House debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Ministerial Statements

Northern Australia

4:33 pm

Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for External Territories) Share this | Hansard source

I rise in response to the northern Australia ministerial statement, and I congratulate Minister Littleproud on his appointment and on providing this House with his first update as Minister for Agriculture and Northern Australia. Over six years on from the introduction of the white paper on developing the north, we are still waiting on the government to deliver on their promises. I note the promises which were made today. When the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government announced their northern Australia agenda in 2015, they claimed their plan would help unleash our nation's potential. That's yet to be realised. The government loves talking about potential, but the reality six years on is that the north can feel dudded, I think, by the piecemeal plans that have been put in place.

Time and time again, and contrary to what the government might believe, I hear from communities across the north that they are not seeing the leadership that they want from this government. I have to say it's not surprising, though, when leadership squabbles within the coalition are at the forefront of people's minds. As much as I'm glad to see Minister Littleproud deliver his statement, the elephant in the room, of course, is that the minister only got this job after Keith, his mate, was ousted after only a year in the job during yet another National leadership spill. I sympathise with Keith. We know that the people in the bush and particularly northern Australia are the people who suffer when the Nats decide they'd rather have a go at themselves.

We've also seen significant turmoil at the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, the NAIF, with the shock resignation of CEO Chris Wade. Sadly, the NAIF continues to be a sore thumb for this government, and I note the minister's comments. Labor supports the NAIF, as you well know. There is a real gap, though, in financing projects in the north which the NAIF could fill. There are clear challenges for the new board, but I do want to recognise Tracey Hayes as the chair, someone who I've known for many years and I know well. We were pleased that the government adopted some of Labor's suggestions to improve the NAIF, such as allowing it to make equity investments and increasing support for small and First Nations projects. However, Minister, you've yet to acknowledge you'll include the Indian Ocean Territories as part of NAIF. It beggars belief that you can't see that Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands, north of the Tropic of Capricorn—although, yes, in the Indian Ocean—are part of northern Australia. If you wouldn't mind, I would like you to include them as part of northern Australia for the purpose of NAIF funding. That would be something which would make people on Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands most pleased.

However, six years after it was announced, the NAIF has still only released 8.5 per cent, $427.6 million, of its $5 billion budget. At this rate it will take 70 years for all of NAIF's funding to be allocated out. The minister—and I want to thank him—has also touched on some government programs to fund disaster resilience. It's unfortunate he didn't think to mention the $4.7 billion Emergency Response Fund, which was announced over 2½ years ago to fund disaster recovery and resilience. This fund could be building cyclone shelters, evacuation centres and flood levies across the north right now, but 2½ years on it has only begun releasing funding in last month and there are still no shovels on the ground. The week that the Bureau of Meteorology declared a La Nina weather event and natural disaster, communities have been left unprotected yet again.

Perhaps the most worrying backward step in the northern Australia agenda is the winding back of some of these key structures. The ministerial forum on northern Australia, comprising responsible ministers from the Commonwealth, Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, has, as I understand it, been quietly downgraded to meeting 'as needed' before it will be disbanded later this year. Funding for the Indigenous reference group, which the minister referred to, ceased at the end of last year, but I do note that he's confirmed today that the Indigenous reference group will be re-established. It was concerning that so little consideration was given to the ongoing importance of engaging with First Nations Australians in the first place. It should not have been run down. These types of structures are essential for the collaboration the northern Australia agenda needs to succeed.

I commend the minister to make more of the Indigenous reference group and the advice he can get from First Nations people right across this country. He made reference to the amount of land which they have responsibility for and speak on behalf of, and it's very clear that Indigenous people, First Nations people from across the country and across the north of Australia, are very keen to be involved in development projects. It is clear, however, that northern Australia needs a real plan backed by real action. That's why it won't surprise you that that's what Labor's economic plan for northern Australia will do, by creating more jobs in more industries. We want to create more jobs in the north's backbone industries like agriculture, resources and tourism.

It's significant, I think, that people from what we would call 'down south' fail to really understand the potential of the north in agriculture, and it's very significant. The amount of agricultural development in the Northern Territory, for example, is far, far greater than that in the Ord, and that's not recognised. I want to commend the activities of all people involved in those industries in the north, including, of course, the pastoral industry. We want to create more jobs, though, in the hidden industries that we often don't recognise—things that are extremely important to the north and indeed to Australia generally, like health care, education and human services. And we want to create more jobs in the newer industries, where our north has a massive competitive advantage, like renewables, particularly solar; hydrogen; advanced manufacturing; aerospace; and creative industries.

There are incredible opportunities arising across northern Australia, but we're not going to harness them by offering short-term solutions. I note the minister talked about long-term outcomes. Well, I would share that view with him, but we've got to get acting and we've got to get moving. Labour will start by actually delivering the infrastructure required to grow and connect northern communities. In this year's budget, Queensland received the lowest share of new infrastructure spending per head of anywhere in the country. In the Northern Territory, only one per cent of new infrastructure funds will be spent in the next four years.

It's not just about building the roads, bridges and tunnels needed to connect our communities. Labor believes in investing in our social infrastructure as well. Whether it's overcrowding in our remote Aboriginal communities or skyrocketing rents in our northern cities, housing is one of the biggest issues facing the north. The recent COVID outbreak around the Katherine region and down at Robertson River highlights the importance of us addressing the infrastructure shortfall in housing across northern Australia in First Nations communities. That's why Labor is committed to a $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund which, over the first five years, will build 20,000 social housing dwellings and 10,000 affordable housing places for essential workers who are being priced out of the market. Significantly, the fund will also provide $200 million for the repair, maintenance and improvement of housing in remote First Nations communities. There is still more to be done.

Labor is also focused on tackling unmet need across our health and aged-care sectors in the north. While addressing this need will be good for the health outcomes of northern Australia, it will also create, as I'm sure you'd appreciate, many jobs. Of course, if we're to deliver this infrastructure or build our traditional hidden and emerging industries, we need to tackle the issue businesses constantly raise with me: skills shortages. And I note the reference that the minister made. That's why an Albanese Labor government will require that one job in 10 on major federal projects will be filled with an apprentice, trainee or cadet. We will establish Jobs and Skills Australia to match the training we provide with the skills gaps of industry, and we will invest $100 million to provide incentives for new-energy apprentices to ensure that we have skilled workers for the growing new-energy sector. We will develop a new employment program, in partnership with First Nations people, to replace the failed and punitive CDP. This is something I've been banging on about for over a decade. We're yet to see anything concrete come out of the government, but we will be changing it if we form government. We'll scrap CDP and introduce a new program which will be a work program in Aboriginal communities.

Finally, there is a real need to offer options to ease investment in northern Australia. That's why Labor has announced a National Reconstruction Fund, a $15 billion fund that will partner with the private sector to invest in projects that value-add. This will help create the jobs in minerals and food processing, shipbuilding, defence, renewables and medical manufacturing. I note the minister's reference to defence. Of course, it's a significant part of the economy of northern Australia, and much more needs to be done to advance the opportunities for small businesses involved in the defence sector across the north.

Labor believes in putting forward a bold agenda for northern Australia that will, above all, create more jobs across more industries. The north, as we all know, is full of potential yet to be realised, and it's time we had a government that will realise it.


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