Senate debates

Monday, 2 May 2016


Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill 2016, Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2016; Second Reading

10:08 am

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor will be supporting the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill 2016. I know the people on the other side of the chamber will be pleased to hear that. We will be supporting these bills on the basis that this particular legislation contains a 'rigorous and properly structured decision making process under the direction of a competent and independent board'. It is most clear in our position that we need to ensure that this board will in fact be competent and independent. I think it is an element on which all parties can agree that it is so important that everyone is competent and that this process will be done in a rigorous fashion and completely independently. The two elements of independence and trust, which are so important in any process, must be absolutely central to any of the movements going forward.

It is important also to notice that the bill has gone to the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia. They are the group of people in our parliament who have been most concerned about what is happening in Northern Australia. The bill has gone there and the committee has looked at it. There have been a number of recommendations out of that process. No doubt we will hear about that in the debate today as people bring forward the issues they raised in that committee.

At this stage, very early on, I want to particularly acknowledge my friend Senator McLucas, who will also be speaking on this legislation. Senator McLucas, as we know, is a strong northern Australian and Northern Queenslander and I want to put on record my respect and my thanks for the work that she has done in this area and also for her consultative process, which has been particularly effective both within this parliament and also, most importantly, in the community.

The Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill 2016 will establish the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. It will also establish an independent Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Board to make investment decisions under this legislation. Regarding the money on the table, NAIF will offer up to $5 billion in concessional finance to encourage and complement private sector investment in northern Australian economic infrastructure.

I think everyone in this place understands the importance of the development of northern Australia and having an effective infrastructure. We had the opportunity on many Senate committees to visit northern Australian communities across the board, looking at that concept of northern Australia reflecting not a state base but rather a geographic base. We understand what is clearly known—that there are elements of similarity and elements of concern that cross state borders. The fact that this legislation talks about the concept of northern Australia is particularly important and reinforces the already established need to ensure that those issues of regional importance are not forgotten, particularly at our level in federal government.

In relation to the geographic line, it is always very difficult to relate any particular process to geography, but I understand that there is a government amendment that will slightly change the definition of northern Australia as it was originally taken to the committee. We will have an amendment to ensure that one particular element of Western Australia is picked up in this definition. Infrastructure located outside northern Australia can be northern Australian economic infrastructure as long as it provides a basis for economic growth in northern Australia and stimulates population growth in northern Australia.

The facility was first announced in the 2015 budget. Details of the facility have been delayed a number of times and it seems that the work to develop the policy was done largely after the announcement. That in itself is not particularly peculiar, as a concept or a proposal is then backed up by much more detail. But it seems that, particularly after the budget last year, there was a lack of detail for people to understand and get their minds across. That detail has since been brought forward through the committee process and there is much more detail on the table, but it is important that we understand that this is an evolving piece of legislation and it engages the close scrutiny of all those who share the importance of northern Australia.

We know, and I put on record, some of the issues that stimulated the need for such legislation. Northern Australia faces significantly higher costs and service challenges, resulting in critical infrastructure gaps. We know—and it is something that we do talk about a lot in the electoral process—that northern Australia's low population density and smaller dispersed industry makes it difficult to capture the economies of scale that support commercially viable infrastructure at competitive prices.

The distances continue to confound people. Truly understanding the impact of distance and geography on our nation is an important element of this debate. No matter where people live, they should get a true understanding of the issues of northern Australia—the distance, the remoteness, the north's unique climate. I think many people—including Senator McLucas, I know—have great experience in the challenges of the climate across northern Australia. We need to understand. Too often, people in other areas just get immediate glimpses of some of the challenges of the climate conditions in the north when we have media coverage of such things as cyclones. It is also very important to understand the element of drought in that part of Australia. Certainly as a Queensland senator, I know the impact of drought on our northern community is something we need to really understand in the development of policy.

The NAIF, the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, is intended to support projects that otherwise would not be built or would not be commercially viable without an appropriate injection of public funding. Therefore, that $5 billion is an important element of the process. That is where decisions can be made that can give an injection of appropriate funding at the best possible time to encourage development of many kinds. That will be an extraordinarily important element of the process—the identification of the most effective programs and projects that can attract the funding which is so important.

The NAIF will be established as a corporate Commonwealth entity. It will provide concessional loans to enable major economic infrastructure projects to proceed on the basis that they meet specific eligibility criteria and are able to repay the Commonwealth in full and on time. That means that the relationship between the projects and the funding body will need to be maintained so that there will be that ability to report so that we will know how progress is going. So, there will not be any surprises, which is most important when actually looking at funding projects. We do not need to have surprises at the end of the time frame. The commitment is that any funding that is provided will be able to be repaid—and I stress—in full and on time.

Concessional features of a loan may include lower interest rates—and we hear much about the attraction of lower interest rates—longer loan tenure and/or different repayment arrangements that might be provided by the private sector. The important element is to ensure that the projects brought forward meet the specific criteria and are able to prove that they will, as required by the legislation, support projects that otherwise would not be able to be built and that they will respond to those issues of remoteness and population growth. There needs to be an understanding that the projects will meet those requirements before they are eligible.

The board will make investment decisions independently, and that is—as I said at the start—so important in the consideration of the establishment of this particular entity. There must be the sense of independence. It will determine NAIF investments in accordance with an investment mandate issued by the Minister for Northern Australia. I understand there were discussions at the committee about the size and make-up of the board, which is always an interesting element. Under the legislation, the board will consist of a chair and no less than four and no more than six other members. I am looking across at Minister Canavan now—that is kind of a tight frame. No less than four but no more than six, so that actually defines how many people will be involved on the board.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It'll be four, five or six then!

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

Four, five or six—yes. I am just wondering—will we toss a coin there? But I understand it is just a way of expressing it. But, yes, we know how many members there will be on the board. I am sure it will be an interesting process, determining who will make up the board's membership, because we know that there is great interest in this process. Ways to fund and invest in northern Australia appropriately have been on the agenda for a while. I would imagine that being on the board will be a very important responsibility and one that will be watched closely by everybody who is interested in this area.

The minister will be unable to direct the NAIF to invest in a particular infrastructure project or in relation to a particular person. The minister will have a veto power to reject decisions by the NAIF—and I think this is important to read into the record—only if assistance would be inconsistent with the objectives and policies of the Commonwealth government, have adverse implications for Australia's national or domestic security or have an adverse impact on Australia's international reputation or foreign relations. The NAIF can grant financial assistance for states and territories for the construction of northern Australian economic infrastructure and determine the terms and conditions for those grants. Again, in any consideration of development in northern Australia it is important to have the states and territories involved in what the best way would be to develop projects.

As I said, one of the important elements of this process is that it is not limited by state border, but it would be nonsensical to believe that effective discussions around appropriate investment in projects to develop northern Australia could be done without the engagement of the states and territories. It would be difficult if not impossible to ensure that projects could be successfully completed if there were tension or conflict with states and territories. So it is there that there will be consultation and discussion but also that states and territories would be able to have financial assistance if the projects they are putting forward meet those criteria which have already been developed.

Importantly, the mandate directs NAIF to consult with Infrastructure Australia and relevant Commonwealth departments where an investment decision is greater than $100 million. The mandate also describes the types of financial assistance that may be offered, the terms for the provision of financial assistance, objectives of the NAIF, strategies and policies to be followed, eligibility criteria, and risk and return parameters. The mandate is the core of this legislation, and the bill provides for the investment decisions of the board to be covered by the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Investment Mandate Direction 2016—which, I think gratefully, can be referred to in future as 'the mandate' rather than giving it the full title. It is a word I do not like. I do not like the word 'mandate' but, in terms of putting clearly what is there in the legislation, I think that, for people who are engaged in discussions about the development of our northern regions, having that clear mandate is an important element of building that trust and ensuring the independence about which I have spoken before.

The mandate covers a number of mandatory criteria, funnily enough, for an investment decision to be made. I just put on record again that the project must—these are the processes around which criteria will be developed—'involve the construction or enhancement of economic infrastructure'; 'be for public benefit'; or 'be unlikely to proceed' if not for the NAIF funding or be likely to proceed at a much later date or with a limited scope. Again, this focuses the need for the investment from NAIF—that, without the NAIF investment or the ability to get that, the project might not have been able to proceed in a timely way or might not be able to fill its total goals and might have to be limited in some way. Absolutely essentially, the particular projects must 'be located in, or have significant benefit for, northern Australia'. It is important that there be an understanding of the process. It does not necessarily have to be located in northern Australia, but, if the board believes that the project would provide effective benefit to northern Australia, it would meet that criterion.

The project must show that the finance from the NAIF will not exceed 50 per cent of the total project debt; provide comprehensive financial modelling to show that the loan moneys will be able to be paid in full and on time, as I said; and provide an Indigenous engagement strategy. Again, in the roll of legislation brought before this place over the last couple of years, we have consistently talked about having in these regions an effective Indigenous strategy, because without jobs—without the opportunity for employment—there would be limited support for building population, as I said, and for acknowledging the link between this legislation and other legislation which has gone before the previous government and this one about ensuring that there are employment opportunities for Indigenous communities. No longer will these kinds of projects be able to operate by bringing in outside labour and excluding any opportunity for an Indigenous employment engagement strategy. I think that, for me, is one of the most important elements of this legislation.

One of the things that Labor raised—and I take this opportunity also to acknowledge the work of Minister Gary Gray, who is retiring at this election and in whose portfolio responsibilities this was—was the importance of having this effective consultation with Infrastructure Australia. As I have said, the mandate spells out that NAIF needs to consult with Infrastructure Australia where an investment decision is greater than $100 million. We had raised concerns at the committee level—and I put them on record today—that the requirement to consult where the loan is greater than $100 million may not in itself be sufficient. Labor have indicated that we would like to see some integration at board level between the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility and Infrastructure Australia. As you know, Infrastructure Australia was the author of the recent Northern Australian audit—infrastructure for a developing North in May 2015.

That report bears such relevance to the legislation about which we are having a discussion here today, because that whole report was about how you would be able to develop effective infrastructure for a strongly developing north. So the need to involve Infrastructure Australia, which is established and credible, all the way through with any project that we would be talking about under this legislation is critical. The absence of Infrastructure Australia expertise in some projects may create unwelcome duplication and waste resources across agencies and departments where NAIF projects are assessed.

The fact is that we have within the mandate an expectation—in fact, a rule—that there needs to be consultation for projects over $100 million. That is strong, but we believe that having Infrastructure Australia involved in projects in northern Australia would be a valuable element and would improve the legislation. It may well be that arrangements would be made so that those discussions could go on, but currently the mandate is particularly focused on projects over $100 million. It would be very valuable if the minister could address in his reply this issue of maintaining the expertise.

It is very important, as I said earlier in this contribution, that funding is allocated transparently and that decisions can be publicly assessed. This is an important element of funding. We need to ensure that not only the parliament but the community has strong trust that this fund will be effectively responding to the needs of the region and that it would pass any test of transparency. As we know, we would expect that to be the case. We have had occasions in the past where programs have been subjected to audits which have proven that some expenditure of government funds had not passed that element of transparency or trust.

So it is most important that in developing this new program it is clear at the start of the project that there is an open commitment that there will be transparency and also engagement so that, as projects are being assessed and when decisions are made, it is done in the public arena. People will be able to see what the basis of a decision for a particular funding allocation was and how that particular allocation meets the criteria which I spelt out in the contribution—in particular, how will it benefit northern Australia? How will it respond to the particular needs of northern Australia? We as a community and as a parliament will be able to be sure that these needs are being met and that the people who are living there are very much engaged in seeing how the project operates and will be absolutely certain that the money is well spent and effectively processed.

Again, it is important that we have the link with Infrastructure Australia. I know that that is an element that will come out in other contributions to the debate. But, as I said, Labor does support this legislation. We are optimistic and hopeful that this will be of benefit to northern Australia.

10:28 am

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

I rise today to make a contribution to the debate on the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill 2016. This bill will allow the government to provide below-cost loans for infrastructure for northern Australia. As Senator Moore has already pointed out the many aspects of the bill, I will go into some of the concerns that we have with this bill.

For years people have been dreaming about the development of the north. They see massive riches pouring out of the north. I sometimes look at it as: 'Let's circle the wagons, and let's go off and start developing the north!' I am desperately concerned that we will make the same mistakes that we have made in south, where we have seen overclearing and a massive loss of species, where Australia has had the highest rate of extinction of mammalian species in the world—not a record that any of us should be proud of. There are feral species, weeds and the destruction of our environment, all the while adding to the most destructive impact currently affecting the world—that is, climate change.

We have looked at the north. We have seen the massive amount of water, and we have said, 'All that water is wasted going out to sea.' Of course, all that water is not being wasted; it is part of the natural environment and is contributing to the ecosystem very substantially. I will come back to that point in a minute.

One of the key things that we must remember when we are talking about development in northern Australia is that a large amount of this land is owned and managed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and that, to date, Aboriginal people have had very little benefit from the development that has occurred anywhere across Australia, both in the south, in massive development, and in the north. When you look at the outcomes for Aboriginal people when we are talking about trying to improve some of those key targets when we are trying to close the gap—if you look at some of the research that has come out of the Pilbara, for example, where there has been massive wealth generated—the indicators for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have not improved. They have not benefited from the wealth that has been generated from that area. The issues—the massive disadvantage, the gap in life expectancy, poor health outcomes, poor employment outcomes—have not substantially improved.

While there are now better training programs in some areas, noticeably it is very often Aboriginal people who come off employment first when people start retrenching workers. There have not been long-term gains for those communities, nor has employment been guaranteed. We still constantly see fly-in fly-out workers—again, not Aboriginal communities. You will get people who come in and say, 'Oh, we're going to employ a whole number of Aboriginal people in this particular project,' completely not mentioning the time lines that are needed to make sure that we have a skilled Aboriginal workforce that can participate in that particular employment. There are some exceptions—I will grant that, and very strongly—but in many cases there are not. So, once again, Aboriginal communities miss out.

