Tuesday, 17 October 2023
by leave—I rise to make the annual statement on northern Australia, on behalf of the Minister for Northern Australia, who is unwell today and unable to attend parliament. I send my sincere congratulations to Minister King for the amazing work that she has done over the last year, and I know she would be deeply saddened to miss this day today.
I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of this meeting place, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. I pay my respects to elders, their customs and their connection to country. I extend this to traditional owners of the lands across our north and First Nations people in the chamber today.
Our government is committed to working with First Nations people to ensure the north is fair, inclusive and prosperous for all of those who choose to call northern Australia home. I want to thank Linda Burney, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, for fostering meaningful engagement and all members and senators who represent electorates across northern Australia, in particular:
Thank you for your commitment and contribution. Thanks also to Senator Susan McDonald, the shadow minister for northern Australia. I acknowledge the shared vision and spirit of state and territory ministerial colleagues who are working in the Northern Australia Ministerial Forum.
To Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, I understand that the result at the weekend is for many of you a moment of great sadness and hurt. Australians have voted against constitutional change, but it is clear that there is consensus that more must be done to tackle disadvantage. This is not the end of reconciliation—we have heard clearly from many remote communities, including those in Australia's north, that there was a desire for this change, because communities want to be heard. We will continue to be a government that listens to and works with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We remain committed to closing the gap. As a nation, we will move forward and we will thrive, because we all agree we need better outcomes for First Nations people.
Earlier this month in Cairns, the intergovernmental Northern Australia Ministerial Forum discussed the strategic importance of the north and the implementation of the Defence strategic review and the opportunities this offers for development in the north. Northern Australia is critically important to our national security. The Defence strategic review, outlines the need to improve the ability of the Australian Defence Force to operate from our network of bases, ports and barracks across the north from Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the northwest, through RAAF bases at Learmonth, Curtin, Darwin, Tindal, Scherger and Townsville. This is why we are investing $3.8 billion in bases in the north, with a focus on delivering long-term growth and liveability of the regional areas that support them.
I would also like to acknowledge Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Chair Tracey Hayes, CEO Craig Doyle and officials, as well as the Chair of the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia, Sheridan Morris, and Chief Scientist Allan Dale for the important work they do driving policy to support communities in the north.
Finally, let me thank members of the Northern Australia Indigenous Reference Group led by Chair Colin Saltmere, who have travelled far to be here. I'd also like to thank members of the IRG: Ms Tara Craigie, Mr Jerome Cubillo, Mr Troy Fraser, Mr Peter Jeffries and Ms Gillian Mailman. Thank you not only for your contribution but for your commitment to this. I know Minister King looks forward to continuing to work together with you.
In this second annual statement about Northern Australia you will hear how the Albanese government is taking action to secure a fair and ambitious future for the north. This government recognises the importance the north plays in the prosperity and security of all Australians.
Northern Australia is vast. Extending from the Tropic of Capricorn, it covers approximately three million square kilometres and it includes over 10,000 kilometres of coastline. Demographically, it is a young, it is multicultural and it is of great potential—potential we can make the most of if the federal government and the states work together. Over the past year, Minister King has visited many communities across the north, experiencing firsthand the resilience, the innovation and the energy of locals, and their deep connection to country.
Last year, Minister King announced the refresh of our policy cornerstone, the Our north, our future: white paper on developing northern Australia, to better address contemporary challenges and opportunities. We will achieve this through the development of the five-year action plan to continue to make progress towards realising our vision outlined in the white paper to build a strong, prosperous economy and a safe, secure Australia. Things have changed since the last white paper was published. There are new challenges and opportunities ahead. This white paper refresh will ensure this important document is working for communities in the north, making sure it includes the work this government is doing to lay strong economic foundations for the future.
Through the Northern Australia Ministerial Forum, three priority areas have been set for the next five-year Northern Australia Action Plan: human capital, enabling infrastructure, and economic development and diversification. This will provide the framework to help achieve our ambition, aligned to government priorities and a First Nations partnership approach. Engagement is currently underway and we are listening to a wide range of stakeholders across northern Australian communities, to make sure we get this next set of actions targeted right.
Minister King would like to thank those from northern Australian businesses, industry, government and communities who have contributed through the engagement so far. Your valuable input is helping to shape the future of the north. Your feedback shows that the issues in northern Australia are complex and there is no simple, quick-fix solution but that you are also passionate about the potential of the north. I thank you for your hard work.
The Albanese government is also working with Queensland, Western Australia and Northern Territory governments on a review of the Northern Australia Indigenous Development Accord to ensure First Nations' aspirations are central to the northern Australia agenda. The Northern Australia Indigenous Reference Group continues to be a strong voice for First Nations' aspirations in Northern Australia, providing valuable input to the white paper refresh, the accord review, and providing advice on priority areas for action in the north.
Last November, Minister King delivered her first annual statement to parliament on northern Australia, outlining our agenda to drive diversified, sustainable growth. I can report to the chamber we are making good progress. We have demonstrated our commitment, and in the 2023-24 budget announced significant investments in the region of over $5 billion.
