Senate debates

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Matters of Public Importance

Northern Australia

Photo of Alan FergusonAlan Ferguson (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

The President has received a letter from Senator Parry proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion, namely:

The Rudd Labor Government’s continued failure to meet the development needs of Northern Australia preventing the region from advancing.

I call upon those senators who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today’s debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

4:17 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

For those of us who live in Northern Australia, the Rudd Labor government’s continued failure to meet the development and, indeed, other needs of Northern Australia is legend. With the Rudd government it seems to always be a case of out of sight, out of mind. Senators would appreciate that, whilst Northern Australia—that is, north of the Tropic of Capricorn in Australia—produces something like 40 to 45 per cent of Australia’s export earnings, it only has about five per cent of Australia’s population. As a consequence, as far as Mr Rudd is concerned, it is insignificant politically. If it is insignificant politically to Mr Rudd, then he has no interest in returning to the north of Australia a fair share of Australia’s wealth, much of which, as I have indicated, has come from Northern Australia.

In this debate today I am delighted to be supported by two very significant Northern Australians, Senator Nigel Scullion from the Northern Territory and Senator Alan Eggleston from Western Australia, who was for many years the distinguished Mayor of Port Hedland in that state.

The Rudd government’s insensitivity to development in Northern Australia can be no better exemplified than by the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce report that has recently been released by the Parliamentary Secretary for Western and Northern Australia. That in itself is interesting. Originally, the Rudd government announced with great gusto that there would be a minister for Northern Australia. It was not long before it changed to ‘Western and Northern Australia’. Whilst good for Western Australia, I keep asking: why isn’t there a minister for Queensland or a minister for Victoria or a minister for Tasmania? It seems that Mr Gray’s attention has been diverted from the north to his home state. It is also worth noting that, while Gary Gray is a nice enough sort of fellow—I think his heart is in the right place—he lives in Perth and has little direct connection with the north of Australia.

The Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce was, as we all know, set up by the Howard government. It was chaired at the time by my colleague Senator Bill Heffernan and contained a number of northerners. It was a task force that was specifically tasked with showing the way forward for sustainable development of Northern Australia. The task force did a lot of good work with the original personnel on that group. Unfortunately, when the government changed, so did the task force personnel and the terms of reference for the task force. Rather than having, as was originally intended, a blueprint for Northern Australia, a way forward, a leadership exposition of what needs to be done and what can be done in Northern Australia, we have this pathetic report recently released by Mr Gray from the new task force.

Time is not going to allow me to go through these reports—the associated scientific compendium and the science review—which are many hundreds of pages. Suffice it to say, here was a classic opportunity for a government and a government appointed committee to show optimism, to show leadership, to show the way forward and to show how it could be done in Northern Australia. What has the task force report delivered? Not the optimism and the way forward that we had hoped for but why it cannot be done, why it need not happen and how you have to be cautious with everything that occurs. Regrettably, while some of the information in the report is sound, the emphasis given to the negatives has meant a curtailment of the march towards further development of Northern Australia.

What I want to emphasise to all those greenies who lauded the recommendations is that recommendations such as ‘by 2030 one-third of the lands in Northern Australia should be locked away in the National Reserve System’ are just stupid. That recommendation was applauded by the greenies. It is interesting to note that the first public exposition of this task force report was the day before it was publicly released and widely gloating was one of the task force members, who also just happens to be a member of the WWF and who is renowned for his antagonism to sustainable development anywhere and particularly in Northern Australia.

What these people do not understand is that in the world today there are 80 million new mouths to feed every year—80 million new people come into this world. Someone has to feed them. Places like China, which used to produce a lot of its own food, had its own food bowl on the plains, are no longer able to grow the food to meet that country’s need, let alone export to the world. For the future of the world, we need to look at places around the world that can have sustainable production of food into the future. Regrettably, this task force report did not do that but put forward all of the negative stuff. If the radical greenies who applauded this report could understand that we do need increased food production then they would not have been quite so supportive of this report and critical of development.

There is a mosaic of good lands in Northern Australia and there are billions of megalitres of water that flow out of Australia every year from Northern Australia. And yet, at the same time, we all know of reports that the south of Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin, which used to feed Australia, is getting drier. Here we have a classic opportunity to sensibly pave the way for sustainable food production in Northern Australia. However, that great opportunity, I have to say with a great deal of regret, has been lost.

I was amused to hear Senator Carr in question time today say that his government believed in science for science’s sake and did not want to influence scientists with politics. Well how come with this task force, after the report had been released and when there was criticism of them not seriously considering water storage damming proposals in Northern Australia, they let it slip that they did not even investigate dams in Northern Australia because they had been told that the Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australian governments, and the Commonwealth government—all Labor governments I might add—had a no dams policy and so therefore they should not even bother looking at dams. What sort of a scientific report is that when one of the great big elements of any look at sustainable development has been removed from the purview of the scientists looking into it? I happen to know that there are sites on the Gilbert River in my state of Queensland and on the Flinders River at Richmond, the O’Connell diversion, which are well advanced in their plans. They are sustainable and they can harvest water. And this report, instead of working out how that could be done and looking at how we could do it in a careful way—and we all want it to be careful—simply ignored those sorts of proposals.