When we are talking about northern Australia, although there is some disruption to our natural environment up there, it is in much better condition, by and large—and I will come back to that too—than the south of Australia. Northern Australia has incredible natural history. By some estimates, northern Australia covers around 40 per cent of Australia's land mass. It represents one of the largest natural areas remaining on earth. It is 3,000 kilometres from east to west, and it includes a landscape that varies from tropical savannas to rainforests and deserts. Wetlands in the north are spectacular, and of course the wetlands in Kakadu are internationally renowned. It also has the most beautiful coastal environment and marine areas, which are productive and are affected, as we know, by development that occurs on land and in water—because we are also talking about aquaculture in the north as well as exploitation of oil and gas resources, which obviously occurs in the north. When we go back to the value and the beauty of the natural heritage up there, these are something that even the government's own northern Australia green paper acknowledged when it said:

The north is home to seven World Heritage Sites with outstanding natural and scientific values: the Great Barrier Reef, the Wet Tropics of Queensland, Kakadu National Park, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Ningaloo Coast, Purnululu National Park and the Riversleigh Australian Fossil Mammal Site.

All of these are world renowned sites and obviously need to be protected, and they are in themselves a source of revenue for northern Australia.

We have to also remember that we are talking about an environment that can be significantly damaged by development if it is not done in a sustainable manner. We are starting to see this in northern Australia. We are starting to see mammal species being lost from environments and from ecosystems. We are starting to see species becoming endangered where they were not in the past.

And we are still getting to the bottom of what is causing the threat to these species. Is it the fact that the fire regimes have changed? Is it the feral species that we are increasingly seeing predate on native species? There is a range of issues at stake here. Is it because we are clearing more and changing the way the patterns of our vegetation are working and protecting fewer of those species? We do not want to build on our unenviable reputation and No. 1 spot in terms of loss of mammalian species—extinction of mammalian species. If we start losing these species from northern Australia, we will certainly climb even higher with that number, particularly of those critical-weight mammal species that have been lost from Australia. We will certainly soon be adding to that list.

People have been talking for years and years about developing the North. I am really concerned that what we are seeing at the moment when talking about the development of the North is largely more of the same. We only have to look at Adani and the fact that we want the road and rail infrastructure to go in there to see that we are not looking very much further than beyond the end of our nose with regard to developments in northern Australia. Largely, it is more of the same. We look up there and see water resources that we want to exploit.

If we look at Western Australia and what was happening in the fifties and sixties about developing the north, we see that we stuck a dam on the Ord River. We had stage 1 of the Ord going for a very long time. It has been well known as a white elephant, and now we are starting on stage 2. We have invited investors and we are going to start a sugar industry up there—again! Just last week, they were saying: 'We can't start that bit until we get stage 3. It's not economic.' So it is more of the same! In fact, literally all my life I have been hearing how good the Ord is going to be one day. 'One day it is going to be the food bowl, not only of Australia but it will help to be the food bowl of the world.'

We keep claiming that the North can be the food bowl of the world because it has all these water resources. Yes, there is lot of water up there but it is seasonal, for a start. It is not wasted. When it goes into those river systems, it is part of an ecosystem. The Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce clearly showed that there is not that abundance that people keep thinking is there; that we can shove it into dams and then water half of the North. We have fragile ecosystems up there. Short-sighted development like what we have done in the south—promoting extractive industries, particularly when they are fossil fuel extractive industries—are more of the same, and they will be redundant in the not-too-distant future.

The report from the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce said:

However, contrary to popular belief, water resources in the north are neither unlimited, nor wasted.

Equally, the potential for northern Australia to become a food bowl is not supported by the evidence. There is evidence to suggest that there are some water resources that can be exploited. I am not denying that, but not on the huge scale that some people dream about. It is just not the right thing to be doing up there. Yes, mosaic, small-scale agriculture developments can work, and in fact are working, in some places in the North. But putting a dam on the Fitzroy is not the way to go.

Last week, the cat was let out of the bag; the government was clearly talking about wanting to exploit the Fitzroy River yet again. Some people are still dreaming of a dam on that river. I have fought that dam twice and I will be fighting it again if they start to move to put a dam on that river, because it would disrupt the ecosystem. It is not the right thing to do. Small, off-site storage—small scale and localised—may be the way to go, but not that huge infrastructure that is not sustainable, causes huge disruption to the environment and is not supported by many people. Development that does not take into account environmental constraints will be a failure.

This is a fundamental difference between the Greens and other parties, where they just see more of the same as the way to go when, in fact it is not. We do have an opportunity to get it right in the North We have an opportunity to put in place developments that will take us through the 21st century and into the next and will put us ahead of the rest of the game, if we start investing these resources in a way that is sensitive and that sets us up for the rest of this century and for the next century; if we start picking up proposals that truly renew Australia, such as the Greens propose in Renew Australia, which develops energy sources that are renewable, will be there for a long time and will literally not cost us the earth; and when we start factoring the impacts of climate change into the decision making for the North. This is absolutely essential. If we keep proceeding with developments that contribute to climate change, for a start, that will be a disaster. If we continue to invest in such infrastructure, we are setting up a massive, basically loss-making enterprise. Not only is this contributing to climate change; it is a really dumb idea.

We need to be investing so that we are making sure the North is provided with the opportunity to take part in the new economy. As I said, we have the opportunity to make sure that Australia, and particularly the North, is fundamentally set up so that we can take a place and be leaders in the new economy. We should not be plundering our environmental resources. We do not want short-term gain here that will, in the long term, cost future generations, particularly where we can make sure we are putting in place developments that most benefit Aboriginal communities, look beyond the end of our nose and make sure that we have projects in place that are truly renewable and sustainable and will last us for the long term.

It is particularly important that we protect Australia's water resources. I noted above the findings of the Northern Australia Land and Water Task Force. I would also like to quote from a recent paper on irrigation in northern Australia, which says that the environmental characteristics of northern Australia are not suitable for irrigation. It says:

Taken together, these environmental characteristics—infertile soils, extreme heat, and highly variable and intense rainfall—suggest the north is not well suited to farming at all, let alone the temperate dryland cash crops like wheat and barley, which are grown predominantly during the southern winter and spring.

I know that there are other crops that we are talking about for the North. Again, if we are very sensitive, we can put these in certain areas, but not the massive style of developments that some people came to the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia with. Some of those people had good ideas—they were good ideas. Some you would call carpetbaggers. That is what they are called out bush—they are called carpetbaggers. Some of them were literally carpetbaggers, and you should have heard some of them. Some of them, as I said, were good, but some were not.

That is what drives some people when they eye the North. They are there to make a whole heap of money, and they say it will be a food bowl. They have been saying this for generations. It cannot be the type of food bowl that some of these developers are talking about, with massive clearing, which not only potentially will not be sustainable because it will be affected by climate change—we are already seeing different seasons in the North, as we are in the south—but will impact, for example, on our marine environments. We are already seeing that. There is no better example than some of the impact that land development has had on the Great Barrier Reef. I am sure my colleague Larissa Waters will be talking about that shortly

We have to be much more sensitive about the way that we look at the North and talk about its development. Because of that, we believe that the decision making needs to better reflect environmental principles. The decisions about investment and infrastructure need to take these into account. We want an economy that is driven by clean energy, because it is better for the environment and it is where the future is: a new, clean economy. We have a vision for environmentally sustainable development in northern Australia, and this approach can and should include agriculture where it can be done sustainably without causing an impact on our important water resources and also where it does not involve large-scale clearing and is done in a planned way. Our plan Renew Australia is a plan for 90 per cent renewable energy by 2030 and doubling our energy efficiency. This is an area that we should be looking at.

This proposed legislation needs to be amended, and that is why we have proposed a number of amendments. For a start, we do not agree that the facility should be allowed to be used for investment in fossil fuels or nuclear projects. These are not sustainable projects. They are the technology of the past, and in the not-too-distant future they will be dinosaur projects. They will be stranded infrastructure, basically. So why would we be investing in roads or rail or committing Australia's resources to develop technology that is of the past? We should not be. We need to make sure that these projects, under such a facility as this approach, undergo cost-benefit analysis. We think this should be an obvious step. But it needs to be a full cost-benefit analysis, not one that does not include full social cost and full environmental cost. We need to be making sure we do that.

We also do not want to see the government delegating EPBC approvals for projects funded under this facility. We have fought the government's delegations for EPBC approvals, and my colleague Senator Waters will address this issue more fully when she speaks on this bill very shortly. We have amendments to this bill to make sure that approval cannot be delegated, because it is important that these sorts of projects have adequate scrutiny. We will also move amendments to make sure that the projects funded by this facility must be in line with ecological sustainable development principles. We believe that these amendments are critical to making sure we are protecting northern Australia from the mistakes of the past.

I will just add that while we have very strong concerns with this bill—and, as I said, we will be looking at amendments in a number of areas—we do not, despite these concerns, have objections to the amendments the government has just circulated in terms of Western Australia. We never saw why the boundary was different in Western Australia compared with other states, so we do not have objections to the government moving that amendment so that at least Western Australia is treated fairly, like the other states. Thank you.

10:47 am

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am delighted, as someone who travels a lot across WA's far north, to be speaking this morning on the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill 2016. And I extend my very personal, heartfelt congratulations to Senator Dodson. There are probably few people in this place who would know northern Western Australia better than he does, so, a very warm welcome to the Senator. I am sure you will make a great contribution. I am sure we might find ourselves on differing sides of critical debates in the near future. Nonetheless, I do not doubt the sincerity with which you bring your arguments and your passions to this place.

It is important when we think about northern Australia that we are not talking about a homogeneous set of communities. Those towns and communities across northern Western Australia are very, very different from those communities that my colleagues Senator Macdonald and Senator Canavan visit regularly across northern Queensland, and they are different again from those communities across the Northern Territory. Just to demonstrate that point, I thought I would share with you some travelling statistics, just to put it in context. If you wanted to travel from Perth—my home state and indeed your home state, Mr Acting Deputy President Back—to Kununurra in the far, far north of Western Australia, it would take 32 hours; you would be required to travel 3,200 kilometres in order to get from Perth to Kununurra. And of course in Kununurra they often do not know what is worse—Perth or Canberra—but I tell them they can rest assured that Canberra is definitely worse than Perth. Indeed, if you wanted to travel east-west across the far north of Western Australia—if you wanted to travel from Derby to Wyndham—you would be travelling almost 1,000 kilometres by road. These are huge distances. These populations are very, very small in Western Australia particularly. That is why it is pleasing to hear both Minister Frydenberg and now Minister Canavan talking with great passion about northern Australia but understanding, importantly, how they are vastly different communities across each of those two states and territories.

I just want to reflect briefly on how far we have actually come. It is perhaps a poor reflection on previous governments that it has taken this long to get to where we are today. But, that said, it is a very sizeable achievement that we are talking about this morning with regard to the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill. But let me read you a media statement that was issued by a former Prime Minister of our country. The media statement says:

Today the Prime Minister and Commonwealth ministers met with the premiers of Queensland and Western Australia to discuss means of achieving closer cooperation in the development of Northern Australia.

The media release goes on to say:

It was agreed that this arrangement provided the most appropriate machinery upon which to develop closer cooperation and coordination of activities between the two states and the Commonwealth, including the Northern Territory.

It goes on to say:

The ministers agreed that appropriate Commonwealth and state ministers would meet together from time to time to review progress in northern development, to coordinate thinking and give directions to those who will be required to investigate particular proposals.

How far we have come since that media statement of May 1964! The meeting was attended by Mr McEwen, Mr Holt, Senator Sir William Spooner and Mr Barnes—names that are of course very well known to us and sit neatly in the political history of this country. Of course, the Prime Minister at the time was none other than Sir Robert Menzies.

This goes to demonstrate a very important and salient point—and that is, that the challenges that we are talking about today are not new ones. The will and enthusiasm to make the most of these opportunities is not new but, dare I say, it will require constant vigilance, and today is a very important milestone in that regard. I am sure that the work that the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia has done—and I acknowledge the sound and solid contribution of Senator Macdonald here—will ensure that this country is off to a very strong start when it comes to realising the very real potential of northern Australia, particularly in my own state of Western Australia.

I might make this comment before I talk briefly about some contemporary issues of definitions. People talk about the possibility and the potential of northern Australia, but certainly in my own case, with regard to the far north of Western Australia, you cannot believe it unless you see it, and when you see it it exceeds all expectations. Colin Barnett, in coalition or in alliance—whatever you like to call it—with the WA Nationals and the Water for Food program in the far north of Western Australia, has done a great deal to start to unleash some of that very real potential. There are still some hurdles, of course. The most significant of those, I would argue, is the issue of land tenure reform, which I might come to briefly in my final remarks.

Touching briefly on what the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill is and what the facility itself is, you cannot go past the contribution made by officials from the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science when they remarked that the facility has been designed to provide concessional finance mechanisms for northern Australia's economic infrastructure projects that, operating in partnership with commercial and other financiers, will drive economic growth across northern Australia and, importantly, stimulate population growth across those areas which have such low population density. It is intended to enable the construction of economic infrastructure which would not otherwise proceed or would not proceed for some time without the facility.

The facility aims to be credible in financial markets and will have an independent statutory board operating on a commercial basis to make investment decisions. The board will comprise experts in a range of relevant infrastructure financing fields. The minister will have only limited powers of direction in relation to the investment decisions of the board. The minister will not be able to direct the board to make investments and can only prevent an investment if it is against the national interest.

The facility is also working in partnership with state and territory governments, who will be responsible for delivering financing mechanisms on behalf of the Australian government. The facility will, of course, be consistent with all existing state, territory and Commonwealth regulatory approval processes. A very strong word of warning: the amendment proposed by the Greens, which seeks to extend the operation of the EPBC, will pose significant challenges for future projects over time.

I will turn briefly to an issue that is top of mind in Western Australia at the moment, and that is the very strong and necessary representations that have been made by some of the shires across the mid-north of Western Australia. Mr Tony Beard, the chair of the Gascoyne Development Commission; Lachlan McTaggart, the Shire President of the Shire of Upper Gascoyne; Karl Brandenburg, the Shire President of the Shire of Carnarvon; Chris Gilmour, the chair of the Pilbara Development Commission; Turk Shales, the Shire President of the Shire of Exmouth; and Cheryl Cowell, the Shire President of the Shire of Shark Bay, have made some very solid and coherent representations which inform the government's considerations around the definition of 'northern Australia'. In their correspondence both to Minister Frydenberg and to me and others, they argue, importantly, about why the definition that has been used to date requires some amendment.

I will explain briefly why they have no cause for concern. The legislative amendment that the government will propose will ensure that the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility can serve Western Australian communities in the same strong and consistent way that it will support communities across Queensland and the Northern Territory.

