Tuesday, 17 October 2023
I'm pleased to deliver this statement, on behalf of the federal coalition, because northern Australia is a powerhouse of this country. It's a powerhouse because the north has proudly pioneered and continues to drive our most important industries, like agriculture, mining, tourism and defence. Not only do these sectors generate enormous wealth for our communities, for our families and for Australia as a nation but they also feed us, employ us and protect us. None of us should ever take northern Australia for granted or underestimate its contribution to our standard of living.
Up until Australians started feeling the shocks of the cost-of-living crisis under this government, our nation ranked equal fourth for the highest standard of living in the world. A strong economy, quality of life and access to education and health care are the main factors that contribute to this. It should be recognised that the economy in northern Australian forms the foundation of these essential pillars, mainly through the billions of dollars generated by resources, royalties, and company taxes which are used to fund the construction of new schools, hospitals, and infrastructure. These are the vital services that all Australians rely on. Anybody who has spent time in our nation's north can sense the opportunity and resourcefulness in the air, while at the same time marvelling at the ingenuity, resilience and courage of the very few people who live and work in this part of the country. It is these Australians who have converted the possibilities into a rewarding and unique lifestyle.
Northern Australia is vast. It's remarkable that this region makes up 53 per cent of our landmass and yet is home to only five per cent of our people. However, on so many fronts this five per cent of the Australian population punches well above its weight. In agriculture, Northern Australia produces 12½ million beef cattle, which is 64 per cent of the national beef herd and 90 per cent of our live cattle export trade. Over generations of backbreaking work in the tropical heat, torrential rain and frequent cyclones, northern Australian canegrowers manage to produce more than 95 per cent of our sugar, while the fruit farmers grow 94 per cent of our bananas and 93 per cent of our mangoes.
In Australia, every state and territory except the ACT produces minerals. The resource sector supply chain supports over 1.1 million direct and indirect jobs, or almost eight per cent of the entire national workforce. Try to imagine the $500 billion in the resources sector without Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory—particularly, the booming regions of the Pilbara, Bowen Basin and Groote Eylandt. The north produces the critical minerals that the entire world is demanding and which are crucial to Australia's defence. It has a geological catalogue of critical minerals like cobalt, lithium, magnesium, manganese, rare-earth elements, titanium, tungsten, vanadium and zirconium, which grow in potential for the last eight minerals to be declared critical. In terms of tourism, Northern Australia attracts enormous numbers of international visitors and domestic travellers, who are drawn to its spectacular scenery and breathtaking experiences. Combined, Kakadu National Park, Uluru and the Kimberley attract nearly a million tourists annually, while the Great Barrier Reef delivers a staggering $5.7 billion into the national economy each year.
All this helps to form the narrative around the strategic geography of Northern Australia, and our northern frontier is also the main front line in protecting and defending our country. It's our national checkpoint for biosecurity, food security and defence. The essential industries of agriculture, mining, tourism and defence in our north deserve and require national investment because any positive or negative impacts that are felt there flow downstream and impact the entire country. That's why when we were in government the federal coalition made it a priority to harness the strategic geography and enormous potential of northern Australia. What we achieved in building the north remains one of our proudest achievements and strongest legacies. It was the coalition government that released the comprehensive white paper, Our north, our future in 2015. It was the coalition government that established and then expanded the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. It was the coalition government that established the Cooperative Research Centre for Northern Australia. These initiatives have improved the landscape and prospects of the north and have made a tremendous difference on the ground.
The aim of our 2015 white paper was to stocktake the north's natural geographic and strategic assets so that we could create an effective launch pad to further develop the region's key industries and to mitigate against the risks and challenges of economic growth. The white paper also highlighted the essential need for infrastructure in the north. This was a development blueprint for nation-building projects: new roads, new dams, upgraded airstrips, rail freight options and updated land-use laws. When we look back, one of the most significant legacies that the coalition secured in government was the establishment of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility—the NAIF—in 2016. By the time we left office, the NAIF had supported more than 32 investments worth almost $3.5 billion and expected to generate an economic benefit of $25 billion and to create 13,000 new jobs. Importantly, last year our government announced that we would increase the NAIF appropriation from $5 billion to $7 billion to help the north grow into the future. Despite the swinging of the financial axe over many areas of the infrastructure portfolio, we welcome the government's decision to honour this coalition commitment.