All in all this report is a great shame; it is a great opportunity lost. It is typical of the Rudd government’s complete inaction when it comes to Northern Australia and the possible development of the north. I can assure the Senate and the people of Australia that a Tony Abbott led government in the future will take a much more sensible view of sustainable development in the north and will allow the north to develop in a sustainable way in the manner in which those of us who live in the north know that it can.

4:27 pm

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to talk on the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce report. This is the most comprehensive review of land and water science relevant to the north of Australia that has been undertaken for many a long time. If I recollect the past decade or so correctly, when we were in opposition, I do not recall Senator Macdonald’s government moving to do anything about a sustainable development of Northern Australia, other than to set up a committee and to start to talk about it—but I will come back to that in a minute.

Sustainable development of Northern Australia is a priority for this government, and we have moved very quickly to start to do something about it, not languishing for 10 years, as the previous government did, before they realised that there were opportunities here. But rather than charge into Northern Australia and just assume that there is plenty of water or just assume that there is plenty of land that you can develop or that you can capture—the science shows that neither is really possible to the extent people opposite would like it—we have undertaken a task force that is a comprehensive review of the science of this part of the country.

In September 2008 the Rudd government changed both the terms of reference and the membership of the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce established by the previous government. We wanted terms of reference that focused on tackling the broad range of environmental, economic and social challenges—so it was much broader than just the economic challenge; it also encompassed social and environmental challenges facing Northern Australia in the future. We wanted the task force membership to include experience from a diverse range of interests—not just a bunch of mates who happened to be current politicians, but people who actually had experience and knowledge in areas including business, Indigenous issues, conservation, agriculture, mining and science. So we broadened the expertise and the knowledge on that task force.

We also wanted the task force membership to have a better gender balance—the previous task force of course had no women on it—and where possible to draw on the experience of those who had firsthand experience living and working in Northern Australia. This was about bringing together the best minds, not your best mates, to work in partnership to identify opportunities for sustainable development in the north. We removed the six coalition politicians from the task force and invited other existing members to continue in their role. John Daly from the Northern Land Council was replaced by Wali Wunungmurra from the same organisation, and Noel Pearson was replaced by Richard Ah Mat. We also added the following people: the Chair of the Ord Irrigation Cooperative, Elaine Gardiner; the Chair of the Indigenous Land Corporation, Shirley McPherson; the Executive Director of the Queensland Resources Council, Michael Roche; the Vice-President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Dr Rosemary Hill; the eminent Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Charles Darwin University, Professor Bob Wasson; and Northern Territory based environmentalist Dr Stuart Blanch. So there are professors and doctors who actually have expertise in this area. We know the membership has been attacked by those opposite, but we added just one person of Indigenous descent to the task force and two northern based environmentalists.

I know that my colleagues will go on to reveal exactly what this task force uncovered, but they found that there are positive opportunities in Northern Australia across a range of industries. They also found that developing Northern Australia as an integrated, sustainable region presents a complex challenge that requires strategic focus, not gathering your mates together and thinking you can solve the problems of the world without the expertise that is needed. It requires national leadership and close collaboration between all governments involved. It also found that institutional and governance arrangements in the north are not yet strategically focussed to seamlessly manage both land and water across the region.

The task force stressed that the planning and management of land and water resources in Northern Australia must account for Indigenous rights and interests. Unlike my colleagues opposite, this is a document that has brought together the review of the science, has identified where some of the gaps are and has made some suggestions about a way to move forward, about how to particularly identify the potential for future sustainable development. It is a report that is based on knowledge and expertise and that provides us with a much more sound base on which to pursue the sustainable development of Northern Australia than would have occurred under the previous government.

In the time left I also want to draw people’s attention to a book I launched on Monday, called Dry Times: Blueprint for a Red Land. This is another piece of research and documentation that all helps in developing knowledge about and providing assistance to Northern Australia. It is a book about desert Australia, which of course spreads across six states and territories. As we know, desert Australia is 5.5 million square kilometres—three-quarters of the country’s land area. This book was written by Dr Mark Stafford Smith and Mr Julian Cribb. It outlines for people the extremities and the uncertainties. It complements quite nicely the task force report. In fact, on Monday it was suggested that the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce report now has a coupling bookend, in a sense, with this desert Australia book launched earlier this week. The two go hand in hand and provide us with long-term sustainable science about how we can move this part of the country forward. Deserts are home to diverse vegetations but they are generally very poor. We do not really understand how to live in this country with its extremes and its variabilities. This book outlines the knowledge of the desert. It goes through what the desert experiences. We know that there are people and animals and vegetation, flora and fauna, that cope with the extremes of the desert day in, day out and month in, month out. This book actually suggests that if we take stock and if we have a look and learn about what is going on in the desert we can apply that nationally.

