House debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Ministerial Statements

Northern Australia

4:24 pm

Photo of David LittleproudDavid Littleproud (Maranoa, National Party, Minister for Agriculture and Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—On 2 July this year I became the minister for northern Australia, and today I'm pleased to deliver my first annual statement on the implementation of the Liberal-National government's northern Australian development agenda. We are almost six years into the 20-year policy vision for sustainable economic development that was established by the 2015 white paper on developing northern Australia. Over the last five years, our government has laid a solid foundation to build on, and I thank the former minister and assistant minister for northern Australia, the Hon. Keith Pitt MP and the Hon. Michelle Landry MP, for their contribution to this agenda. I'd also like to acknowledge the passion and dedication of Senator Susan McDonald in her role as the Special Envoy for Northern Australia.

Developing northern Australia is truly a whole-of-government responsibility, and we are seeing the benefits of our collective work. Roads and water infrastructure are being built. Industry-led research is developing pathways for emerging markets and increasing the productivity of existing markets. We've enhanced livability to attract skilled workers and families, and we've enhanced capacity building in creating economic opportunities on Indigenous land. Led by the Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business, our education and skills development programs are equipping communities to achieve their full potential. Over 70,000 enrolments are being supported by JobTrainer, and over $364 million has been paid to northern Australian businesses to encourage uptake of apprenticeships.

Together with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs and the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, we are addressing workforce shortages during harvest season with the streamlining of our Pacific labour mobility programs, the Pacific Labour Scheme and the Seasonal Worker Program, through the new Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme and the recently announced Australian agricultural visa.

The reinsurance pool for cyclones and related flood damages, backed by a $10 billion government guarantee, commencing on 1 July 2022, will improve the accessibility and affordability of home and business insurance in cyclone-prone areas. The $40 million North Queensland Strata Title Resilience Pilot Program commencing in January 2022 will subsidise cyclone-disaster mitigation works for both improved resilience of strata titled properties and insurance affordability in northern Queensland. The Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment understands the north's role as a major economic driver.

Through the government's $1 billion COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Fund we've supported tourism businesses to survive the loss of international visitors, including the zoos and aquariums that are so special to northern Australia and our nation's identity. We've invested in health and social infrastructure by giving healthcare providers in regional and remote communities across northern Australia $230 million to improve health outcomes, particularly for Indigenous communities. The Minister for Defence and the Minister for Defence Industry will invest $10 billion into Australian Defence Force infrastructure over the coming decade, creating business opportunities for local industry through demand for services and resources for defence bases and personnel and their families.

The Deputy Prime Minister is championing our infrastructure by investing $1.96 billion over 10 years to 2028 on Roads of Strategic Importance to better connect agriculture, tourism and mining regions to transport hubs, creating opportunities for greater regional employment and business growth. And he's investing more than $500 million towards water infrastructure like the Rookwood Weir and Big Rocks Weir through the National Water Grid Authority, because dams create jobs and water security.

In the last budget, the federal government committed $189.6 million to kickstart the next five years of development based on the white paper. This year we launched our $111.9 million Northern Australia Development Program to give business and industry a helping hand to scale up and diversify their operations. The first assessment round will close soon, with grants to be awarded from February. We're also tackling the challenge of connecting people and business with the $68.5 million Connecting Northern Australia initiative dedicated to improving digital and telecommunications connectivity, and mobile blackspots. The program will open before the end of this year as part of the Regional Connectivity Program.

I want to highlight how we will implement the $9.3 million Regions of Growth pilot program also announced in the last budget. These regions of growth cover Broome to Kununurra to Darwin in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, the Beetaloo Basin to Katherine to Darwin in the Northern Territory, Mount Isa to Townsville, and Cairns to Gladstone in Queensland. As part of this we will deliver the master plans for those regions of growth and their respective corridors—20-year blueprints and five-year action plans—to lead a structured and coordinated investment agenda in collaboration with our state and territory counterparts, industry and communities. The first three master plans will focus on locations within our region of growth—Broome to Kununurra to Darwin in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, the Beetaloo Basin to Katherine to Darwin in the Northern Territory, Cairns to Gladstone in Queensland, and Mount Isa to Townsville in Queensland. The plans will decrease the risk of doing business in the north and give the private sector the confidence to invest there. We'll also look for opportunities to work collaboratively with jurisdictional counterparts to ensure that our policies and regulations are being implemented as intended and are enabling sustainable growth, not hindering or delaying it. The master plans represent our forward-leaning approach to ensuring that the benefits of Australian government investments are maximised and stay in the regions. And that's just the beginning. The Cairns to Gladstone region of growth will follow, and we are working to identify further regions of growth and pipelines of investment-ready projects. I'm pleased to release today this information booklet, Our North, Our Future 2021-2026: Targeted Growth, which sets out this agenda and our priority areas in more detail and will be available on the Office of Northern Australia website.

I also want to acknowledge the continuing contribution of government agencies and private sector partners implementing our vision. The Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund, NAIF, has committed over $3.1 billion of its $5 billion to project financing. This commitment will generate an estimated total capital value of $6.6 billion, $16 billion in economic benefit and around 10,000 new jobs. Some of those highlights include $704 million for the Lake Wells, Kalium Lakes and Mardie salt projects in Western Australia to support the establishment of a new potash industry; $150 million for upgrades to Darwin airport, including a new freight, cold storage and import-export hub; and a $610 million loan to the Genex Kidston project to build Australia's first new pumped-storage hydro project connected to the grid in 40 years.

Our government is partnering with businesses to make sure that these important projects come to fruition, but our expectation as part of this partnership is that businesses pay their way first before dipping into the public purse and using Australian taxpayers' money. The NAIF will only draw down on the $3.1 billion currently committed once business hits their key milestone and once they've spent their own money. That's simple, responsible use of taxpayers' money. The NAIF will align more closely than ever with our national priorities and leverage private sector investment to maximise the benefits not only for the northern economy but for the national economy too. The Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia has invested $22 million across 59 projects, supporting pioneering industry-led research into water productivity for tropical horticulture to futureproof the aquaculture industry and explore new industry options, and improving the efficiency of existing Kakadu plum value chains to grow a sustainable industry for this unique bush food and grow consumer loyalty.

I want to thank members of the Northern Australia Indigenous Reference Group for their commitment and contributions to the northern Australia agenda. I'll soon stand up the second Indigenous reference group, which will be a valuable source of strategic advice to achieve practical outcomes.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are custodians of over 75 per cent of Australia's landmass. Backing our Indigenous entrepreneurs and businesses is a top priority. NAIF will support the Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation with a $13½ million loan to redevelop and expand a food cold storage and warehouse facility in Alice Springs, helping to get more fresh and frozen food into the region's communities. Minister Wyatt recently announced a new Indigenous business hub for Darwin to realise the ever-increasing opportunities being created through procurement policies and emerging commercial prospects. I congratulate Minister Wyatt on the progress made towards the development of the National Roadmap for Indigenous Skills, Jobs and Wealth Creation to date.

The Liberal-National government already has a proven track record of investment, but we all recognise that transformational change happens over many decades. That is why we are taking a whole-of-government masterplan approach across all levels of government and priority sectors. A stronger, more prosperous and more resilient north will benefit our nation as a whole through exponential growth.

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.