It's worth reflecting on what the NAIF achieved during our time in office. The coalition is proud of what it has delivered over the years. Major projects include the $150 million expansion upgrades to Darwin, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs airports; the $300 million expansion to Darwin Harbour, including the new ship lift facility; $175 million for the Olive Downs coking coal complex in the Bowen Basin; and $50 million to redevelop the Townsville Airport terminal. For the next generation, the NAIF has also provided vital support for our regional universities, such as $142 million to James Cook University to establish its Technology Innovation Complex and student accommodation; more than $150 million for the new Charles Darwin University city campus and upgrades for its Casuarina campus; and $76 million for upgrades to Central Queensland University's northern campus.
Another initiative that we led in government was the creation of the Office of Northern Australia. It was tasked with delivering our ambitious agenda for the north, as set out in the white paper. However, the coalition notes that this office has now been absorbed into the department of infrastructure. We remain concerned that this move could threaten the office's strong northern independence and that its advocacy could be lost in the depths of the Canberra bureaucracy bubble.
The Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia was another core element for progressing the coalition's plan for this part of the nation. Since it was formed, the centre has initiated 96 cutting-edge projects with industry participants, to grow, harness and diversify opportunities and investments in the north. This is a 10-year program which runs its course in 2026. Is the government going to extend the invaluable work of the centre? We simply don't know.
Another important coalition legacy in the north was setting up the master plan to accelerate regions of growth. These were designed to deliver a 20-year blueprint for strong economic development, with the first three regions of growth being Beetaloo basin to Katherine to Darwin, Mount Isa to Townsville, Broome to Kununurra to Darwin, and a final growth corridor from Cairns to Gladstone. On this side of the House, we'd like to know: how is the government progressing these corridors of growth and economic development? So far, it's been silence.
It's unfortunate that this government has ripped away critical funding for the north in each of its federal budgets. Enormous amounts of infrastructure funding for northern Australia have been scrapped, including the Building Better Regions Fund, as well as crucial water security projects such as the $5.4 billion Hells Gates dam and the $483 million Urannah dam, while uncertainty hangs over the Hughenden Offstream Water Storage project and the Cairns water security project. All of these cuts and decisions will have consequences, because, as resilient and as resourceful as this part of the country is, it needs safe roads, capable bridges and reliable water security.
Picture a single-lane, unmarked, dirt-edged national highway just north of Sydney. This is what we currently have located just west of the Great Barrier Reef tourism region, a region that deposits nearly $6 billion into the national coffers each year. Picture Geelong cut off from the rest of the country for five months each year, as Doomadgee Aboriginal Shire Council is during the wet season. Picture having a meal without the northern Australian beef herd and its crops of sugar, bananas and mangoes, because there's no guaranteed water supply. It's deeply concerning that, since being elected, this government has stuck its boot into regional, rural and remote Australia, and unfortunately the north is no exception.
If Australia is to maintain our world-leading standard of living, if Australians are to keep appreciating the benefits of new schools, hospitals and roads, and if Australians are to retain high levels of employment and remain safe in our nation, then we must see this government commit fully to encourage, facilitate and support the ongoing development of northern Australia.
Our nation has always been wealthy. Historically, we've had the privilege of adequate food, quality water and decent living conditions. But, for many Australians, this is now becoming a luxury, as rent, mortgage repayments, electricity, petrol, insurance and grocery bills surge beyond their ability to pay and stay afloat. We appreciate the cost of living has always been higher in the north due to the tyranny of distance and the freight costs for what isn't already grown or manufactured there.
When a federal government deliberately cuts funding to infrastructure projects in northern Australia, it harms this region's capacity to keep doing the economic heavy lifting for the rest of the country. When this happens, every Australian can expect this spiralling cost-of-living crisis to get even worse. Each additional impost on and each opportunity removed from northern Australia drives up prices for every Australian, whether they live in Darwin or Hobart or anywhere in between. Whether it's mining, agriculture or tourism, our country owes so much to the north.
The 1.3 million Australians who live in this unique, resilient and dynamic part of our nation can be assured that developing northern Australia remains front and centre of the federal coalition's plan to secure our nation's future, in stark contrast to Labor's cuts and neglect.