.
Speaking of new frontiers, we all know that the global climate challenges we face are indeed a huge opportunity for us. I'll be leading a delegation to Indonesia soon. It'll be one of the things in the digital technologies space and the renewable technologies space that I'll be talking about with our Indonesian friends. When we consider action on climate change and taking up those new technologies, the Climate Change Performance Index recently placed Australia at a dismal 56 out of all nations in the OECD and the EU, whereas Indonesia had come in at 39. So there is a huge appetite in Indonesia. They're doing a lot better than us when it comes to a range of measures, which is to the shame of those opposite. Nevertheless, there's a lot more we could be doing with Indonesia, and I look forward to having those discussions with our Indonesian counterparts.
Let me shift to the defence of the Australian homeland. In the Defence portfolio, I note the government's announcement of a $1.1 billion program of infrastructure upgrades to RAAF Base Tindal. RAAF Base Tindal is in Katherine in the Northern Territory. This investment is part of a $20 billion defence funding commitment to northern Australia over the coming decades, which is bipartisan. $737 million of this $1.1 billion is being committed to upgrade the airfield at Tindal, extend the runway and build extra fuel storage facilities. The federal government has said that an additional $437 million would go towards engineering services on the base for power, water, sewerage and 108 new live-in units for our Defence Force personnel. The Minister for Defence Industry has guaranteed that Defence's managing contractor would be required to maximise the involvement of local industry from the Katherine region and the wider Northern Territory. They speak of 300 jobs in the construction phase at Tindal. I think even more can be done to help local industry and ensure their participation in all phases of this project work.
The reality is that, without strong advocacy from the government—and I am advocating strongly now for the government to do this—these local companies won't be given a fair go. The federal government has a responsibility to ensure that the local companies that have the capacity to do this work can get a go at doing this work and not just the tender-savvy foreign state owned enterprises who can afford the lobbyists and the slick marketing campaigns. It is unfortunate, but I have to inform the House that recently in Darwin a relatively small contract, mainly civil works, went to a foreign state owned company when there were three locally owned Territory companies that were more than capable of doing that work.
I think the federal government needs to wake up to itself because in the Northern Territory and around Australia companies are sick and tired of being overlooked for this type of work, particularly when the federal government went to the last federal election promising that they would breakdown packages of work into smaller packages precisely so that local companies could get a look in. But when that happened in Darwin a contract was given to one of the biggest infrastructure companies in the world—a state owned infrastructure company up against some locals who should have been getting that work. So we want to see an end to that. The federal government has to start living up to the rhetoric that they spouted to Australians before the last federal election.
I now move to another issue that is very important to Territorians, and that is the Productivity Commission's recent report on remote-area tax concessions. I note that the Productivity Commission's report on remote-area tax concessions was published last week on Wednesday 26 February. The report recommends that remote-area tax concessions and payments should be rationalised and reconfigured. It calls for the zone tax offset to be abolished and it calls for the remote-area allowance to be refreshed, which means a redrawing of boundaries that, in the report's own words, would exclude at least 25,000 annual recipients in my electorate and a further 33,000 in cities of the Northern Territory, like Alice Springs and Katherine in the member for Lingiari's electorate. The report notes the cost-of-living pressures on Indigenous Territorians, who pay much more than Australians in major metropolitan cities for their groceries, but it doesn't go into the cost-of-living pressures across the territory, including in my electorate in the cities of Darwin and Palmerston, compared to major cities like Sydney and Melbourne.
We need to be careful in how we measure remoteness, because what might seem like a scientifically objective measure can't capture the local reality of life on the ground for communities in rural and regional Australia. This is about values, not some kind of objective yardstick which transforms Darwin and other places in the Territory into metropolitan regions magically just by changing our thinking. That does not change the price of goods and services when Territorians go to purchase them.
The argument that Darwin is no longer regional because it's a city rather than a town misses the obvious fact that the entire physical, economic and cultural centre of gravity of our nation is heavily biased towards the south and the south-east of the Australian mainland, which the majority of people in this place do represent. But those members are not the whole of our nation. Regional Australia has had a gutful of the bias towards those metropolitan centres when we are not only part of our nation but a vital part of our nation.
We don't have access to the same cheap flights and easy connectivity or access to cheap goods and services that you can get, for example, in Sydney. Just measuring up remoteness on a city's size is not a particularly convincing argument, because there are transport costs and often, as is the case in many regional parts of Australia, that is on top of getting goods and services. The cost of the goods and services is added to by those transport costs, and that must be taken into account.
So Northern Territory members and senators do not support the Productivity Commissioner's recommendation to abolish the zone tax offset. It's important to people living in regional and remote Australia. The federal government, those opposite, should be investing in the north, not ripping more money from hardworking Territorians—money that gets ripped out of our local economy and that would help the individuals receiving that zone tax off-set. That, I add, has not increased since 1993, so we're talking about a zone tax off set that has not increased for a long time, so it's lost its purchasing power already. But it also hurts the local businesses in my electorate and many other regional electorates because you're ripping funds out of our economy.
Instead of directing reviews on how to cut even more from regional areas, the federal government should start focusing on investing in the Northern Territory. The federal government have said that they will not follow the Productivity Commission's recommendation, but, to be honest, we have heard that before. In fact, we heard that there would be no cuts to education, no cuts to health and no cuts to the ABC. We've heard so many pre-election promises from those opposite that haven't been realised. In six years there have been continual cuts. So I'd like a firm commitment that those opposite, the federal government, will not cut the zone tax offset. On behalf of Territorians and, I'm sure, many others in regional Australia and northern Australia in particular, we want confirmation that this federal government will not cut the ZTO.
Zone tax offsets are important, and we certainly need to be looking at how to encourage more people to come up and live in our amazing Northern Territory and enjoy our amazing Territory lifestyle. The federal government needs to guarantee that Territorians won't be thrown under a bus. The Northern Territory government are doing all that they can, but we need federal investment. Rather than the neglect that we've seen from this Commonwealth government when it comes to the Territory, we want to actually see some investment. The last figures out of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility showed that about one per cent of that $5 billion fund had been drawn down. We want to see a lot more action and much more serious intent. More than serious intent, we want to see the investment actually happen in the Northern Territory.
In my submission to the Productivity Commission on the zone tax offset, I made the point that this federal government had an opportunity, a good opportunity, to increase it when there was a white paper on northern Australia that recommended that FIFOs, fly-in, fly-out workers, no longer receive the zone tax offset. About 20 per cent of them got the offset. With those savings, there was an opportunity to increase the zone tax offset, remembering what I said earlier—that it hasn't been increased since 1993. They didn't take that opportunity, which is a shame. But it is an issue that's very important to Territorians.
I just want to stress again that we want those opposite, the federal government, to commit to not cutting the zone tax offset. Jobs keep people in the north. When the federal government rips Commonwealth jobs out of the Northern Territory, that doesn't help either. Start investing in the Northern Territory and in our jobs, and that will make Australia a stronger place.