The Albanese government is addressing cost-of-living pressures through investments in health, housing, childcare, skills, education and vocational training. We are investing in roads, regional infrastructure and essential services, delivering enabling infrastructure to help regions thrive and connect to markets and services. We are supporting an agile local workforce that can benefit from emerging and traditional industries, including agriculture, aquaculture, biosecurity and defence. We are working with partners to build a sustainable resources and energy industry. And we are working across government, with industry, community stakeholders and First Nations people.
Our government is committed to the north because we know a strong north means a strong nation.
A cleaner, more secure future
The north is home to some of the world's most precious environments. Climate change is impacting these natural environments, economies and the liveability of our communities. The recent decision by UNESCO to not list the Great Barrier Reef as 'in danger' is testament to the serious action we are taking on climate change.
The north is home to rich mineral earth deposits, natural resources and long sunny days. The world is seeking to partner with us as we transition to a low-carbon economy. Our government will not waste this opportunity. We need to make investment in the north easier and more attractive.
Harnessing the globally significant critical mineral, rare earths and renewable energy supplies is key. Critical minerals are crucial components of low-emission technologies and global demand is growing. Our new Critical Minerals Strategy anticipates this, with a focus on creating local jobs, industries and secure supply chains. The strategy also sets aside $500 million for critical minerals projects through the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, which we all know as NAIF for short, which I will speak to later.
As we position Australia as a renewable energy superpower, we are partnering with First Nations people through initiatives such as the First Nations Clean Energy Strategy. Our $1.5 billion investment in the Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct in Darwin is supporting the Northern Territory government to create a globally competitive precinct which will unlock new renewable energy industries. Our $565 million investment in the Pilbara ports upgrade at Lumsden Point (Port Hedland) and Dampier, and our $70 million investment in the Townsville hydrogen hub will promote clean, sustainable exports.
Our government is committed to building resilient communities and transitioning the economy as we adapt for a stronger future. We are investing more than $1.5 billion in critical road infrastructure that services important industries, including beef and agriculture.
When the Northern Australia Ministerial Forum met in Kununurra in June, on Miriuwung and Gajerrong country, they discussed ways to better mitigate and respond to the risks of increasing natural disasters. They also examined the importance of agriculture and biosecurity to national food security, and opportunities for collaboration and investment. Our government has committed more than $50 million to boost food security in remote First Nations communities and to continue the Indigenous Ranger Biosecurity Program.
Investment in research and development is important in developing new industries in northern Australia. Industry-led research collaborations through the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia are supporting important industry sectors such as aquaculture, with more than 2,300 jobs forecast for the north over the next decade. Minister King saw this in Rockhampton when she visited Central Queensland University's Sesame Central National Research and Innovation Hub, which will provide much needed coordination for sesame research in Australia and help address challenges faced by growers. Aquaculture presents an exciting new opportunity for First Nations communities, and research on expanding the north's oyster, jewfish and rock lobster industries continues.
Targeted investment in livability is a key priority, alongside recognising investment where it is needed most.
To support the security and safety of Central Australians, we are funding close to $299 million for the Better, Safer Future for Central Australia Plan. Working with the local community, the focus is on youth services in Alice Springs and infrastructure funding for amenities, for water, for power and for housing.
Financing our future: Nort hern Australia Infrastructure Facility
I mentioned the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, which, since 2016, has financed transformational projects that support the economy, social outcomes, local jobs and businesses.
NAIF is at the heart of our agenda to facilitate transformative growth across the north. We have increased NAIF financing by $2 billion, to a total of $7 billion, and extended the NAIF's remit to cover Australia's Indian Ocean Territories: Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Minister King intends to table an updated investment mandate for NAIF in the coming weeks. The new mandate will focus NAIF on policy priorities I have outlined today; keeping NAIF at the heart of our policy agenda for the north.
To date, the NAIF has approved nearly $4 billion in loan investments across a range of sectors including critical minerals, energy, agriculture, aquaculture, universities and airports. This includes $655 million for critical minerals and rare-earth projects forecast to deliver $5.5 billion to the economy and 2½ thousand jobs. In 2022-23 alone, NAIF approved $491 million in new loans, supporting over a thousand new jobs in the north.
This year also saw the opening of the new James Cook University student accommodation in Townsville, supported by a $46 million NAIF loan—and construction is well progressed on the new $250 million Education and Community Precinct at Charles Darwin University, backed by a $151½ million NAIF loan.
I am tremendously excited about the difference NAIF is making in developing new economic activity across the north, creating local jobs and delivering much-needed services.
To those in the chamber, especially those who have travelled, and to fellow Australians—as I have outlined today, developing the north is critical to the sustained prosperity and security of our nation. Our government is delivering substantial and diversified investment to deliver a once in a generation transformation of our economy. And we are working together to create a fair, sustainable and secure north now, and for decades to come.
I present a copy of my ministerial statement.
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.