So I say to my colleagues opposite that the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce report is not only about the north; it is also about how we can develop this country for the benefit of everyone. Dry Times: Blueprint for a Red Land provides lessons for the rest of this country about how we can deal with extremes of environment and extremes of climate. Things happen differently in the north of this country, in the deserts and the Top End, right across from Townsville to Broome and from Alice Springs right through to the top. Things do happen differently. But fauna and flora survive. What we have to do is understand why they survive—what do they do that makes them sustainable? That is the science on which we need to base any future sustainable development. You cannot just move into an area of this country and suggest that all the water there can be captured, all of the land can be put to agriculture, and suddenly we can feed the rest of the world. It does not work like that, and it will not work like that. We need to learn from the environment and from there plug the gaps and ensure that we have a comprehensive strategy to move forward. The Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce does this, and the Dry Times book launched on Monday is another response on how we handle the desert.

This government has ensured that sustainable development in Northern Australia is done in a systematic, scientific and routine way based on expert knowledge, collecting the science and the data that is there. This is a blueprint on which we can now move that part of this country forward and ensure that any economic return we have is handled in a sustainable, sensible way. (Time expired)

4:36 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I must admit I was pleasantly surprised when I read the report of the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce. It is a balanced report. It is not one that simply goes full steam ahead. You see a lot of these task force reports saying, ‘Yep, it’s a free-for-all.’ It is a well-written, well-considered report that represents a truly refreshing approach. When you read it you realise that the participants in the task force have sat down and truly looked at the facts. They have looked at them given where each other comes from, so you have got the full range of stakeholders involved—as Senator Crossin pointed out—and you can tell that they must have seriously listened to each other and seriously listened to the advice that they were given.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

But not to too many others, though.

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

They have represented all the stakeholders, as I will point out again, and they have seriously considered the issues and have put down a structured report that looks at the issues and that looks at the science. They have also put down the basis on which they have done their decision making. They have actually set down a set of principles which guided their decision making and their recommendations. I think that is a refreshing approach. It is certainly different from the approaches in many of the other similar sorts of reports that I have seen in other areas.

What it is saying is we should not make the mistakes of the past. We should not make in the north the mistakes that we have made in the south, given the way that we have developed land and the way that we have developed unsustainably so that we are in the fix that we are in with the Murray-Darling system right now. In this debate Senator Macdonald made a comment that we have got to find a new food bowl because of how the Murray-Darling is and because other places around the world are not going to be able to produce the food needed. The Murray-Darling is in the state that it is in because we have abused that system. It has not been developed in a sustainable manner. We have overused it. We have not planned properly. We have overcommitted the landscape and we have overcommitted the water resources, and that is why it is in the mess it is in now. In the north of Australia we can do things differently.

I really liked the outline that the chair of the task force committee, Joe Ross, gave. He makes comments in the front of the report about the vision that they have put down. They are not saying this is the vision. They are saying it is a vision that the task force had. They are saying the vision could include the elements that they have outlined, which I also think is a good approach. He says:

Our vision for northern Australia is based on mutual respect. Respect for the rights and interests of the Indigenous Peoples of the north. Respect for the environment. Respect for the critical role that land holders have in caring for country. Respect for Indigenous and western knowledge. Respect for the communities of the north and the need to empower them to create opportunities for their own future.

I think that is a very important statement and I was very pleased to see it in the report. But of course certain people are getting upset because it does not say, ‘Right, let’s go full steam ahead, Guys! Let’s develop the north!’

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

‘Guys’ being the important word there.

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Exactly. The point is that it is not saying it is the food bowl of the north. It is saying that the potential of Northern Australia to become a food bowl is not supported by the evidence; in other words, there is not unlimited water. There may be a lot of water but it is part of systems. It is not wasted water. It is part of important, beautiful ecosystems. It is part of functioning ecosystems.

The other point as to Northern Australia is that, while we have not had any extinctions in the north of Australia, with some species we may be on the brink. Scientists are saying there are a number of species up there that have had dramatic declines in numbers for reasons they do not know. It could be a changed fire regime. That plays an important part. There could be other issues that are impacting on these species. The fact is we do not know. Despite the fact that the north is not significantly developed, it is being used by the people who own the land and live up there. It might not be being used in the way that some people want but it is being used. But our current land management practices are unfortunately having an impact on the species up there. Australia already has the unenviable record of having the most number of mammalian species that have become extinct. Do we want to keep adding to that? Do we want to keep adding to the loss of biodiversity that we have generated in the south?

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

A minute ago you said it was okay.

