Thursday, 13 May 2021
Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Amendment (Extension and Other Measures) Bill 2021; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Amendment (Extension and Other Measures) Bill 2021. There is no doubt that the NAIF is in need of urgent reform. Its operation over the last six years is indicative of the failure of this government to deliver, especially for the people of northern Australia. It is symbolic of the pattern of announcements without follow-up or follow-through that has become the hallmark of this government.
As my colleagues who have spoken before me have highlighted, by October last year the NAIF had released only $218.4 million of its $5 billion budget—$218.4 million out of a $5 billion budget. Fewer than 10 projects have begun or completed construction. Only two First Nations projects have received NAIF support, and communities in northern Australia, particularly First Nations communities, are calling out for investment, and not just any investment but investment that is smart and sustainable, and investment that encourages prosperity without destroying culture, land and resources for future generations—in other words, a balanced approach to development. The NAIF represents an opportunity to achieve these goals, but it has fallen far short of that expectation to date.
I had the privilege of being part of the Senate select committee investigating the effectiveness of the government's northern Australia agenda, which was chaired by my colleague Senator Watt and has recently handed down its final report—and I recommend the report to all in this chamber. The committee spent two years investigating the impact of government policies across communities in the north, including the NAIF itself. Despite being hampered by COVID-19, the committee travelled to Cairns, Townsville, Thursday Island, Darwin and Nhulunbuy, and we heard video evidence from many more other places across the north, including my home community of Broome. We heard from community groups, entrepreneurs, local governments, chambers of commerce and First Nations organisations about the challenges facing northern Australia. And what was our conclusion? It was that this government is stuck in the slow lane when it comes to northern Australia. There are no roaring engines going forward here. The failures in relation to the NAIF are just one example of promises not being delivered.
The committee's interim report reflected that, while there is support for the idea of NAIF, the reality has been profoundly disappointing. We've heard numerous criticisms about the complexity of the application process for NAIF funding. The administrative burden of applications is considerable, and it is no surprise that this has stymied First Nations projects most of all. The NAIF is simply not accessible for many First Nations entrepreneurs and organisations. Evidence submitted to the committee highlighted the many barriers faced by First Nations seeking to access NAIF funding, from the lack of liquidity equity to the inability to afford administrative costs and lack of credit history. This means that northern Australia is not benefiting from the innovative development led by First Nations. It also means that First Nations peoples are being left behind, despite the burgeoning wealth of some in the region. The committee received a report by Professor John Taylor, who studied the impact of the mining boom on social indicators for the Pilbara Aboriginal people. His research found that 'in many respects, outcomes are worse now than they were before the mining boom'. As representatives of the eight traditional owner groups in the Pilbara noted 'there has been a failure to "raise all boats" on the back of massive government and private sector investment in the region'. This will not improve without better engagement with First Nations peoples.
As we debate this bill, it is important to note the extent of the First Nations presence in northern Australia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make up approximately 15 per cent of the population of northern Australia and over 25 per cent of the Northern Territory population. The First Nations land tenure covers a vast proportion of the northern Australian land mass: 66 per cent of northern Queensland, 80 per cent of the Northern Territory and 94 per cent of Western Australia. Given this context, it is unthinkable that the future of northern Australia could be charted without the involvement of First Nations peoples. The government's white paper on developing northern Australia acknowledged that 'developing the north will need to be in full partnership with Indigenous Australians'. But this government has demonstrated again and again that it does not understand the concept of partnership with First Nations. Defenders of the NAIF's current structures point to the procurement and employment opportunities for First Nations peoples arising from the NAIF funded projects. While these opportunities should undoubtedly be strengthened, they are poor substitutes for First Nations being able to control and direct projects in their own right and a poor substitute for being assured a seat at the NAIF decision-making table.
This bill includes a number of amendments that federal Labor has called for for many years. We hope it marks a step in the right direction, but we also think we can do better to ensure both that First Nations people are truly benefiting from the NAIF and that the projects it funds are sustainable in the age of changing climate. To this end Labor will move a number of important amendments to the bill, which my colleague Senator Watt has outlined. One of these amendments would ensure that there is a First Nations member on the board of the NAIF. The government's current proposal is to add experience in economic development in Indigenous communities—that's the category—to the list of experts sought for the NAIF board. This is simply too weak. We must relegate to history the days when others speak for First Nations, particularly as they are property owners. I've outlined the amount of property they have in northern Australia. Labor's amendments are simple measures that would mean that First Nations peoples are assured a seat on the NAIF decision-making table. That is consistent with similar requirements that apply to a range of other federal bodies, including the Australian Heritage Council and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
Valid concerns have also been raised about the effects of this bill on the north Australian environment, particularly whether projects funded by the NAIF will help or hinder us in addressing the serious impacts of climate change. Bear in mind that First Nations peoples in the north are likely to experience the brunt of harmful climate change or any other form of pollution of their lands and waters. We are already seeing these impacts across our communities, and nowhere more stark than in the Torres Strait.
The government's action has eroded any trust that they will be doing the right thing when it comes to managing the necessary transition to clean energy. We saw that in the extraordinary decision of Minister Pitt just last week to veto NAIF funding to the carbon and wind farm near Cairns, against the express recommendations of the fund. So Labor will be moving amendments to ensure that the minister cannot allocate funding in a way that is inconsistent with Australia's achievement of net zero emissions by 2020. These and other Labor amendments are straightforward, sensible proposals that will make this legislation better. I urge the government and all in this chamber to support them.
There is considerable beauty and potential in northern Australia; much of it is fragile and unique. This time of the year is one of the best times of the year in northern Australia. Let me tell you: I look forward to going home to Broome next week. Much of its manifestation is in the richness of the First Nations cultures, its languages, its knowledge, its relationship to the land and its willingness to share some of that, if you don't destroy it. The NAIF could be a vehicle to harness this potential for the benefit of the whole of Australia. But it is currently failing to do so. It's up to the government and Minister Keith Pitt to deliver on the promise of the NAIF. This bill represents a second chance. Those of us on this side of the chamber will be watching this closely, and we will also be listening continuously to hear how people in the north are benefiting from the actual release of funds rather than its promises.