In their submission to me, which they have made available to others, they make a couple of points which I will just share with the Senate now. They say:

The White Paper on Developing Northern Australia is a vital paper addressing critical government policy directions and priority development needs for this vast region. For these reasons it is essential that zones covered by the policy reflect State requirements and establish consistent policy parameters in each State jurisdiction.

I wholeheartedly agree with the comment. They go on to say:

WA's northwest has historically been defined as the region above the 26th parallel—not the Tropic of Capricorn. This is reflected in longstanding WA government policy and many Commonwealth policies, including the Zone A Tax Rebate Area, defined as "above the 26th parallel" in WA since 1945. The 26th parallel is also the southern boundary of the Northern Territory … and is used to define the NT's boundary in the White Paper.

They go on to say:

The Tropic of Capricorn boundary creates unnecessary problems and complications in WA and seriously disadvantages the Gascoyne region. It includes only a small portion of the Gascoyne region, leaving some towns "in" and others "out", making the State's involvement in the aspirations of the White Paper logistically difficult to achieve. In fact, only the State's Kimberley region is wholly within the boundary established in the White Paper. Similarly, the boundary conflicts with other Commonwealth policy areas, for example the Working Visa boundaries that include the Pilbara and Gascoyne in contrast to the White paper's nominal boundary.

So, quite rightly, they have expressed some concerns about the definition that has been used to this date.

Indeed, at home in Western Australia, in the West Australian newspaper, that issue has been given some coverage. Just recently, on 29 April, the West Australian reported:

The heads of all the Gascoyne councils and the development commission have written to Federal MPs to protest—

I think it is rather an inflammatory word, and I will get to that in a second—

against the region's exclusion from a Federal definition of northern Australia that favours Queensland and the Northern Territory.

But, colleagues, there is no cause for concern. There is no cause for concern at all from the shires that I mentioned briefly, because commitments from the government had previously been given to Melissa Price, who is the member for Durack—and, dare I say, a very, very hardworking and diligent member for Durack, who spends a lot of her time across those very, very vast communities. Durack, of course, Mr Acting Deputy President Back, as you know better than anyone else, is the largest federal electorate in our country, taking in the towns of Geraldton, Wyndham, Kununurra, my home town of Port Hedland, Carnarvon and the like. Melissa Price, being the diligent federal MP that she is, wrote to Minister Frydenberg way back last year raising the concerns of some of these shires, wanting to make sure that they were able to enjoy the full benefits of the economic potential that the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility project would provide to other communities. They were keen to make sure that, where these opportunities existed, they existed for them as well.

As someone who has spent a bit of time out at Meekatharra—on a tangent—I am hoping that the Western Australian government will shortly fund the wild-dog fence that is necessary to protect the livelihoods of pastoralists, which have been neglected by their local members, up in Meekatharra and across the Murchison. But that is a debate for another time.

But Melissa Price did write to Minister Frydenberg, expressing some of the concerns that were shared by some of those local shires. The member for Durack, Melissa Price, wrote to Minister Frydenberg as far back as October last year. Some of the concerns that have been raised by people are legitimate—no Western Australian wants to miss out, and certainly Western Australian senators like Senator Back and I want to make sure that Western Australians do not miss out on their fair share. On another tangent: we are still yet to get a proper structural reform on the GST distribution model. That is a campaign that Senator Back and I will have more to say about over coming weeks and months, no doubt, and in the new parliament. But, getting back to the point: Melissa Price was very quick and very active to champion the concerns of those local shires and local communities, as early as last year. Minister Frydenberg wrote back to the member for Durack in November and said:

… the definition is first and foremost a guide for policy and decision makers, and as such will always be applied flexibly when circumstances warrant.

Senator Back, I hope you will agree with me that there is no real concern that those shires should have, but it is good, if these things are the intent, to lock them down in legislation—to make sure, dare I say it, that when the Labor Party come to government, if that should ever happen, they do not deny Western Australian communities their rightful opportunities to enjoy the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility fund. Minister Frydenberg in his correspondence to the member the Durack went on to say, talking about the draft criteria of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility fund, that the facility will:

… specifically allow projects in regional centres which intersect with the Tropic of Capricorn—including Exmouth and Newman in Western Australia and also Gladstone in Queensland—to be considered. Projects may also be eligible for NAIF loans even if they do not fall within the defined boundaries, provided they produce significant benefits for northern Australia.

So it is absolutely right for regional communities to express some concern with the definition. Their concerns are unwarranted, based on the excellent representations that Melissa Price, the member for Durack, has made. But, that said, it is good to see—very welcome indeed—that the government is going to lock down its original intentions by amending the legislation. That is very warmly welcomed.

I will turn briefly to some of the challenges that northern Australia faces. They include, of course, the great distances between communities and issues with access to health, education and communications. Communities struggle with these things. The challenges also include the very small population density, which goes to the core of some of the economic challenges that projects in northern Australia face in getting agreed to.

The other critical issue, and one that is going to require a tremendous amount of effort and calmness, is around land tenure reform. The history of the world shows us that private land ownership is the driver for greater economic liberty and rising standards of living for people. When we think about the future of northern Australia, I argue that having a discussion and setting ourselves on the path of land tenure reform has to be part of that future. I want to share some comments I made that were published in The Australian Financial Review in November last year. I was talking about the importance of land tenure reform:

The "potential" of northern Australia to boost the nation's economic capacity has long been ruminated upon.

Robert Menzies' policy speech for the 1961 federal election avowed that "for the sake of our national future we must develop and use the north".

Yet, only since the 2013 election has significantly detailed work been undertaken, culminating in this year's white paper on developing northern Australia.

The region has up to 17 million hectares of land available for cropping. The development of just 5 million hectares could boost its output by upwards of 60 per cent.

Achieving this will require infrastructure development on a massive scale. Thus, the white paper's commitments to establishing initiatives like the $5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, providing $600 million for road upgrades and almost $40 million to enhance aviation infrastructure.

This blueprint also highlights the nettlesome issue of land tenure—an issue that is complex, and attended by numerous sensitivities.

Yet, if we fail to act now, the dream of a more developed and productive north will be forever elusive.

I went on to say—and it is a shame that Senator Dodson is no longer here to hear this, but, being a new senator, he is attending to the learning the art of being a senator. But this is something that I look forward to speaking with Senator Dodson about and understanding perhaps some of the challenges that Indigenous communities face. I went on to say:

Addressing land tenure requires parallel native-title reform. After 22 years of operation, its existing framework remains complex and time consuming, best evidenced by the still significant backlog of unresolved claims acting as a handbrake on future economic prosperity.

As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda himself noted, native title is "only the starting point".

Our native-title regime must place greater emphasis on unleashing economic opportunity for indigenous communities, especially young indigenous people.

In its current form, it is failing future generations of indigenous people.

That is to say that the current native title arrangements are failing future generations of Indigenous people. I went on:

Australia requires a streamlined approach to processing native title claims, with greater use of consent resolutions and a willingness to embrace less technical and legalistic approaches.

In conclusion: congratulations to Minister Canavan, who is starting his job; I am looking forward to welcoming him to WA's far north. And congratulations to Minister Frydenberg on what is a very sizeable and necessary achievement. It is interesting that it was May 1964 that Prime Minister Menzies and Deputy Prime Minister McMahon made their comments about northern Australia and of course it is 2 May 2016 today, a very important day for the development of northern Australia.

11:06 am

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Mental Health) Share this | | Hansard source

I also want to begin my contribution today by welcoming Senator Pat Dodson to the Senate. His contribution has been significant on the issues of reconciliation, native title and Indigenous affairs more generally, over many, many years. And I know that his contribution to this place will also be a significant one. I think we are a better place for his being here.

But now I go to the bill, the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill 2016. It is very interesting that here we are, in probably the last week of this parliament, rushing through a piece of legislation that the government over there says is the most important thing that it has been doing for northern Australia since the last election. We had a big hoo-ha at the last election about how this government was going to be everything for northern Australia, and here we are at five minutes to midnight putting through a piece of legislation that still has government amendments.

This government has overegged its commitment to northern Australia, because here we are still trying to work out where the boundary is. We still do not know where northern Australia is. Come on, guys. We are nearly there. It is nearly the end of this parliament, and we still do not know where the boundary is. This is a problem. Senator Smith, you said that you have had people writing to your side of politics since late last year about this, and it was only resolved, I understand, over the weekend. I really want to commend Ms MacTiernan for her engagement in this activity where she has taken up the cudgels for some of these people in Western Australia who believe they live in northern Australia. This is not good enough. It is not good enough for a government which has overegged its commitment to northern Australia.

This facility, this activity, was announced in last year's budget. I hear we are about to have another one tomorrow night. It has taken a whole year to get to this point where we work out where northern Australia is and what we are going to do about this money—which is in fact a loan scheme. Just to make sure: this is not a grant scheme; this is a loan scheme. If you live in Melbourne and you want a big road, you just put your hand out if you are in the Liberal Party—people in Victoria actually do not want that big road, but that is by the by—but if you live in northern Australia you have to take out a loan. There is a different way that we are being treated in northern Australia.

As I said, this was announced in the budget last year. There was no detail or clarity, and that was commented on quite significantly in the mainstream media—that we did not really know what this facility was going to be. It has only been bit by bit, drip by drip, that we have learnt what this thing might do. I think it is rather funny that you have two ministers for northern Australia in the coalition. We only had one shadow minister. We could work out what was going on, but you have had two.

The expectation management has been a disaster. I concur with a lot of what Senator Siewert said. This process has allowed for people to be given carte blanche in what they might want to dream up. I agree with Senator Siewert that we heard some extraordinary proposals—proposals that defied the laws of gravity in some cases. Proposals that do not meet the basic principles of science were proposed to our committee. This government has to do a bit better in expectation management. Please do not tell the people we represent that they can do whatever they want. Give them some parameters so that we know what we are, in fact, up for.

Finally, before I go to the issues, I want to talk about what happened in the House of Representatives when this bill went through the House of Representatives at their last sitting. There was no debate on this bill. If the boundary question was so important to the Liberal and National parties, why wasn't it resolved in the House of Representatives? There was not a word spoken in favour of this bill over there. The whole of the carriage of this bill in the House of Representatives was gagged.

Let us go to some of the issues that are around this bill. The first question is the question of the boundaries. I, as a member of the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia, asked that question when we went to the hearing. I said, 'Can you tell me?' I will not go on about where it was. But I said, basically, 'Where is northern Australia?' The officer gave a sensible answer:

The definition we used was the same as that used from the northern Australia infrastructure audit. As I understand it, it was based on those statistical classifications that you are referring to.

It was a very straightforward answer. Clearly the department has a bit of an idea about where northern Australia is. Unfortunately, it would seem that the government does not concur. Apparently we are going to have some resolution of that here today, and then it will go back to the other place.

There is something that I do not know that the business community truly understand, and that is the question of the cost recovery elements of the bill. The bill allows for the facility to charge a fee for cost recovery. I asked the officers again about what that meant. I particularly asked if there was going to be a fee for an application. The officer quite clearly said, no, there would not be a fee for an application to the facility, but:

… the facility itself will determine how it goes about doing that. It is just an expectation that, across all its operations, it recovers its costs …

Once again, we really do not know what that truly will mean in effect. I put it to this place that we should know by this time what that really does mean.

There has been much discussion in the Queensland press about where the facility should be located. In the bill it talks about the fact that the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation will be providing the back office facilities for this. There was some expectation from some quarters that, to have the facility based with the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation, an ideal place would be Brisbane, as opposed to Sydney or Melbourne, because that is where EFIC is located. That then resulted in all and sundry saying, 'No, no, it should be in'—and you can add a city in northern Australia after that sentence. They said it should be in Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Darwin or wherever—Gladstone, perhaps—if it is in.

A big discussion ensued, and I made representations on behalf of the city of Cairns to Senator Canavan. It was on the night when we sat all night. About two o'clock in the morning, I did my duty and made my representations to Senator Canavan. I am not saying it was because of my excellent representations that the decision has been made that the NAIF will be based in Cairns, but we had a conversation about it. I did my duty on behalf of the people of Cairns; others did as well.

So the NAIF will be based in Cairns. What does that mean for my city? It means that there will be about five people located in the city of Cairns, and I welcome that. That is a good thing. But I say very clearly to this government: this does not compensate my city for the loss of the Pacific patrol boat contract, which would have brought thousands of jobs—jobs associated with apprenticeships. We have been dudded by this government because we did not get the Pacific patrol boat replacement contract. Our city had the expectation that we were going to get it. Mr Frydenberg was shown on the front of our paper being kissed on the cheek by the member for Leichhardt and that made us think we were going to get it, and we did not. So we will have five jobs from NAIF. Thank you. We will take them, but it does not compensate us for missing out on the Pacific patrol boat replacement contract.

I now want to talk about the relationship with EFIC, the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation. It would seem that these five or so officers who are going to be based in Cairns will be employees of EFIC. I am a little unsure about whether there will be a requirement for those individuals to locate themselves in Cairns. Will it be a shingle on a building that says, 'NAIF' and having a redirected phone? I am a little concerned that that is what we might end up with.

I also have some concerns about the way that the board will be appointed. I have had conversations with the minister about this as well. I say to this government, and the minister has accepted my commentary and I thank him for that, that the last thing we want in northern Australia is more politics. I encourage the minister to appoint people who will be able to converse with and understand all sides of the political arena. We do not want people who are not recognised as being open to thoughtful consideration across the political spectrum. I thank the minister for hearing me out on that.

I now want to talk briefly about expectation management. A lot of people, including members of parliament, have talked loudly about how many dams we are going to get out of this. 'This is going to be great for dams.' I commend former minister and shadow minister Gary Gray for the work that he has done to manage expectations and tell people the truth when it comes to what we can deliver in northern Australia. There could well be dams but they must, in my view, be compliant with the National Water Initiative. We have to make sure that we are building infrastructure that is environmentally and economically sustainable for our community.

It troubles me that people from the south—and I do not have a big definitional thing about the north and the south; I do consider we are all Australians—often say, 'Oh my goodness, you got 2.6 metres of water this wet season.' Yes, that is pretty ordinary. People in southern Australia find that rather amazing and say: 'Why don't you capture it all? Why don't you put in dams?' To do what with it? What are we going to do with it? The soils are not that great where this rain falls. The topography of the land is flat. So when you get 38 degrees the next day after rain, it all evaporates. So, please, do not use southern Australian thinking to make decisions about northern Australia. We need to use clever and smart northern Australian thinking to make decisions about our part of Australia.