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Macdonald, I sat here and listened to you without interrupting you, even though I passionately disagreed with you. I would appreciate it if you would do the same for me.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. The point here is that our current land management practices are also already having an impact on the environment. We already know that many species could be on the brink. We need to investigate that issue. The report points out that we could increase our water use by 100 to 200 per cent—it does say that—but when you look at how much water is being used up there you see there is very little water being used. There is a capacity to increase agriculture from 20,000 to 40,000 hectares, which I acknowledge is a relatively small amount. It points out that the water is not necessarily available where some of the best land is available and it also points out that we should be looking at a mosaic style agriculture that has a reduced impact.

There are things in this report that I have to admit I do not agree with. I am a bit nervous about the issues around changing land tenure until we have some of the other issues sorted out. I am a bit nervous about their recommendations about continuing extensive grazing, if that is not done in a sustainable manner. We already know that some grazing in the north has had an impact on the environment. It is linked to changed fire management practices. It is linked to introduced pastures that can become weeds. But I think that, given the overall direction of the report, it is worth supporting. The point that people are nervous about is the fact that, as I said, it is not going full steam ahead. It is not going to be the food bowl of Australia, or of the world for that matter. But carefully managed it will.

A very important point as to this report is the absolutely essential role of the Aboriginal Australians who live in and own this country, so there is the need for them to be at the heart of decision making and to get the benefits of any development in the north. They absolutely need to be. The report makes that very clear, and I strongly support that element of the report. It clearly points out the constraints as to the way we should be developing the north of Australia. But I will go back to the point that this is a blueprint with a suggested vision and it is now up to the government to implement the recommendations and to support communities of the north to develop their own vision based on the set of principles that are articulated in this report, which I think are very sound. I think the recommendations are very worthwhile and worthy of support. I urge the government to take them up and to take on the challenge that this report sets out, because it is different, because it is saying we need to take a different approach and because it is saying we can avoid the mistakes of the past. But that actually requires the government to be very brave in the face of a whole lot of development pressures that say: ‘Ignore the science. Why you would want to pay attention to the science?’ We have ignored the science in the past and look where we have ended up with the landscape of Southern Australia, where we are having to spend billions and billions of dollars to repair that landscape.

We will never get back the ecosystems that have been damaged or the species that have become extinct. Unfortunately, there are threatened species that continue to edge towards extinction. We do not want to repeat this in the north. We can learn. This is 2010. We have moved into a new century. We should be managing that land in a different way. But if you listen to the voices of the past we will end up with the same mistakes of the past. We will alienate our Aboriginal community. We will send species into extinction. We will have a massive land repair job on our hands. I have not even got to the point about the impact climate change is going to have on the north of Australia. It will change those ecosystems. It will bring climate variation. If you look at the projections for the impact of climate change on agriculture in the north of Australia, you will see there will be a significant impact. We need to learn from the mistakes of the past. We need to do things differently.

This report confronts those challenges head on and says that there is a different way of doing it. Please, Australia, listen to it. Please let us do things differently. Let us support these recommendations and see how we can truly learn from the past and work with Aboriginal Australians to have a different future for Northern Australia. It will develop, but it should develop sustainably. This report clearly outlines there is a future for the people living in the north. It is not the traditional view that some people like to see, where you send in the bulldozers, clear the land and put in more and more agriculture and use all the resources without consideration for the future and without consideration for the science or the ecosystems. This report says: do it differently. (Time expired)

4:46 pm

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also welcome the opportunity to contribute to this matter of public importance debate. To talk about the sustainable development of Northern Australia is an exciting opportunity for all of us in this chamber. I am looking forward to the contribution from my esteemed Western Australian colleague Senator Eggleston who, like my good self, had a long working history in the north. I delivered furniture, he delivered babies, but both very honourable vocations.

I was not here for Senator Macdonald’s contribution and, if he wants to extend the same courtesy of disappearing out of the chamber while I make mine, I would welcome that. On that note, I think it is a little bit rich of the opposition to attack the Rudd government. The words used in the matter of public importance are:

The Rudd Labor Government’s continued failure to meet the development needs of Northern Australia preventing the region from advancing.

It is quite mischievous. I might be wrong—and I am sure other senators can correct the record for themselves—but a lot of this has stemmed from the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce report. What it boils down to is that the make-up of the task force was significantly changed when the Labor government took office after November 2007. Gary Gray, the Parliamentary Secretary for Western and Northern Australia, said that the opposition did not like it because the politicians were removed from the task force. I do not have a problem with that at all. If we look at the make-up of the politicians who were on that task force, two of them are no longer members of parliament anyway. One is from the Northern Territory and one is from Queensland. But what is wrong with saying to Australia, ‘We want to know what is going on’? What is wrong with asking the stakeholders, the people involved, in that part of the world? I am not saying that some of the members of this task force, the previous Liberal members, were not part of the north. There were one or two who lived in the north—there is no argument about that. I do not live in the north, but I made my living running through the north, as did Senator Eggleston. I have a passion for the north and I have a passion for the north of Western Australia.