One more question and then I will go to my conclusion. Shadow minister Gary Gray wrote to Minister Frydenberg on 4 February of this year indicating that the opposition wants to support the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility and made some comments about Infrastructure Australia. Mr Gray said, 'We are concerned that Infrastructure Australia is not embedded in the project assessment and public administration processes for the NAIF. The absence of IA expertise may create unwelcome duplication and wasted resources across agencies and departments where a NAIF project is assessed. Clarity as to how the NAIF will work with IA is desirable. Yours sincerely, Gary Gray.' I am not sure that that letter has been answered. It would be great in your summing up speech, Minister, if that issue could be addressed. If I am in error and the letter has been answered, I apologise.

I conclude by making some comments about northern Australia. I say to my colleagues and to those people who do live south of the Tropic of Capricorn, please do not think of northern Australia or North Queensland as being somehow in deficit. Please do not think that there is something wrong, something bad or something unfortunate for those people who happen to live north of the Tropic of Capricorn. That is often how people construct their commentary about where I live, where I was born and where I will die—that is, Far North Queensland. It is a marvellous place. I choose to live there. Most of us there choose to live there.

It is different to southern Australia and that is why it needs different thinking. Yes, the weather is much hotter and wetter and drier—all of those things. The distances are huge. They have always been there. The population is smaller and I do not think that the answer is to double the population. Would the land carry that population?

We have not answered that question but we do know that there are challenges—there are real challenges to living in northern Australia. But the beauty of the place, the diversity of our population, the interesting people and the human assets are certainly some of the reasons I live there, and most people who live there have made that choice as well.

We have what I think is one of the greatest opportunities. Northern Australia is in a first world country, and one of the only first world countries in what is called the Torrid Zone between the two tropics. We have the best opportunity to do research, education and export that education into the communities that are economically growing in the Torrid Zone. That is where I say focus of this facility should be. Let us grow the potential export of natural resource management, education services and health services into the tropics. We have an enormous opportunity, so let us think of that as the way that we change the economic outcomes for people of northern Australia rather than an easy, quick dam, because that is where we are up to at the moment; we are not there yet.

Yes, we have challenges. We have poorer health outcomes than southern Australia. We have much lower levels of education than southern Australia. The cost of living in some parts of northern Australia defy belief—for example, Thursday Island is the most expensive basket of groceries in this country, and we are not doing much about dealing with that.

So, yes, there are challenges, but we have opportunities, so my final plea is: please do not think of northern Australia as being in deficit; think of the opportunities and the fact that we have more natural assets in northern Australia of international value than the rest of the country. Let's use and value those assets, and make sure that we can then turn a dollar from those assets.

In principle, we think this is a good idea. We would like to know that the government knows where the boundaries are—that would be a good thing. We would like to have some of the detail about how these loans will be decided upon, and I look forward to seeing these issues being resolved. I thank the Senate.

11:25 am

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill 2016, which is known around the traps as the 'dirty energy slush fund'. It is a huge concern that this government is going to allocate $5 billion for big dams and new coalmines in our precious north, which is famed for its natural values and much loved by its inhabitants. Study after study over many decades has shown that it is not an appropriate location, either economically or environmentally, for massive, destructive infrastructure.

It is somewhat ironic that the structure of the fund that is proposed by this government, with the support of the Labor opposition, is a concessional loan facility which, as I am sure people would know, is very similar to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation model of funding in that government stumps up some funding. It is a low-interest loan. The private sector or other bidders can use that money to invest in clean renewable energy and help Australia get on board with the global transition to clean energy.

This is a model that has been working exceedingly well, and of course it is one that this government has been attacking for as many years as we have had the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. The irony is dead, it seems, when the government wants to tear down the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and set up a dirty energy finance corporation. The inherent inconsistency, if I can be generous about it, is perhaps somehow lost on this government.

Of course they have settled for funding cuts to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation in recognition that the Senate will not let them abolish this important body that is helping our economy, our environment and our climate. Nonetheless, they seem to have now embraced that funding model, and I look forward in fact to the government increasing funding to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, although something tells me not to hold my breath.

So this dirty energy fund would be yet another fossil fuel subsidy, and we have crunched the numbers recently—it is up to $21 billion in fossil fuel subsidies that this government hands out to coal, gas and the dirty energy sector. That is over the forward estimates—$21 billion.

There was a ReachTEL poll done just last month—a few weeks ago—which found, unsurprisingly, that almost 60 per cent of people oppose giving free money, handouts, to the fossil fuel sector in a climate emergency. Unfortunately, the government, perhaps, has missed that memo and is ignoring the majority of Australians who do not want their taxpayer money going to prop up the dirty energy sector; instead, Australians want to see that transition to clean energy with all of the jobs that it provides and with the best ability to safeguard ourselves and our environment against the ravages of climate change. Unfortunately, we have the $5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, which we know is all about big dams and coalmines.

I am particularly concerned about this, because in Queensland, where I am from, the Adani coalmine has received approval from the federal Liberal government—it has also received approval from the state Labor government. This mine would be the largest coalmine in the Southern Hemisphere

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Hear, hear!

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I will take that interjection, because Senator Ian Macdonald is of course a great champion for the coal industry and appears oblivious to the science and the global transformation that is taking place that is leading us towards clean energy. However, I will not take any further interjections, because we are here to actually debate the merits of the issue.

The Adani mine, as I say, has received approval from both sides of politics and both levels of government. What it has not received is finance. Nobody wants to funds this project. There are 15 banks now—two domestic and 13 international—that have ruled out funding.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That is just a lie!

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy President Bernardi, if I could just ask you to bring Senator Macdonald to order. I have tolerated his interjections for five years and I have had enough.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Waters, thank you. If you resume your seat, just for a moment. I would ask the Senate to be respectful of Senator Waters in speaking and not to interject.

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Thanks very much, Mr Deputy President. As I was saying, there are 15 banks, both international and domestic, that have said that they will not touch the Adani coalmine. They will not put a dollar of their money behind this project. They know that it is an economic loser. They know that the community does not like the fact that there might be the largest coalmine in the Southern Hemisphere opened up while we are in a climate emergency that has seen 93 per cent of reefs in the Great Barrier Reef bleached. They know that this is a deeply unpopular and unbankable project. In fact, the Queensland Treasury themselves described this very project as unbankable not a year ago. Yet we see this project is now potentially in line for funding under the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility that this government is setting up—unfortunately with the support of the opposition.

We have amendments that would say, 'Rule out funding coal and nuclear from this fund,' and we desperately need support for those amendments. We are in a climate emergency. Our reef is suffering. We already have enough extreme weather events. The Tasmanian World Heritage wilderness area has faced more bushfires than it has ever had before. We are seriously changing the shape of this planet. Yet we have a proposal for $5 billion worth of free money to the coal industry and other associated large infrastructure to worsen climate change. You could not think of a worse proposal right now. So, when it comes to the committee stage, we will be moving an amendment that rules out this fund giving taxpayer dollars to coal and nuclear projects.

We have a vast amount of clean energy options. Northern Australia could be a wonderful location for those clean energy options. That is the sort of clean infrastructure that we support for the north—that will actually work; that will actually generate jobs; that will help us protect the worst effects of climate change from wreaking more havoc on the reef. That is the sort of positive infrastructure plan that we would support. So I am desperately hoping to get support of that amendment. But, again, unfortunately, we know that, with the vast amount of donations that flows to both sides of politics from the coal and fossil fuels sector, sadly I think they have this amendment sown up as well.

As I say, it was with great disappointment that Queensland state government Treasurer Curtis Pitt was reported to have discussed the Adani mine being funded from the Northern Australia infrastructure fund. He reportedly discussed that with then Treasurer, Mr Joe Hockey. Mr Hockey at the time hinted then that that fund could indeed finance the Adani mine; that whether it is the mine, whether it is the railway, whether it is the port—whether it is all of those things—that fund could be something that Adani could desperately try to get some funding from because nobody else in the private sector wants to touch it.

Minister Frydenberg then also hinted that that particular project could receive taxpayer dollars under the Northern Australia infrastructure fund. He came under sustained pressured, including from us and from many people in the community, about what an atrocious idea that was. He then attempted to back away and was a little bit 'prevaricatey'—if I can use that word—in a way that does not fill me with confidence about whether Adani will in fact be able to apply for free taxpayer money under this fund.

I do not trust the words of this government when it comes to coal. I know that they are great champions for the coal industry, despite the fact that coal is in structural decline, as many global economists now acknowledge, and despite the fact that the coal industry sacked 16,000 of its workers in the last couple of years. We need a transition plan and clean energy is part of the solution to long-term employment in those regions. That is the sort of initiative and funding that we would like to see taxpayer support going to, not free money to the coal industry to keep trashing the reef and the climate on which all life relies.

So it is deeply shameful that we have a fund here that may well see that mine get some money—because, otherwise, it will not go ahead. No-one wants to fund it. It is a climate disaster. It is an economic loser. It is not going to get off the ground, except if this government gives it taxpayer money. This is going to be a real test for the government and, indeed, for the opposition. Are they going to let the Adani mega-coalmine go ahead, to further trash the reef when it is in its worst coral bleaching event in its history? As I say, we have already seen approvals issued by both levels of government and both sides of politics for that project. It would be an absolute insult to any thinking Australian and to the world's climate for taxpayer money to go to prop up that project.

Many times in this place when we talk about coal you have the government saying that they are actually only opening up these coalmines because they want to help out poor Indians. If you can believe anything they say, given that this is the government that slashed the foreign aid budget to its lowest amount, apparently they ignorant of the fact that much of rural India does not have an electricity grid and that Australian coal would be one of the most expensive options for energy in that region. One of the cheapest options would be local renewable energy—that does not worsen air pollution, that certainly does not worsen climate change and that is more affordable. So, if this government are genuine about caring for poor and disadvantaged Indians—I do not think they are, but if they were—they would be investing in renewable energy. Instead, this is just the latest premise for them to be continued spruikers for the coal industry. That is why we have called for a ban on new coalmines, a ban on coal seam gas and a ban on fracking.

It is really clear that we have clean energy alternatives. As people probably have heard, we announced our plan for 90 per cent renewable energy by 2030 in the form of Renew Australia. That is where the innovation, the employment creation and the safeguard of our climate lies. That is what the reef needs. It is what our economy needs. It is what the rest of the world is already doing. It is moving in that direction, and Australia is frantically trying to say, 'Oh, no, buy our coal. Quick; we'll give you some handouts to prop it up.' It is a last century industry. This century belongs to clean energy, and it is about time that the science and the common sense of that filtered through to this place in the parliament where we make these most important decisions. That is why we will be moving an amendment to rule out fossil fuel projects and nuclear projects from receiving funding under this fund, and I beg both parties to support that amendment.

We will also be moving an amendment to call for a proper independent cost-benefit analysis of any project that wants to avail itself of these low-interest loans using taxpayer dollars to get off the ground. Sadly, our environmental laws are very weak—and I say that as an environmental lawyer that practised in the area for some years before entering this place—and there is no requirement for an independent cost-benefit analysis. There should be. This amendment would say that, if you want to get low-interest loans, essentially free taxpayer money, then you need to get an independent cost-benefit analysis done—and it should not just simply be a cost-benefit analysis on the economics; look at the social impacts; look at the environmental impacts; look at the cultural impacts; look at the climate impacts. Let's get an independent analysis of whether this project is the right thing for government money to be supporting. That is a parameter that should be applied in all of our environmental laws. But instead we see the government intent on diminishing our environmental laws rather than strengthening them.

That brings me to my next amendment. We want to make sure that any project that is seeking support under this fund is not able to be approved with state government approval only. People may recall that, over the last four years, both sides of government have proposed washing the federal government's hands of environmental approval responsibilities and just leaving that up to state governments—as if the Franklin Dam never happened, as if we never had proposals that needed the federal government to step in and say, 'Guys, this is internationally significant; don't let the state governments just sacrifice environmental values for short-term potential economic gain.'

We fought that proposal for many years. What we are calling for in this fund is: given that the state governments are likely to be the proponents for many of these projects, let us make sure that they cannot also give themselves approval for their own projects. Surely, even on those on that side of the chamber can understand that having the fox in charge of the henhouse will not lead to positive outcomes. We will be moving an amendment that makes sure that there can be no delegation of approval powers for projects that seek funding under this fund.

For the record, of course we oppose that hand-off of approval powers for all projects. We have had many debates in this chamber on that issue. I can assure anyone listening that we Greens will continue to fight for strong environmental laws with a very central role for the federal government—and to actually improve the protection that our natural environment is given under those laws rather than simply to stop the attacks and the attempts at weakening them which have happened in the last few years.

Our final amendment goes to the fact that all of these projects, if they want to receive public support, should be consistent with the principles of ecologically sustainable development. That should not be a concept unfamiliar to people in this place. It has been on our law books for decades in some jurisdictions. Perhaps it might seem a quaint notion to the coal backers over here, but ecologically sustainable development is a thing. It has been a thing globally for decades. If a project wants public money, it should, at the very least, be consistent with ecologically sustainable principles.

That is what we will be moving when it comes to the committee stage. I want to assure anyone listening that, should those amendments pass, this could in fact be a positive fund. If we saw some genuine investment in clean energy; in some support to strengthen communities, to assist them with that small-scale horticulture and agriculture which is currently underway; in helping to get the NBN properly rolled out and invest in communications—there are many positive infrastructure proposals that the North could benefit from that will not trash the natural values of that area, that will help those local communities and that will help the economy. That is the sort of positive investment that we would like to see. But, unfortunately, all we see so far is proposals for dams, mines and railways to get more of this toxic stuff out to worsen the world's climate and to further cook the reef.

With that said, I echo the comments of my colleague Senator Rachel Siewert, who spoke beautifully about the values of northern Australia. We Greens will not be supporting this fund unless those amendments are made to rule out it being a slush fund for dirty energy; to rule out it getting a free ride through environmental laws; to rule out the state governments simply being able to tick it off without federal scrutiny; and to rule out a lack of independent cost benefit analysis so that a proper cost benefit analysis is done. If those parameters are able to be applied to this fund, it could be a good outcome. I strongly recommend those amendments to the chamber.

11:41 am

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with some excitement and gratitude that I welcome and support the bill now before the chamber, the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill 2016. The bill is actually almost a culmination of a dream that I have had for most of my lifetime, and certainly for all of my long term in this parliament, of the sustainable and sensible development of an area I am passionate about: northern Australia. It is an area where I, unlike most others in this chamber, actually live. It is an area where I have had my own investment in small businesses over the years, and it is where I and many of my family and friends live and work.

I think this bill today will be the seal on the government's commitments to the sensible development of northern Australia. I want to congratulate Minister Frydenberg on putting this bill together. It is a very clever bill. As Senator Moore said, it has lots of safeguards in it. It is very, very well put together, and it was very roundly supported by the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia, which investigated the bill.

I want to pay recognition and thanks to members of the Labor Party who participated in this whole northern Australia approach. Senator Moore's speech this morning, I might say, was a very good one and clearly spelt out and described the parameters of this bill and the part that the joint committee played. I also want to acknowledge Mr Gary Gray, who, over a long period of time, has been a great and sensible supporter of northern Australia.

I want to recognise my only northern Labor Senate colleague, Senator McLucas, who over the years has tried to help, in her own view, northern Australia. Unfortunately, my praise for Senator McLucas was dampened a little when I heard her very ungracious speech earlier on this morning. I guess Senator McLucas, having been dropped from the Labor Party ticket for the next election, is a little bit annoyed that in her time in the Senate she has not been able to convince her party to do the sorts of progressive, forward-looking actions that the coalition has been able to achieve over the last 20 or so years.

As well, I want to recognise the constructive role that Senator Siewert played in that committee. I understand they have amendments which they have announced and which they feel passionate about. But Senator McLucas and the Greens played a very constructive part in the whole investigation into northern Australia, and I appreciate their positive contribution. I disagree with their amendments, obviously enough. I am grateful, though, that Senator McLucas has indicated that she will put her amendments but will not delay the passage of this very important bill.

It is important that the Senate deals with this today and the amendment being moved—effectively to include Carnarvon, which I and many others always thought was included, I might say—as it has to go back to the House of Representatives. It is essential that this be done today so that the bill can take effect from 1 July, as is anticipated.

As I said, I was a little sorry about the approach Senator McLucas took to something which she, as a northerner, should be very excited about—as I am. She took the opportunity to raise the patrol boat construction in Cairns. I cannot let that go without pointing out that it was the Labor Party, while Senator McLucas was in this parliament, which destroyed the shipbuilding industry in Cairns about five or six years ago, when Senator Faulkner was the defence minister. The Labor Party in Queensland and some of them down here effectively ruled that industry out. And for Senator McLucas to use this debate on an exciting new initiative to rehash—wrongly—a debate on shipbuilding in the North is very disappointing.

Success has many fathers, and I hope that when the success of the development of Northern Australia is being spoken about in the annals of history, that I will be able to have some small place in that line of fathers who will claim success for northern Australia. The push to develop northern Australia started as early, really, as the Commonwealth of Australia. I once read a report from a predecessor of the CSIRO that the CSIRO showed me—I think it was from 1904—which had all the same terminology, all the same vision and all the same approaches as we were talking about more than 100 years later. So it has been going on.

I particularly want to acknowledge Labor Prime Minister, John Curtin, who cleverly introduced the zone tax rebate scheme as one initiative to try to develop populations in the more remote parts of Australia which, of course, included most of northern Australia. Senator Smith, my colleague, who is a passionate supporter of the North—particularly the North of the West—mentioned in his speech Sir Robert Menzies's vision for northern Australia. It was a vision that did not only involve words but actually involved funding and the commencement of the Ord River Dam, which many saw as a white elephant but which some tens of years later is actually coming into its own.

The development of northern Australia is something that I mentioned in my maiden speech in this parliament. As the Minister for Regional Services I started a process at government level of a series of northern Australian forums which were planned to be the start of a detailed plan for the development of northern Australia. Unfortunately, when I moved on from that ministry the impetus for northern Australia faltered for a little while and my interests turned a bit south, as Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation. Fisheries and forestry were mainly in the south, but I should mention that in the conservation area of that portfolio we did maintain a very strong and positive interest in northern Australia.

That is where, I should mention, I met the CEO of the Northern Gulf NRM group, which the Howard government had set up. Noelene Ikin, who was the CEO of that group, was a real champion of Northern Australia. She was one who, not having ever been in parliament, probably contributed as much as anyone else to the good things that are going to happen for northern Australia. Noelene would have been the new member for Kennedy had not an horrendous illness overtaken her. But the work that the coalition government does in northern Australia to a large degree has benefited from the contribution by Noelene Ikin.

I also want to mention the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce and the role that Senator Bill Heffernan played in that. His role in the development of northern Australia should never be underestimated. Those of us who know Senator Heffernan and know his inimitable style also understand his passion for things that he is deeply involved in. Senator Heffernan played a very significant role in that Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce, importantly, by going on the airwaves in Sydney and Melbourne and telling the people—the majority of voters in Australia—just how important the North was and explaining in detail what could be done. That is something that I know the minister, Mr Frydenberg, is continuing to do in those centres of larger population, which we need to take with us when we develop the North of Australia.

In our six years of opposition I was the opposition spokesman on northern Australian development. I developed the election policies we took forward to the 2010 and 2013 elections. But I do also want to acknowledge the very significant and major contribution that Andrew Robb made in putting together the 2013 policy and the white paper that eventuated, and also the then Leader of the Opposition and later Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.

The development of northern Australia took a step further forward in the 2015 budget when Joe Hockey brought forward a number of funding initiatives to support the development of northern Australia. People often say to me, 'Well, you've talked about northern Australia for decades, almost for over a century,' as I mentioned earlier, 'but what is different this time?' What is different this time is that the promises come with money—with money that was budgeted in the 2015 budget and which I am hopeful will be built upon in the budget tomorrow night. I do want to acknowledge the work that Joe Hockey did. Joe was certainly a friend of northern Australia—he had a farm up there, but that was almost irrelevant. He spent a lot of time out in the north-west, and he is dearly loved and recognised for his support for the development of northern Australia.

The launch of the white paper that was promised at the 2013 election happened in June last year in Cairns amongst a large crowd of passionate northern Australians, and it was great to have Tony Abbott, as Prime Minister, and Andrew Robb there to launch that paper. The white paper contains something like 165 promises, 112 of which are for the more immediate future. Mr Abbott, in his good sense in launching that white paper, appointed a committee to oversee its implementation—something a bit new in Australian parliamentary and governance circles—and I was honoured to be appointed chairman of that committee. Those of us who have been around for awhile recognise that commitments are made by governments and money is allocated by governments but other things intervene—ministers get busy, the bureaucracy gets busy, other issues become issues of the day—and it is important to make sure that the bureaucracy in particular, and ministers as well, remain focused on the commitments that have been made and the money that has been allocated. That committee has been working with ministers and the bureaucracy on the promises we have made, to make sure that the moneys we allocated have been spent.

I am delighted to say that of the 112 immediate promises that were made in the white paper just a year ago about half have already been completed or are well in action. I will mention a few of those: the CRC on northern Australia is happening; some of the promised investment forums have been held and have been very significant in attracting foreign investment interest into Australia; the Office of Northern Australia has been set up; the single point of entry has been set up in Darwin; the airstrip upgrade and the regional access program are well underway; the Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine—a $100-plus million initiative contributed to by the Newman Queensland government, this government and James Cook University—is well underway; and the tourism initiative is well underway. I am delighted that a lot of the promises that were made are actually on the way or have been completed. That is a little bit unusual in this place—you get lots of promises at election time, but rarely do you see so many of them actually being put into effect within 12 months of being made.

I am hopeful that the northern Australia white paper's commitment to an additional $600 million for priority roads in northern Australia will be announced before we go into the caretaker mode of government. I am equally hopeful that the $100 million beef roads initiative announced in the northern Australia white paper will have some definitive announcements made in the next few days, and I am particularly keen to hear some of the $500 million allocated for feasibilities and actual construction of water storage and water management projects in northern Australia announced within the next few days. I know that on all of those projects the work has been done, there has been a lot of consultation, there have been a lot of meetings and stakeholders in northern Australia have been fully consulted. Everyone has given the government the benefit of their local knowledge and understanding on these matters, which I am hopeful will be announced very shortly. People out there are expecting them, because it has been a very involving process that has taken with it those people who understand the north and who understand sustainable development.

That brings me back to the bill. I will not go through that in any detail, as other speakers have already done that, but suffice to say that I am again disappointed that a fellow Queensland senator, the previous speaker, could be so negative about Queensland and could so misrepresent the facts. It is not relevant to this bill, but there was a claim that banks have knocked back support for Adani. One bank that has been named is the National Australia Bank. I took that up with them and, as they said, they had never been asked, so they could not have knocked it back. They also indicated that, contrary to media reports promulgated by the Greens political party, they have made no policy decision on not funding coal in this country. The Adani group, a very significant Indian company, will fund that as it gets going—as it will now, thanks to the Queensland Labor government at last approving it—and hopefully work will start very, very shortly.

Whether Adani are interested in applying to the NAIF, I do not know. If they are then they, like everyone else, will be assessed according to the guidelines set down in this bill. As I and other speakers have mentioned previously—and I emphasise that speakers from the other side have mentioned it—this is a bill which will get the right approach and the right assessments. It will independently look at what is good for Australia by developing northern Australia. Some of the money that will be sought for development will no doubt go into sustainable and renewable energy projects; in fact, the Commonwealth government has just announced new funding for a renewable project up my way, near Townsville. That shows that this is a government that can look at all aspects of development which will help our country. I strongly support Adani; I strongly support some of these renewable projects where they are sensible, economic and can turn over a profit without subsidies from the government.

All in all, this is a good bill. It is an initiative of, I think, Mr Hockey's and, as Senator Moore rightly said—perhaps she did not know how accurate she was—when it was first announced the idea was there. Mr Hockey knew it could be done, but the detail of how to do it has taken a lot of work since then. I congratulate him, Mr Morrison and certainly Mr Frydenberg, who have put a lot of effort and a lot of work into getting this bill to the place it is. It will mean a wonderful boost to Australia.

I again say to Senator Waters that she seems to think that everyone who might be involved in any part of the development of northern Australia is a rabid destructor of all that is good about Australia, but most Australians understand our environment and where we live. Nearly everyone I know in Australia is keen to make sure development happens in a sustainable, proper way, and I am sure the people who will be appointed to that board will fill that description and we will get very sensible and forward-looking decisions from the board.

It is a wonderful bill before the Senate, as I said at the beginning. I am very excited to support this and I support it with gratitude to my country that we are taking this step that will mean real progress in the development of the place in Australia that I love the most.

12:01 pm

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

I look forward to making my contribution to the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill 2016, but before I do—and it is not very often Senator Macdonald and I are on the same team, agreeing on too much in this building, let alone outside it—I too agree that, when you listen to the contribution coming from Senator Waters and the Greens, it does not matter what it is but they have this warped view of the world that we can just do away with thousands and thousands of jobs in Australia and thousands of opportunities for enterprise to employ people.

We in this building all know that climate change is a prickly issue and has been for a number of years, but the Greens relentlessly talk down every opportunity for Australian jobs. You can check my first speech in this place; it was about how we have to leave it better than we found it. There is no argument about that. We have seen some ridiculous scare campaigns coming from the other side of the chamber about climate change and how it is all bulldust, it is all made up and it does not happen. It is true that it is there. But for the Greens to come in here and absolutely attack every opportunity for employment beggars belief. It would be all right if they had an alternative thought or alternative plan, but they have no alternative plan. I will get to the bill, but this has to be cleared up.

Acting Deputy President Gallacher, on Thursday last week I was at a committee hearing, as you were, and we were looking at opportunities for oil and gas exploration in the Great Australian Bight. Oil and gas exploration in this nation is not new; we have been doing it for 50-odd years. In my home state of Western Australia we are damn good at it. We have had a few unfortunate situations with spills, which are just disastrous, but we have got to learn from those spills and make sure they do not happen again. For crying out loud, we kill thousands of Australians on our roads every year, but we do not stop driving cars.

I am not trying to dumb down the argument, but this is no different from the conversation I heard the other day when we had witnesses in front of us, particularly from the Conservation Council of South Australia. Those people are not even on the same planet. They made it very clear: they don't give a darn. Nothing will appease the South Australian conservation council and whoever the other one was—another environmental mob. Senator Edwards was saying, 'How can we take in your concerns to make sure we have covered every angle to make sure this exploration is safe and provides the environmental lobby with the greatest assurance that we are doing our best while adding value to Australia and creating Australian job opportunities?' Both the council and the other mob, who I cannot remember, but it will come to me—a wildlife mob or something—made it very clear that it does not matter. Nothing is going to appease them. They do not want to see any jobs created in South Australia through oil or gas. We did not even talk about fracking or shale gas.

I wanted to clear that up. It really does irk me that the Greens act as if they are the only ones with concerns for the environment, which is just absurd. We all have concerns for the environment. They do not own the environmental argument. For crying out loud, as if all of us who have kids and grandkids want to blow the planet up?

I want to talk about this bill. This bill has had a few starts and stops on its journey. To make it very clear: the Labor Party has supported the main crux of this bill from day one. The Labor Party understands as much as the government the importance of northern Australia to our nation, to our GDP and to all opportunities. We also understand what a fantastic part of the world it is. No-one would be brave enough—I take that back; I am completely misleading the Senate. There are a number of people here who fully respect those who live in northern Australia. It is their part of the world, and we know that. Nothing infuriates northern Australians more than southern Australians coming in and telling them what they need to do and what they have done wrong.

Mr Acting Deputy President, you are a classic example. For 20-odd years in the Northern Territory you lived, worked and brought up your family. In fact, I know your family still resides in the Northern Territory with their children and I also know that you coached a very young Senator Peris. She was not a senator then; she was young Nova running around a hockey field. So your knowledge of the north is unquestionable. When we hear from the northerners about what they want, we need to take notice, we need to listen and we need to work with them. They understand it. It is not only those who have adopted the north as their home now but those who have been there for generations—and our traditional owners, of course.