On that note, let me give the Senate a few figures. I was in Kununurra in July last year. The Prime Minister was also there for a couple of days with Gary Gray, the Liberal Western Australian Premier, Mr Barnett, and the Minister for Regional Development, Brendon Grylls. The federal government announced a package of $195 million for injection into the Top End, the East Kimberley, which predominantly takes in the two towns of Kununurra and Wyndham. That package was warmly and gratefully received by the people of Kununurra, and so it should be. On saying that, the state government committed a heck of a lot of money to that part of the world—I think some $220 million—because everyone recognises that to achieve outcomes for Australia we have to work together. It is very easy to sit on the other side of the chamber and throw darts and arrows at every decision that is made, but I do not think for one minute that that lot over the other side have the right to bag the Rudd government for the efforts it has made in the East Kimberley hand in hand with the state government.

In that part of the world, $50 million is being flagged for health. We all hear about, talk about and read about the health conditions of our Indigenous Australians and about the gap. No-one would argue that $50 million is no small amount of money. It is a start. There is a long way to go, but at least the Rudd government is starting. That $50 million is broken up into a couple of projects. One of significant importance is $20 million for the Kununurra hospital expansion. I welcome that. I have had to visit the Kununurra Hospital. I know it upsets a few on that side, but I came through all right. They do a fantastic job, but they need more money up there because it is a gateway to the great state of Western Australia, especially if you are coming from Darwin in the Northern Territory. There are some 17 or 18 health initiatives going on up there. Another major contribution from the Commonwealth government to that part of the world is around $50 million in housing. We know the problems with housing and we have a long way to go. Senator Evans said in this chamber last year in a debate on Aboriginal housing, ‘Quite frankly, none of us have got it right. No-one can stand up and brag about how well we have done. It is time to work together and start fixing that.’ That is what we are doing.

Of the $50 million, $30 million is going into social housing in Kununurra and Wyndham and the other $20 million is going into transition housing in Kununurra and other locations. There is $15 million going into transport, $10 million of which is going into the Wyndham port facility upgrade. That is fantastic. I have an affiliation with Wyndham. Unfortunately it is not a happy one, because a mate of mine was taken by a crocodile up there. But it is great to see that Wyndham is also on the receiving end of this money. Wyndham has always been the poor cousin of the two towns up there. Into the community is going $16 million for a wonderful array of initiatives.

What we are seeing is that we have a long way to go. It is very mischievous of the opposition to use the report of the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce to attack the Rudd government, which has done far more in such a short time for that part of the world than the previous government did. There is no argument about that. I was in Kununurra last Monday, and I had the fortune to sit with the shire president, Mr Mills. He made it very clear to me, on behalf of the community of Kununurra, that they were very relaxed and very happy with the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce report. There were no spears at dawn. One would think, from listening to the opposition, that the whole of Northern Australia has been badly let down. The Rudd Labor government has done much, much more than was done in 12 years of the Howard government.

The opposition should just come clean. If you want to use this as a political football, at least have the guts to stand up in front of us and tell us it is a political football. But you bag everyone. You bagged the make-up of the task force and you sooked because the politicians were removed—very childish. I have heard some scurrilous comments about the make-up of the task force. If I were one of the task force, I would not even waste my oxygen talking to some of the members of the opposition. To make comments degrading the credibility of the task force is absolutely nothing short of disgraceful. But we will not be deflected by petty arguments from the opposition. We have got a job to do. We have been elected to do that job. We will do that job. Not only that; we are coming through one of the worst financial crises in our history— (Time expired) 

4:54 pm

Photo of Nigel ScullionNigel Scullion (NT, Country Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Nationals) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on a matter of great public importance: the continued failure of the Rudd government in setting the pace for the development of Northern Australia. I am sad that Senator Crossin has left the chamber. I know that she is involved with other things, but she did ask us what we have done. I would have thought that, as a Territorian, she might have noticed that, whenever she turns left on her way out of Darwin, she hits this funny thing called a railway line, built by Shane Stone and John Howard. And, anytime she is sneaking around the waterfront, she might have noticed the port, which is now a fundamental piece of infrastructure that is the backbone of the pastoral industry of Northern Australia and has allowed us access to markets to make it viable. I thought she might have actually noticed some of those things and perhaps given credit to the previous government for its wonderful work.

I have read the grand vision in the report of the Northern Australia Land And Water Taskforce. Senator Sterle said that it was only the vision of the people in the task force. Well, it probably set the pace and the tone for the remainder of the report. I always commend my very good friend Senator Siewert for her comments, but, when the Greens start to support this sort of process—a coalition of lethargy and inaction—we have all got to be really concerned. I live in Northern Australia. To those people who want to lock it up and leave it because it all seems too hard or who say that we have to proceed with caution, I say that that is not in anybody’s interest, particularly the interest of those who live in the north. The vision in the report is probably correct in a couple of ways. It is probably quite likely that 50 per cent of the people who live in Northern Australia will be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, and that will be a fantastic thing.