What made this bill very interesting was the experts who popped their heads up in the southern states. I never lived in the north. I cut my teeth as a young truck driver running into the north at the age of 19 until the ripe old age of 31, when I hung up my riding boots. It is well known in this building that my family is three generations of truckies running into the north. I have been the duty senator for the great seats of O'Connor and Durack when it was called Kalgoorlie for all those years and I still venture into the north and annoy the living daylights out of the locals up there, because I enjoy being in that part of the world.

But the problem that we have, unfortunately, is that a lot of people in this bubble down here in Canberra want to be experts in the North. That is fantastic—that is great—but you are not an expert in the North when you think between May and September, 'I might just pop across the Nullarbor and have a little Senate hearing or something in Broome, so let's jump on the pointy end of a Qantas flight, sit up there in business class for two hours and 20 minutes, get into Broome, do the usual suspects, meet with the shire and a few other people—whoever's around—and then go to Cable Beach and watch the sun go down.' The next day, they leave the North and they are an expert in Broome, the Kimberley and everything in between. I have no doubt that that would probably happen in beautiful places like Cairns and Darwin.

I want to acknowledge the work of the committee. I want to acknowledge the work of a very dear friend of mine, the member for Perth, Alannah MacTiernan. Those of us who know and love and have worked with Alannah all these years know that Alannah does not give up very easily when she has got hold of a bone. The reason I say that is that the map that was put out to define what is northern Australia said the whole Northern Territory is northern Australia. In Queensland it was—I have it here and I will get it right; I will use the actual words—they used the Tropic of Capricorn, but they added in a number of areas between the tropic and the 26th parallel, which is below the tropic, so it would include the big mining town of Gladstone in Queensland—and good luck to Gladstone. That is fantastic. Gladstone has a population of 32,000 people. But, you see, on the western side we also have a couple of towns that are between the Tropic of Capricorn and the 26th parallel. How do I know this? Because, as I said earlier, I did some quick sums and I worked it out from the years I was running north-west, into the North—into the Pilbara, the Kimberley and Darwin. There is a sign just past the Overlander Roadhouse, in between Wooramel and Carnarvon, and it says, 'Welcome to the North-West—26th parallel.' With some very quick sums, I worked out that I had crossed that line 832 times, and that is not made up; that is running up north twice a week, going over that, and that is taking out three years when I did penance in the Goldfields. Mind you, that was not bad either. I made a good dollar out there.

So, when you talk about the North-West for us in Australia and you look above the 26th parallel, we include a number of towns there. One is Carnarvon. None of us here are strangers to Carnarvon, and, if you are a stranger to Carnarvon, get up there and have a look around. It is a magnificent part of the West. Carnarvon is renowned for its agriculture area. Queenslanders put up a good fight, because they say they are the centre of banana growing. Yes, that is true. There is no argument about that: Queensland leads. But in WA—it sounds insignificant, but it is not—we have about three per cent, I think, of the banana market. When you were getting whacked around by cyclones, fortunately we were not, and we were still able to supply bananas. We can supply tomatoes and all sorts of fruit and vegies. It is irrigated and it keeps that town alive. But it is not only agriculture. Carnarvon has a very active fishing industry, whether it be prawns, scallops or wet liners. It is all there in Carnarvon. So Carnarvon plays a very important role. There is another town further south. As the seagull flies, I think it is only about 100 kay at the most, but by road it is nearly 300 down to a place called Denham, which is the town on Shark Bay. It has similar tourism and fishing.

These towns, well known in the North-West, were excluded from the government's map of what would fall into the area of northern Australia which could access this $5 billion pot of money to borrow and develop. So it certainly gave us West Aussies grief. It gave Alannah MacTiernan grief and, as I have said, nothing will stop Alannah: when freight train Alannah is on the line and running, look out. Thankfully, she grabbed hold of it, but there is a little bit of history. You see, the government has said that the facility bill will establish the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility and address gaps in infrastructure finance and marketing for northern Australia. Great! The facility was announced back in the government's 2015-16 budget—tremendous! We knew that. The government also said that it is going to complement the public sector investment in economic infrastructure that otherwise would not be built, or would not be built for some time. It is proposed that the financial assistance will be delivered in partnership with state and territory governments, as it should be. The facility will operate in partnership with other financiers, filling key gaps in the infrastructure financing market for northern Australia but supplementing private lending for projects that produce significant benefits to the region. Fantastic!

The great concern, as I said, was that the West would miss out in terms of Carnarvon and Denham on Shark Bay, which are now included. But, you see, it was a struggle to get there, and it was only today that I was happy to receive a phone call from Alannah, the member for Perth, who had got it from the minister for northern Australia, Mr Frydenberg, that the government had actually worked out that they had made a fundamental mistake. It just has to be put into context. It has taken till today. Consultations started last year. The member for Durack, Ms Price, was being hammered by the local shires up there. I know, because they wrote to all of us. Senator Smith, a government senator from Western Australia, got up, and I was listening to him; he was actually reading the letter and referring to who wrote to him from where. They had got so frustrated. Last week I received a phone call from the President of the Shire of Carnarvon, Karl Brandenburg. I had not spoken to Karl for years, and I knew Karl long before he was the shire president. Out of absolute frustration, they had gone through all the shires with the member for Durack and had no sensible outcome and no sensible negotiation—nothing. So she had tried to go through her side of government, and they had knocked her back.

I am saying it right here and right now, very clearly: if it were not for the member for Perth, it would have gone through to the keeper. The good folk in Carnarvon—5,700 of them, I think there are—and Denham would have been excluded—tough; bad luck—even though on the other side of Australia the decision had moved across to incorporate Gladstone, for all the reasons why, I have pointed out, Carnarvon should be incorporated. So what message would that have sent to the people of Carnarvon? Thankfully, some common sense has come through.

I was also written to by the—gee whiz! What is his title? He is a local National member for the North there, Vince Catania. Even he was showing absolute frustration. He could not get it through to the government side over here, where they are in a coalition. For all intents and purposes, they are in a coalition in WA. It is only at election time they fall out of love, but they are always in a coalition. It was just absolutely ridiculous and frustrating, I have to say, because how can you face West Australians in Carnavan or Shark Bay or Devon and say, 'You are not part of the north-west?' Anyway, we will see where this all takes us.

There are a couple of other parts of the bill that I have a few little questions and concerns about. I would be interested to see how they fall out. The bill talks about putting together a board—whoever that board will be—and that is fine. There is a bit of work to do but I would urge the government to try and break away from the traditional mode of doing work around here of just putting your mates on it and actually put some hard thought into who would be the best representatives of the regions. One can only think that there would be people lined up for miles. There would be experts in the north and there would be experts in all parts of those states, whether it be Queensland, Northern Territory or Western Australia, but I would strongly urge the government to resist the desire to put ex-politicians on the board because they have to look after a mate or someone who has been a good donor to them.

I want to know from the government what consultation or investment opportunity through this fund will Indigenous enterprises get? I am a stickler for giving Aboriginal people not a token job to sell a few dot paintings on the side of the road or a boomerang, which is sadly what a lot of the jobs offered to them are, but meaningful enterprise for Aboriginal businesses. Believe me—I will talk from WA's point of view—there are some magnificently progressive Aboriginal leaders in the Kimberley in the west of the Kimberley and in the east of the Kimberley who have dreams and visions for their people that us whitefellas would not even think about. They are just bursting to have the opportunity, not just to be pampered to and given a few bob here or there but actual opportunity for enterprise, not just, 'Here is a token job; we will make you a cleaner or you can be a bus driver.' I do not know what conversations have been had there. I looked through the explanatory memorandum and could not see it anywhere.

I also strongly urge that on the board there be Aboriginal people. Why not? Why wouldn't we? Aboriginal people, as I said, have got some fantastic ideas. That is where they live, that is where they were born, that is where their families have lived for thousands and thousands of years and do not think for one minute that they do not want to progress themselves. They want to see their kids advance. I do not see that. I might be jumping the gun, and I think Senator Carnavan may be able to help me out and explain that during a break, but I hope that that is foremost in the government's mind as well.

I notice Senator Macdonald announced a $600 million road or something like that—there must be an election in the air. I do not know where that one fell out of but if there is an election and those opposite are promising $600 million of roads into the north then that is fantastic—as long as they do not fall for the stupidity of the department on the bridge building plans or initiatives as at the last round of estimates. There was X amount of millions of dollars for bridges and former Senator Joe Bullock quizzed the department on who was chosen. He asked what was the criteria for finding out who was going to get a bridge? There was no criteria; they just picked a few. They sat in Canberra here and might have thrown darts around the board. I do not know what they did; they could not tell us. So if there is $600 million for roads, it would be nice to know where they are going to be. We will find out, I am sure, between now and 2 July.

I also want to talk about, in the short time that is left for me, the $100 million beef road project. I am talking to you now as a truckie and, let me tell you, every time a road gets bituminised in the north or every time a road gets some culverts or every time a road gets a bridge, it is welcomed. As was said earlier by previous speakers, when it rains out there, it rains—let’s not get that wrong. I know because I have spent many days stuck on the side of the road when it was still dirt between Port Hedland and Broome, still dirt between Fitzroy and Halls Creek and then single lane. It was not all weather like it is now. Every season we were stuck there.

I asked at Senate estimates which beef roads. I asked, 'What are your plans? Is it blacktop you are going to put down with that $100 million? Is it bridges? Is it culverts? Is it widening?' No-one could tell me. The department had no idea, no answers. As was said earlier on, this northern Australia white paper is not new. Senator Heffernan was working on the north when I first came in here in the Howard years. Then it just disappeared and fell apart. If you make an announcement saying you are going to spend $100 million on taxpayers' money on a beef road, wouldn't you think someone would have a plan? Where did the $100 million come from? Were they sitting around in the 'monkey pod' and just tossed-up a number somewhere? How did those opposite come to $100 million ? I ask this question because when you are building roads in the Top End, as the northerners know, there is a window of time when you can work on those roads. Then there is the wet season. I have seen roads destroyed in one wet season. It only takes one road train to go through for half a kilometre or a kilometre and it is just completely muck when it is dirt.

There is a number of questions to be asked and there is a number of questions to be answered. I do show complete frustration when governments love to pluck figures. It amazes me that it always comes to a round figure. How? Does that $100 million go to the road—this goes for any government initiative—or are there white hands in the business all the way through, taking a little bit here and a little bit there or getting a consultancy? I thought it was more than fair, on behalf of northerners, to tell me where these roads are and what is going to be built. Sadly—I should not sound depressed and I should not sound surprised—I got no answers.

As we venture into the next eight or nine weeks, where I am sure there will be a little bit of activity around the nation, if someone else can ask the questions and find out, great. On saying that, we now know the amendments have come through so Carnavan and Shark Bay are in—I am rapt. I want to congratulate the member for Perth, Alannah MacTiernan, for her fierce work on this. On behalf of the northerners, I congratulate her. I congratulate the government for actually coming to their senses at the last minute—and thankfully they did. Obviously the pressure was brought upon them to come to their senses to include two very important towns in WA. I support the bill.

12:21 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill 2016 and Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2016. The Greens support increased government investment in public infrastructure. We think this is vital to Australia's future. If we had our plan implemented, which was only launched last Friday by myself and Adam Bandt, the member for Melbourne, we would see government spending—through debt raising and the issuance of infrastructure bonds—of up to $75 billion around this country on productive infrastructure. We support the concept of governments playing an active role in the lives of Australians. In fact, we believe there is now a historic opportunity, with interest rates and the cost of capital as low as they have ever been and likely to remain low for some time, for the government to step in and issue long-term bonds with government backing of up to $75 billion of financing.

On our calculations—and the numbers we have used were based on extensive evidence collected by a Senate select committee which looked at infrastructure financing—we believe this would push our debt-to-GDP ratio up to the levels of around 25 per cent that we had under ex-Prime Minister John Howard. That would still give us a good buffer of five per cent. We heard evidence from Saul Eslake, for example, that we could have up to 30 per cent of debt to GDP in this country before it would impact on our AAA credit rating. That gives us a substantial amount of money and opportunity for nation building and for investing in infrastructure, not just in Northern Australia but right around the country. If we could redesign our infrastructure planning and approval process and put in place a financing facility and process to encourage developments at local, state and federal government levels and attract the big pool of investment out there in the private sector—through superannuation funds and self-managed super funds, through corporates who want to invest in infrastructure, and through the Australian people—and if we could somehow tie those two together, then now would be a significant, historic opportunity for a nation-building exercise in infrastructure.

I want to make it really clear here today that we support increased government investment in productive infrastructure. We see it as being vital to Australia's future. In fact, the evidence the select committee collected from spokespeople such as Professor John Hewson said the same thing: get out there and borrow money, take a 15- to 20-year view and invest in infrastructure right across the country. We heard evidence from the Productivity Commission, Standard & Poor's, Ernst & Young, self-managed super funds, industry super, Citibank and major investors that there is an appetite out there in the private sector and in the investment sector to look at infrastructure projects. The problem is that they are not investing because they have a very high expectation of returns from infrastructure. They are very interested in what are called greenfields investments—investments that are mature and can already provide revenue and cashflows. Unfortunately, right around the country we have a big infrastructure gap: a pipeline of greenfields projects at local government level, state government level and federal government level that need to be financed. That gap varies depending on who you speak to. The evidence we heard in the committee showed a very large variation, but some respectable institutions said that around the country it is up to $750 billion or potentially $1 trillion—and that is in existing projects that have already been put up for financing and funding. We do not fund anywhere near that amount on an annual basis in this country. It is more like $20 billion, and that is combined state, federal and local government.

How do we actually get money moving in Australia? How do we actually get the nation built for the kids who are here today? This is all about intergenerational equity. This is about taking a long-term view on building our nation, investing in a large number of small projects at local government level that can be bundled into portfolios that bonds can be issued against. A lot of those things can be monetised through a whole range of different means that the committee explored, including changing the taxation system, value capture and changes to rates. All of these things can be funded from the local government level all the way up to the federal government level.

The federal government could play a really important role in raising finance, making low-interest loans to state governments and local government and, of course, issuing municipal bonds and green bonds. We could actually take Australia to being 90 per cent renewable by allocating money, for example, towards renewable energy infrastructure. There is so much we could do if we could raise money right here and right now. The issue comes down to this: is 'debt' a dirty word? Unfortunately, a lot of the political rhetoric we here in this chamber is that it is—that we have a debt problem. There is the old furphy that somehow a government's budget is the same as a household's and that it has to be constantly repaid down to zero. That is actually not the case. Governments can play a very active role in the lives of Australians—much more than we do now.

We would like to see an infrastructure bank or fund set up right around the country to help invest in projects that will not only lift productivity but create jobs and pay dividends to communities—social and environmental dividends as well as economic dividends. Under our structure we would like to see Infrastructure Australia revamped. We have outlined all this. It is bold and brave and it is going to take a little bit more detail, but we would like to see the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development rolled interest o a new Infrastructure Australia. We would like to see a process where they independently assess a pipeline of projects from right around the country, from the local government level all the way up; where they use triple-bottom-line assessments and have cost-benefit analyses that are transparent, available and put up for public view, not hidden away from the public, with the commercial-in-confidence excuse used for not providing that information.

You cannot totally depoliticise infrastructure spending. We are elected by the Australian people to spend their money in the best way possible. But if an independent Infrastructure Australia made those assessments and made them public then a minister and a political party would need to explain why they chose to fund a particular project and put it through the infrastructure bank and why they went against independent assessments.

In relation to the bill we have before us today, why can't we have transparent independent assessments and cost-benefit analyses for what this fund is going to invest in?

This is essential. What we heard, interestingly enough, from the investment community and the business community is that the key reason they are not putting the potentially hundreds of billions of dollars they have in savings into infrastructure, especially greenfields infrastructure, is the lack of transparency around the selection process at government level, because the cost-benefit analyses are not detailed and they are not provided to the public. This spells trouble for them. That is why the expected risk premiums, or expected returns on their investments, are so high. Isn't it odd that we have a cost of capital in this country on long-term bonds around two per cent, yet infrastructure funds in this country and corporates who invest in infrastructure expect a return of at least eight per cent on their investment? Why aren't governments out there borrowing at two per cent and helping fund these projects? That way, they can co-invest with the private sector, the investment sector and local government, who desperately need this money—not just in the big cities but all around the country, including in rural and regional areas. The federal government can play a role as financier and we can have a system that is robust and transparent in this country, that is respected by the business community, that is respected by all levels of government and that provides a process whereby we can actually get money moving in Australia and get investment in infrastructure right around the country.

Acting Deputy President Sterle, I note that we have some Nationals senators in the chamber today. Unfortunately they did not appear, like you and I did, at the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee inquiry into regional capitals, where we went to places like Geraldton, and many other regional cities, and heard about their lists of infrastructure needs and the amount of underfunding that we are seeing in rural and regional Australia. We went to Rockhampton. Unfortunately Senator Canavan could not be there that day. This was when he was newly minted in his role as Minister for Northern Australia. We missed you there, Senator Canavan, because we heard from Rockhampton stakeholders—the local government, the chamber of commerce—and they were telling us about why there is this infrastructure gap in their region and why they urgently need funds.

The Senate has done a great job, in a couple of committees, in collecting the evidence that we need to put together a long-term holistic plan to get money moving in Australia, to get it out to the regions. It is not just the big cities. Let us be honest: this government is entirely focused on big iconic projects in big cities. The Productivity Commission has said that actually the best thing we have got going for us is bundling together the thousands of small projects that need financing around this country—from local swimming pools through to power stations, pipelines, dams, women's shelters—because that will be attractive to potential investors. We heard so much evidence about the things that are needed in the country. We just need the ability to fund and finance these projects.

So we do not have a problem with the principle of setting up a fund that government can finance to look at investing in productive infrastructure. What we do not want to see is a fund that is used for pork-barrelling, a fund that will pick winners based on the politics of the minister and the department of the day. We do not want to see a fund that lacks transparency, that will not provide details of all the decisions that it makes. That is not the way Australians want to see their governments spend their money. That is irresponsible. But it is also not what the business community want to see. It is not what stakeholders want to see.

We heard evidence, when we went around the country, of money that has been spent already around regional development funds—the very specialist funds the government has got set up—and the lack of consultation with state and local governments in how that money is spent. We heard about the politicisation of that money. In fact, Mr Acting Deputy President, when we were in WA we heard that, around the by-election in Canning, some money went into helping renovate a local golf club, when money was desperately needed in Geraldton for setting up a new university campus to try and raise the level of education in the area.

If we had a holistic process that was independent and looked at these things in a very systematic way and then put those projects up to a government for funding, or to an infrastructure bank, we would have a much more efficient process. I suppose where I am going with this is: why aren't we doing this for the whole country? An infrastructure Australia fund would be a good start. A northern Australia fund would have $5 billion for the north of Australia. I happen to come from a southern state, being Tasmania. Where does my state fit into a nation-building program trying to get money moving? Where do South Australia and the bottom of Western Australia and even Victoria fit into this? I am not as interested in those states as I am in my own, of course, being purely self-interested as a Tasmanian senator, but the point remains: why can't we have a process like this for the whole country, but a better process than this, a process where we have potential for co-financing with investors, like super funds, industry super? Canadian super funds are the biggest investors in Australian infrastructure. I am not sure if you are aware of that, Mr Acting Deputy President. They are the biggest private investors in Australian infrastructure. Their pension funds are set up to make it easy for them to take 15-year views on investing in projects. Industry super have got to the point where they not only invest in infrastructure in Australia and overseas; they now manage projects. So we have got a big pool of investment out there in our super funds and self-managed super funds that are looking to invest in building in Australia. They are looking to invest in building communities and building jobs.

While we have a proposal before us today to spend $5 billion on the north of Australia, why don't we think bigger and why don't we think better? Let us think bigger and let us think better. There is no better time than now to have a vision for building this country, to borrow and to lock in at historically low rates—one or two per cent interest rates. We are seeing negative interest rates overseas. If we can convince the business community and the investment community to lower their expectations around what they expect to get on infrastructure, if they finally understand the cost of capital is only going to be a few per cent, then we can actually start getting money moving in this country and get jobs—invest in our local communities, invest in our environment, invest in transitioning Australia to a clean economy, invest in transitioning Australia to a low-emissions economy and a smarter economy.

The problem with speaking like that is that I do not want to sound too much like the Prime Minister, but, at the end of the day, the Greens have always talked about being clean, green and clever. That phrase was coined first by Senator Milne in Tasmania in 1992: 'clean, green and clever'. This is something that we could all do if we actually took a visionary approach to this.

The amendments that the Greens have put up—and these are reflected in Senator Siewert's dissenting report, which she put into the committee report—are that we want to see the NAIF Bill amended to exclude any proposal which is substantially linked with fossil fuel or nuclear projects. We want to see the bill amended to ensure that all proposals are subject to a rigorous independent cost-benefit analysis which includes environmental, climate, cultural and social costs, which I would have thought was a very reasonable basis for any expenditure of taxpayer money. The private sector want to see this kind of thing transparent and publicised before they go investing in these projects, because they know that projects that are highly politicised are highly controversial. It leads to reputational risk when they are involved, and it leads to a higher cost to capital. It makes business sense to put this data out for public perusal.

We want to see the bill amended to ensure that the federal government cannot delegate responsibility for project approvals under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to state and territory governments. And we want to see the bill amended to ensure that the investment mandate for NAIF includes the requirement that all proposals are consistent with the principles of ecologically sustainable development. This is not just a greenie thing; this is actually good business practice. Most investors are thinking now about the triple bottom line. They are thinking about their risk, and they are adjusting their rates of return and their expected rates of return on their investment based on these risks. These things in our modern day and age, in a climate constrained world, in a world where community and social licence are important to investment, are something that should be incorporated not just in business decisions but in government decisions.

If this is a government driven fund, which it will be—$5 billion—these are things that should be considered by us, because the taxpayers in this country who put up the money that is going to be diverted into building this nation, be it in northern Australia or be it elsewhere, also expect the highest possible standards. They do not want to see governments pork-barrelling. They do not necessarily want to see them picking winners. I know we cannot totally depoliticise infrastructure spending. I thought we could, but, after the committee evidence I have heard, I realise that is not entirely possible, because we are elected to do a job for the Australian people. This is the kind of thing we need to see more of, but we need to be able to do it better, and we need to do it bigger.

The Greens have a plan, which we have now announced, which is based on extensive evidence that we have collected in the Senate select committee. I know that Labor also has a plan for an infrastructure bank, a concrete bank, that is not too dissimilar to what the Greens have proposed. It is a lot smaller and possibly nowhere near as expansive. Nevertheless, the idea is still a good one.

I hope, Senator Canavan, that the Prime Minister puts a little bit more meat on the bones of his announcement he made on Friday about a new way of looking at funding and financing infrastructure. We certainly would be very keen to hear the detail on that, and no doubt that will be announced with the budget in the next couple of days.

So we will be moving amendments to this bill. We support the principle of governments investing in public infrastructure. We think: good on you. The government needs to get more involved, and this is vital to Australia's future.

12:41 pm

Photo of Nova PerisNova Peris (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise to express my support for the passing of this bill and the implementation of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill and indeed the northern Australia development strategy more broadly. It is always heartening—as we both know, Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle—to see the north of Australia, and particularly the Northern Territory, at the forefront of debate in this house. The development of northern Australia should be made an absolute priority for Australia—no question. After all, what is good for the North is good for the nation.

Territorians have heard for years about how the Top End is an untapped economic region that just needs infrastructure. We need investment—real investment—to be able to grow into a bigger and better economy. They have heard this talk, and it has never really been developed into as big a project as it could be, so many of my constituents are, I should say, sceptical about this talk. They wonder whether developing the North will really mean more jobs and whether those jobs will come to Territorians and not to those high-vis FIFO workers.

The Developing the North strategy has had bipartisan support for several years now, and I commend Minister Frydenberg and Shadow Minister Gray for the work that they have done in this area. I also commend Minister Canavan, who is here in the chamber, and my Territory colleague Warren Snowdon, as well as Alannah MacTiernan for her fierce advocacy. I commend all of their work in speaking up for northern Australia. The bipartisan work done in this space gives me hope that northern Australia will benefit from these strategies. After all, an increased focus on the Northern Territory's economy can only be a good thing for Territorians and Australia.

Recently, I have engaged with organisations like the Northern Territory Farmers Association, the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association and the NT Livestock Exporters' Association, and there is a clear pattern in the issues that they are all facing. The one key major issue is infrastructure—the lack of roads, bridges, training and education facilities as well as housing infrastructure.

Northern Territory kids—and I have spoken many times in this chamber on this—are on average two years behind the educational outcomes of their east coast counterparts. In 2016, Territorians still have to fly down south for many medical procedures, and unemployment in remote Aboriginal communities is around 20 per cent and growing.

In order to change all of this, the Northern Territory is in desperate need of meaningful economic infrastructure. We need infrastructure that can be harnessed to benefit the whole of the Territory. What does this look like? It means quarantine facilities for our fruit and vegetable exporters. It means cold storage at our port. It means sealed and safe roads for our live cattle transport to improve access to the remote parts of the Northern Territory. It means upgrading our regional and remote airstrips and our ports. We need to ensure that we can move goods and people around in a way that is cost-effective and easy. It means adequate biosecurity measures. All of this, of course, means Australian jobs.

Fruit and vegetable growers in the Northern Territory are calling for real investment in quarantine facilities, which would eliminate the need to send produce down south to be processed and then exported. The Northern Territory should be able to export its own produce. The Northern Territory should be able to maximise the economic benefit that comes from its crops. The Northern Territory should be getting a slice of the pie. While I support this bill, it does somewhat highlight the difference between northern Australia and the big cities of the south. I note media reports today that say Sydney and Melbourne are likely to receive billions in public transport infrastructure funding in the upcoming budget. That is great for Melbourne and Sydney, and it is great for Mr Turnbull's marginal seat campaign. But in the Northern Territory, an upcoming prawn farming project, Project Sea Dragon, is struggling to secure funding to seal 50 kilometres of road. The project is worth $1.54 billion worth of investment not only for the heart of the Northern Territory but also for the border with Western Australia. Sadly, the project has to apply for a loan from the northern Australia loan facility. Sydney and Melbourne get big election commitments through asset recycling versus the Northern Territory, which has to apply for a loan to seal 50 kilometres of road.

We know that developing the north means sustainable development, which means protecting the environment and maintaining the sacred landmarks that make the Territory unique. But we need to be assured that any future development will not be at the expense of existing industries like tourism or at the expense of our pristine environment.

As well as big economic infrastructure, it is essential and imperative that we invest in the education and training of our young Territorians. It should be noted that almost a quarter of our population are under 16. That is extremely important to note. The previous Labor government made it possible for Territory kids to study medicine at Charles Darwin University, and now the Charles Darwin University has expanded its facilities to allow them to study specific training for the oil and gas industry. But more is needed. Too many Territory kids are well behind in literacy and numeracy and too many schools are under-resourced. We can talk about innovation until the cows come home, but if we do not talk about the education of our kids all the talk will fall on deaf ears.

The same is true of developing northern Australia. We cannot talk about developing the north without big investment going in to the education of our kids to make sure that when it comes time for them to contribute to the economic development of the Northern Territory they are ready for challenges that come their way. Developing the north also means recognising the unique economic factors that affect the Northern Territory, and how policy made in Canberra can adversely affect the Territory. The Territory does not just need a hand out; it needs a lift up. It also needs a federal government that recognises that things are different in the Territory. We are unique but we are ready. We know what our potential is.

The federal government, no matter who is in charge, needs to recognise that doing business in the Territory is different to doing business on the east coast or down south. A perfect example of this lack of understanding is of course the backpacker tax. The backpacker tax takes a sledgehammer to the Territory's tourism and agriculture industries in one big hit. Potential working holidaymakers are already avoiding the Territory in favour of Canada or New Zealand. Most of our farmers rely on backpacker labour, which makes up 90 per cent of their seasonal workforce. Our agricultural and tourism groups are extremely worried about this. Tourism numbers are already low and the agricultural industry is now struggling to find labour when it comes to harvesting their crops.

While the government has put the backpacker tax under review, there are fears that the damage has already been done and that the tourism industry has already suffered. The CEO of NT Farmers, Mr Shenal Basnayake, said to me, 'We are uncertain at this stage what the full impact of the backpacker tax and other issues around the workforce will be, however the early indication through discussions with farmers is that they are seeing reduced numbers of job applicants.'