I had this little mind bubble, when Senator Conroy was here, about the rollout of the NBN. If you are in a community of less than a thousand people, you are not going to be able to have any telecommunications. This is central infrastructure for Northern Australia, but, if you want to count all the towns with under a thousand people, you will find a lot of them in Northern Australia. That is where they belong. So the words of those opposite seem to be completely different from their actions.

I have read very carefully through many aspects of this report, particularly the vision, and it does seem to be condemning our First Australians—Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians—to a very bleak future. Anybody who reads this report, having lived in Northern Australia, would say it is very negative. As my two fine colleagues Senator Macdonald and Senator Eggleston—and I thank Senator Macdonald for his fine contribution—would know, it is tough in Northern Australia. It is hot, it is further away from anything, the roads are bloody rubbish, it is harder to find people and the towns are smaller. It has always been harder. We do not expect it to be too much different, but it has got to be tied together with the aspirations of the rest of Australia. Because of that tough environment, Territorians and people from Western Australia and Queensland are tough. We are pioneers. This report is a complete slap in the face to anybody who lives in Northern Australia because it condemns them to a future of: ‘Just hang on a minute. Let’s not rush it. We’ll just leave it all on its own.’ It will be like some sort of zoo, where you have a little look around while moving across the countryside.

Somehow we—particularly the First Australians—are going to make money out of carbon trading. That seems to be one of the fundamentals of this report. The carbon trading process is very vague in here, but apparently it is going to be a lot to do with controlling and dealing with the savanna landscapes. I am quite sure that that will be a part of the future in terms of management of biodiversity. But this report effectively condemns Northern Australians to just being some sort of accelerated park managers who very vaguely deal with some sort of biodiversity management that is funded overseas by some carbon credits. I am not really sure—the report did not go into it in any great detail. It is a complete shock.

I will read an extract that characterises the approach of the report. This is with regard to the international significance of cultural landscapes:

Communities, landholders and governments now work together to conserve Indigenous protected areas, national parks, private wildlife sanctuaries, areas under conservation covenants, World Heritage sites and wetlands listed under the Ramsar Convention. Enhanced efforts in natural resource and biodiversity management have reversed the decline of small mammals—

have stopped them going out the door. The report continues:

An ecosystem services economy based on payments for ongoing management of biodiversity is now a mainstream part of the regional economy.

And the last line says that a third of the north of Australia is now going to be within a national reserve system. Well, that is a place where I know many of my Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander friends do not want to live. If that is the only opportunity that we are condemning them to then the report has got it completely and utterly wrong. What is wrong with Indigenous Australians having the same opportunities? Why is it that they could not possibly run a pastoral property sustainably?

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

They can.

Photo of Nigel ScullionNigel Scullion (NT, Country Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Nationals) Share this | | Hansard source

I will take the interjection from Senator McLucas. No doubt she enjoys the next paragraph that will ensure that we enable the ‘destocking of marginal pastoral land’. You wouldn’t want to get too far west of the divide to see a lot of sad people in that regard. Again, there is a condemning of our First Australians to absolutely no opportunity—and this I think is absolutely and utterly reprehensible. It is a little bit like saying that this vision is like a national park. Unfortunately, we have now had the report recommending that the First Australians join them. They will be cuddling trees and doing something weird—I’m not sure what—with carbon credits but the vision is not of them actually enjoying the remainder of the opportunities the Australian economy can provide.

Why have we got a different approach? Are we asking the rest of Australia down south, ‘Just cuddle a few trees; just be a bit green. Manage the ecosystem,’ and everything will be right? I can tell you that any economy that is completely dependent on some rubbish idea that you can be sustainable into the future on some sort of carbon credit system and that you can somehow manage the environment while somebody—I don’t know where—is going to pay everybody to do that, is relying on absolute and utter nonsense. I condemn this report and I warn people to look very carefully at it, because if this nation is going down a line which says, ‘Aboriginal people can own land but they can’t use it,’ I think it is a step in completely the wrong direction.

Senator McLucas is from Queensland. The Queensland government has already decided to go and take away the rights of people to use their land correctly under the Wild Rivers Act, and we will be very active to ensure that their rights to use their own land are returned to them.

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator McLucas interjecting

Photo of Nigel ScullionNigel Scullion (NT, Country Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Nationals) Share this | | Hansard source

I am happy to take your interjections, Senator McLucas, all day. We should look very carefully at this report and treat it with a deal of caution because it does not treat our First Australians with the same rights afforded to the remainder of the landholders in Australia. That is why it cannot be supported. (Time expired)

5:02 pm

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am also pleased to join this debate, for two reasons. Firstly to commend the report—a balanced, sensible report that has been handed down to the people of Northern Australia by a balanced and sensible group of people who have looked at the science and the aspirations of northern Australians and come up with a set of 15 sensible recommendations that will take us forward.

But in commending the report I also rise to defend the membership of the committee that has been put together by our government. Let’s remember, Senators, that this committee was the committee that was established under Senator Heffernan and which included only the Liberal and National Party politicians of Northern Australia. There were no Labor people and no people from the Greens. They came up with this wonderful suggestion that the only group of people who would have any knowledge of the aspirations of northern Australians had to be Liberal and National Party members of parliament. It was the biggest political stack I have seen in my life. Thank goodness we had the opportunity to pull those senators and members off the committee and give it some balance so that it had a way forward.

I noticed that Senator Macdonald, in his contribution today, took the opportunity again to denigrate the membership of the committee. He has made wild assertions in this place and also in the media in North Queensland, about the expertise and the motivations of the membership. I notice that he was a little less vitriolic here in the chamber than he was in the North Queensland press recently, and that suggests to me that he was playing to his audience.

It also suggests to me that there are a number of members of the committee who had to go into print to defend themselves against his vitriol, his bias and his—

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will get to that. He has offended many people who gave of their time to make sensible, realistic recommendations about Northern Australia to the committee. In the press in North Queensland, Senator Macdonald said that the government was ‘pandering to a green agenda’, that the report was a ‘series of motherhood statements and bureaucratic recommendations’, and that the task force was ‘clearly captured by the radical green element’. He said:

The report is lightweight with a political focus towards green and indigenous issues.

So there is a bit of a contradiction between Senator Scullion’s point and what Senator Macdonald has said in the North Queensland media. That warranted a letter to the editor in the Townsville Bulletin and an opinion piece in the Cairns Post which was entitled ‘Debate report instead of name calling’. The letter of the week was by Michael Roche, Queensland Resources Council—hardly a person that you could say was captured by the radical green element. Michael Roche is well respected for his knowledge of the mining sector, as are a range of people who we put in the task force, including Elaine Gardiner, Shirley McPherson, Dr Rosemary Hill, Stuart Blanch and Professor Bob Wasson. Let’s remember that the committee also includes Terry Underwood, who is a grazier; David Crombie; David Baffsky; Lachlan Murdoch, Richie Ah Mat, Walynbuma Wunungmurra—I apologise for the mispronunciation of your name—Mr Joe Ross and Andrew Johnson from CSIRO. This is not what you would call a painted green task force.

Let us go to what Mr Roche had to put into print to defend himself against Senator Macdonald’s name calling.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I did not see this. You will have to send it to me.

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Happily; I will table it. I will seek leave to table this document at the end of my speech. He said—and this is only in part:

There appears to be a premeditated effort underway to destroy the credibility of the report by attacking the task force’s bona fides and credentials.

He goes on to say:

The task force includes three members with impeccable Northern Australian agricultural credentials, including the President of the National Farmers Federation, a tourism industry leader, the head of CSIRO’s Land and Water Research Group, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Charles Darwin University as well as eminent conservationists and Indigenous leaders from Northern Australia.

These are the people whom Senator Macdonald and Senator Scullion are attacking. These are the people who have given their time to provide us in Northern Australia with a blueprint for the way forward. Mr Roche goes on:

The task force did not contain bureaucrats and neither did they write the report, which was a collective effort by task force members.

He then says:

Instead of massively misrepresenting the credentials of the task force, let’s have a discussion about our findings and recommendations and around our reliance on the best available scientific evidence rather than name calling and slogans.

That is what Mr Roche had to put into press in the Townsville paper, which Senator Macdonald reckons he did not see—and I am surprised at that—and also in the Cairns Post. Instead of playing the man, let us talk about what is in the report. Let us talk about what other people said about the report. David Crombie, from the National Farmers Federation, said:

I don’t think anybody expected we were going to be transferring the Murray Darling food production system to northern Australia.

I disagree with him slightly there; I think that Senator Heffernan did. He goes on to say:

There are opportunities for greater intensification of agriculture, there’s opportunities for more integrated development in the livestock sector, there are opportunities for pastoralists and lease holders, and there are opportunities for indigenous communities.

This brings me to the point that Senator Scullion was making. I do not think Senator Scullion has read this report—I am sure he has not—because if he had he would have come to a very similar conclusion, I imagine, as David Crombie from the National Farmers Federation. As Mr Crombie says, there are opportunities identified in the report for an increase in agricultural production, for an increase in a whole range of economic activities that all of us in Northern Australia have the opportunity to partake in, particularly—and this is a very strong focus of the report—Indigenous people. I also want to go to Rachel Mackenzie from Growcom. I think her words are very informative:

It was time southern Australia gave up fanciful notions that horticulture could be simply moved holus bolus from areas such as the Murray Darling Irrigation Basin to northern Australia. Growcom supports the development and expansion of horticultural crops suitable for the climatic conditions and soils in northern Australia and wherever else in Australia that suitable climatic conditions have been shown to exist.

It rains a lot in Queensland and Northern Australia, but it is a very short season. It rains a lot, but it is pretty close to the coast where you cannot dam, and it is also a long way from market. Let us be a bit honest with the people of Northern Australia. (Time expired)

5:10 pm

Photo of Alan EgglestonAlan Eggleston (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Rudd government has shown no understanding that the north of Australia has enormous potential or, it seems, no commitment to realising that potential. The recent Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce report was disappointing, because it seems to me its recommendations were focused on preserving the past instead of focused on the future and the opportunities that were offered. The potential of the north is enormous. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s I attended north Australia development conferences that highlighted the fantastic potential for development in Northern Australia not only in agriculture but also in many other fields, including tourism, mining and aquaculture, which would create jobs and realise the potential of the north.

To be fair, the task force was severely constrained by the terms of reference given to it by the Rudd government, which were mostly about land and water. But even in agriculture this report is far from visionary. Notwithstanding the great success of the Ord River project, which was funded by the federal coalition under Prime Minister Menzies and which is now being extended at a cost of over $200 million, thanks to the Barnett government in Western Australia, the task force report claims that the potential for irrigated agriculture is limited because there are only four potential new dam sites across Northern Australia. But, as Senator Siewert pointed out, a lot of arable land was identified away from these rivers and dam sites. And, of course, agriculture does not have to be limited to the area’s surrounding dams, because water can be piped across long distances to facilitate development. For example, Libya has a network of pipes large enough to drive trucks through to transport water 1,000 kilometres from aquifers inland to provide water for irrigated agriculture on the Mediterranean coast. I can see no reason why this could not be done in Northern Australia to provide water for irrigated agriculture in many locations across the north. All that is needed is the vision, and the vision, it seems, is not there.

As I said, from my experience I am aware that there is enormous potential for economic development in areas not mentioned by the Northern Land and Water Taskforce report and apparently not in consideration by the Rudd government. For example, great opportunities exist in areas as diverse as fishing and aquaculture, from prawn and fish farms to cultured pearls, as well as in tourism and in the resources sector. In tourism, people look to go to areas that are unique and different. For example, Germans and other Europeans flock in their thousands to Africa to see what is different about Africa. The things that are unique and different about Australia are mostly to be found in the north. But has the Rudd government charged Tourism Australia to shift its focus to Northern Australia? The answer is no, in spite of falling inbound tourism figures to Australia from countries like Japan.

Clearly, the mining industry offers enormous potential in the north, but there is a need to upgrade infrastructure, such as roads and ports, to facilitate such development. However, this kind of infrastructure was not included in the Rudd government’s stimulus program. When I attended the Riding the Boom conference in the Pilbara a couple of years ago the parliamentary secretary, Gary Gray, when confronted by local residents who called for improvements in community infrastructure to match the vast wealth coming out of the Pilbara coast, told them they were all ‘whingers’. That is rather disappointing and shows no feeling for or understanding of the needs of the people in that area.

I am disappointed that the Rudd government has made no real commitment to expanding Indigenous employment opportunities, given the well-known plight of Aborigines in the north. We have all heard sad stories of drug and alcohol addition, and physical and sexual abuse, in Indigenous communities. It is generally agreed that the root cause of most of the problems for Indigenous people is that they have no hope in their lives—their tribal culture has been distorted and they have not found a way into the world of mainstream, modern Australia. What is needed is to find jobs for Indigenous people so that the poisonous cycle of welfare dependence and hopelessness is ended and replaced with Indigenous people having a sense of dignity and purpose in their lives, coming from having a job and a regular income.

Some years ago the mining industry committed itself to increasing Indigenous employment and training. Companies such as Rio Tinto have achieved outstanding success, with 25 per cent of the workforce at the Argyle diamond mine being Indigenous. But there are still 4,000 unemployed young Aborigines in the East Kimberley alone, and one must ask why the Rudd government has not sought solutions to this situation. The proposed Price Point LNG plant, on 25 kilometres of land just north of Broome, is another project that offers the potential for Indigenous employment, but the press is carrying stories that the Rudd government may not give the project the go-ahead. One must wonder who the Rudd government is listening to. Is it the traditional owners, who have supported the Price Point project because of the benefits it will bring to local Indigenous people? Or is it those living on the east coast who do not want to have any progress or development in the north—people such as Murray Wilcox QC, whose recent photographic book on the Kimberley completely misrepresented the impact of the Price Point— (Time expired)

5:18 pm

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to table the document that I referred to in my earlier contribution.

Leave granted.

Photo of Annette HurleyAnnette Hurley (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The time for this discussion has now expired.