This is extremely bad news for the Northern Territory, and I strongly urge the government not to go ahead with the backpacker tax plan. In fact, I am glad that Senator Canavan is in the chamber to listen to me speaking on this. I was with him recently in Darwin and I know that the NT Farmers felt his passion, and he is very committed to developing northern Australia. But this is of grave concern to the NT Farmers and I urge Senator Canavan to reconsider what is going to happen to the industry from this.

This is simply common sense. We cannot claim to be prioritising the economic benefits of the Northern Territory while making it harder for the Territory's job creators to do business and, most importantly, sustain their businesses. Policies like the backpacker tax are short-sighted and do not take into account the needs and the harsh conditions of the Northern Territory. As well as infrastructure, we also need to end the lack of understanding of the Territory economy, otherwise we risk making a mockery of the idea of developing the north.

Aboriginal Territorians need to be included in this process. There needs to be a consultative process that engages traditional landowners in the process of developing the north and includes them in benefitting from the flow-on from that development. The CEO of the Northern Land Council, Mr Joe Morrison, has said on many occasions that Aboriginal people need to be included in the process. He has fears of a lack of involvement for Aboriginal people in the development and therefore a lack of economic benefit for Aboriginal people. Mr Morrison has said, 'Aboriginal people want to share the advantage that flows from our proximity to Asia from northern development, but traditional owners need to be consulted about economic activity on their lands.' The economic benefits that flow from new infrastructure and the increases economic activity in the NT need to flow through to investment in health and education for Territorians.

The northern Australian infrastructure loan facility will be essential in providing funding for the absolutely vital infrastructure funding for the Northern Territory, which has been needed for many years. I hope all Territorians can benefit from the infrastructure that comes from the loan facility and that economic benefits mean a better standard of living across the Territory, from Darwin to Alice from east to west Arnhem Land and into the remote communities. This bill is a huge step in the right direction. But it does not go unnoticed in the Territory that while people in Melbourne and Sydney have infrastructure thrown at them when the election comes around, the Northern Territory is still stuck having to apply for loans. I am optimistic but also pessimistic about the growth and future of the Northern Territory, but I do hope that this bill is a vote of confidence in the viability and bright prospects of Australia's north.

12:52 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill 2016. This bill is a great opportunity. The idea, the concept and the reality of investing in this unique part of the world have the potential to give a boost to not only Northern Australia but also, if done correctly, our environmental, social and cultural assets. There is so much potential, but it has got to be done correctly. If we do not invest in ways that meet the quadruple bottom line of being environmentally, socially, economically and culturally sustainable, then we risk repeating the mistakes of the past.

We have got an amazing opportunity not to do that. We have got an amazing opportunity to use all of our resources, knowledge, cleverness and agility to have development that is good for all of us—not just for all Australians but for all of the other creatures that we share our planet with while providing economic benefits and jobs. We can invest in infrastructure that delivers socially, economically and environmentally sustainable benefits or we can go down the path of exploiting local communities and environmental resources for short-term profits. We can bring everyone together and say, 'Yes, there's an opportunity here for some great outcomes' or we can invest in a way that is divisive and destructive to our environment.

So the Greens are in a position to be able to support this bill today, if some incredibly important amendments are supported. My colleagues today—Senators Siewert, Waters and Whish-Wilson—have already outlined the risks that this northern Australia infrastructure fund could have for our environment, our climate and our local communities.

I also want to talk about the type of infrastructure that the current proposal for this facility seems to be trying to promote and raise the dangers of some of the infrastructure that is being considered. Let's talk about rail infrastructure. We had it hinted—former Treasurer Joe Hockey indicated that he thought that this sort of loan facility should be used to fund rail projects to support the massive Adani coalmine. If you ask everyday Australians what type of rail the federal government should be investing in, the message is clear: commuter rail in our cities; regional rail to connect communities and help people to be connected across rural and regional Australia; and support for freight—to get freight off the roads and onto rail. All of these sorts of rail investments have got a huge amount of support across the Australian community.

But, if we are talking about rail that is going to help finance the disastrous Adani coalmine rail and port proposal, then that is not what people think is a priority nor what the Australian government should be investing in. In fact most Australians would be appalled to think that the federal government wants to subsidise huge mining companies to build rail that has only got one purpose: to transport massive amounts of coal from massive coalmines to damaging ports.

The Greens cannot possibly support the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility being used to support fossil fuel or nuclear projects, including those mines, railways, pipelines, ports and electricity infrastructure, that are based on ongoing fossil fuel use. That is not just in the long-term interests of northern Australia; it is not in the long-term interests of all of Australia nor the long-term interests of the globe.

I heard former Liberal leader John Hewson on the radio this morning saying that, in terms of most investors now, the Adani coalmine would already be considered as a stranded asset: it is not going to be economically viable in a carbon constrained world as well as being environmentally disastrous. So to use the northern Australia infrastructure fund to prop up these sorts of coalmines is not sensible investment. It is not investment that is in the interests of people. That sort of investment would be taxpayers supplementing the profits of the big end of town.

So what is the alternative? The wonderful thing is that there are so many alternatives and so much good investment that could be made in infrastructure that would develop northern Australia in a way that is environmentally and socially sustainable as well as being economically successful. It is infrastructure that has got an eye on our future rather than the damaging industries of the past.

In order to make sure that that is the type of infrastructure that is being invested in, we need to do careful assessment to ensure long-term sustainability. Developments must be targeted towards the needs and priorities of local communities and should also take full account of the environmental impact of what those developments are, particularly the environmental impacts of climate change. If investment is not going to do anything to help us address climate change, it should not be invested in. If it is an investment that is actually going to worsen climate change, then it is even further away from the sorts of projects that we should be investing in.

When we look at northern Australia, we know what the impacts of serious climate change are: we know what the impacts of the climate emergency are going to be. At the moment, one of the biggest economic assets of northern Australia of course is the Great Barrier Reef. We have seen the massive bleaching event of the corals of the Great Barrier Reef where 93 per cent have been bleached and many will not survive. Unless we address climate change, that massive economic asset of northern Australia is not going to be there in the future.

And it is not just in Queensland; as we speak, the reefs of Western Australia are still undergoing a bleaching event—because, as I am told, the waters of Western Australia are even warmer than the waters of Queensland. These are the real assets that need to be protected, and the only way of protecting our reefs of Western Australia and north-eastern Australia is to take urgent action to address global warming. That means transitioning to a zero carbon economy as quickly as possible. If we do not do that, the northern Australian economy does not have a future.

The other part of the world that has been focused on—and there was attention drawn to it in the media over the weekend—which seems to be a long way from northern Australia, is Greenland. If you look at the melting of the icesheets that is currently going on in Greenland, you might think, 'What's that got to do with northern Australia?' But the massive increased melting that is going on in Greenland indicates the seriousness of the issue of the melting of our polar icesheets and what the impacts are going to be in terms of sea level rise. If we look at many of the unique marine environments of northern Australia and the rest of the country, as well as the rest of the globe, and think about the impact on those natural assets of a metre or more of rising sea level, we see that the rising sea level is going to be disastrous for the development and the future of the communities of northern Australia. These are the things that we need to be thinking about and we need to be working out how we can have development that results in us actually tackling climate change rather than adding to climate change.

We know that global energy markets are moving on to 21st century technologies and we know that public investment needs to be oriented towards reaping the benefits of renewable energy technologies and sunrise industries. Investment needs to be going into the huge renewable energy resource that is there in northern Australia. That is one of the best resources of northern Australia. If this money were going towards investments that make sure that we develop that potential, that would be a magnificent outcome. If we do not and we do not look to the emerging trends, northern Australia is going to be saddled with last century's infrastructure while the rest of the country and the rest of the world will have moved on. That would be a disastrous outcome.

The Greens vision for northern Australia is for a zero carbon economy that promotes ecotourism, communications, clean energy hubs and services and lots and lots of jobs. We all know about the ecotourism potential of northern Australia. We need to capitalise on the opportunities for local communities by putting the power in their hands and especially looking at supporting ecotourism development that are managed and controlled by traditional owners. People are not going to travel from around the world to see great big holes in the grounds. They are not going to travel from around the world to see dead, bleached coral reefs. But people do need safe ways to travel that are as efficient as possible—so we do need transport infrastructure.

We also need to address the chronic lack of services in local communities. We need to address the chronic lack of communications technologies. We need infrastructure that supports communications, whether it is physical communication in transporting people by good-quality roads, good-quality rail services and good-quality bus services, or information communications technology—broadband. Having wonderful communications technology in every community across northern Australia will do so much to bridge the divide between rural and regional Australia and the communications that those of us who live in the capital cities enjoy. That is the sort of investment that needs to be prioritised under this sort of fund. They are the sorts of investments that the Greens want to see—environmentally sustainable and socially sustainable investments.

But we are extremely worried, and this bill gives us no faith, that this sort of fund would be used to prop up fossil fuels. The Australian Greens staunchly oppose subsidies for polluting fossil fuels, and we will not support the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility becoming a $5 billion slush fund for polluting industries. Community connections are important, but subsiding rail that will only serve the interests of coalmining is not. Subsidising environmentally disastrous mining is not in the interests of northern Australia. Subsidising massive dams that are unsustainable in a climate changed world, subsidising land clearing and destroying the very things that make northern Australia unique should not be considered for investment under this fund.

Making our transition to 100 per cent renewable energy as quickly as possible is urgent. We are in a climate emergency; a climate crisis. We need to bite the bullet and say that the fossil fuels that Australia has need to be kept in the ground. We know that, for the world to keep global warming under two degrees or under 1.5 degrees, the vast majority of the fossil fuels that are in the ground need to stay there. All 75 per cent, three-quarters, of the world's coal resources that are currently known about need to stay in the ground. We cannot afford to continue the exploitation of these unsustainable resources.

That is why the Greens, in the interests of our future—in the interests of the future of northern Australia as well as everywhere else—are calling for an immediate ban on new coal mines and gas projects, including fracking. Not only would investment in fossil fuel projects be environmentally destructive; it would be economically reckless. Developing large, illiquid infrastructure for sunset industries is not a good use of public finance. So we are calling on the federal government to rule out financing the Adani coalmine, rail and port proposal and other Galilee Basin coal mines out of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. Sadly, until that is ruled out, we will not be able to support this facility. The Adani mine, the railway and the Abbot Point coal port expansion would be environmentally disastrous and economically reckless. With the price of coal in structural decline, more than a dozen international and domestic banks have already ruled out providing finance.

There are so many other opportunities. There are so many other investments that would be environmentally sustainable, socially sustainable and culturally appropriate that we could invest in. One of the things that we need to have as part of this fund is a really rigorous assessment process to make sure that any investments that would be approved really tick all the boxes—not investments that would be propping up otherwise damaging and uneconomic projects. We should be able to get this right. We should be able to find projects that do tick all those boxes, that bring us together and that serve the interests of communities now and communities into the future, that serve the interests of communities as well as industry, and that serve the interests of our precious environment as well as economic development.

The Greens amendments to this bill we think are absolutely critical and essential for it to be supported. The first of those amendments is that the bill should be amended so that any project that is substantially linked to fossil fuel or nuclear projects, including mines, railways, pipelines, ports or electricity infrastructure, should not be funded under this infrastructure facility. We want to amend this bill to ensure that all proposals are subject to a rigorous, independent cost-benefit analysis which includes all the environmental, climate change related, cultural and social costs.

We propose to amend this bill to ensure that the federal government cannot delegate its responsibility for project approvals under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to state and territory governments. This is national infrastructure that is being considered here. National funds that go into it should be assessed against national environmental legislation. Finally, we are proposing to amend this legislation to ensure that the investment mandate for the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility includes the requirement that all proposals are consistent with the principles of ecologically sustainable development.

We reckon that with these amendments we would have a terrific opportunity to really bring everyone together. We could have development that everybody can agree on, development that everybody recognises is in the interest of us all—the interest of northern Australia, the rest of Australia, all of the other environments and all of the other plants and animals that also have an interest in what happens in northern Australia, and in the interests of the peoples of the globe. We have the opportunity to do things differently here in this parliament, to say that all of these issues matter. Every aspect of investment proposals matters, not just whether you have jobs. You can have good jobs, but you can have jobs that are very destructive. There is the opportunity here to have investment that can deliver for our environment, can deliver for our people and can deliver things that are economically sustainable as well.

With these amendments, the Greens would be supporting this legislation. I look forward to getting the support of the rest of my colleagues here for a bill with those amendments made to it.

1:10 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise today to speak about the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill 2016. I want to begin my speech today on the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill by echoing the concerns of Senator McLucas. Labor obviously supports economic development in northern Australia. As a Western Australian senator, I certainly want to see the north-west of Western Australia given the best opportunity for growth that benefits local communities and indeed the Australian economy. Certainly it is an area that Labor absolutely supports.

But as we have come to expect from the government, whether under the prime ministership of Mr Abbott or of Mr Turnbull, the government are experts at messing up really good ideas and at not getting it quite right. This bill, until the amendments came through today in relation particularly to Western Australia, was a fine example of not quite getting it right—of just ignoring parts of Western Australia by excluding them from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill.

I have to say that it has only been through the advocacy of the Labor member for Perth, Ms Alannah MacTiernan, that we have seen some sensible amendments come through today that put Western Australia in a better position. Certainly the bill that went through the House a couple of weeks ago, with the areas in Western Australia, particularly Carnarvon and Exmouth, not being part of the legislation, was an absolute nonsense and shows again that the government does not really know what it is talking about—that we could be a long way down the track, 12 months from the budget where the northern Australia money was committed, and we still did not have the boundaries right. That would be, you would think, the very first thing the government would determine—and do so in consultation with all of the stakeholders, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the local councils and certainly the state governments.

It is also telling that, when the bill was introduced into the other place, where there are quite a number of Western Australian members and in particular the member for Durack, whose seat encompasses significant parts of what was excluded, they said nothing. They said absolutely nothing. It has been the advocacy of the member for Perth, Ms Alannah MacTiernan, that has brought some sense at the eleventh hour to this debate.

So telling was it in Western Australia that the government had left out towns and regions that clearly, absolutely clearly, should have been part of its considerations from day one, not from the eleventh hour, that all of us—and I presume the Liberal senators as well—received emails from their partners, the National Party. Last week, we had the absurd notion of the National Party emailing Labor senators asking Labor to see if we could bring some sense to this debate. Their own partners obviously had tried internally to fix this problem, this glaring omission that saw towns and districts excluded in Western Australia. They came and lobbied us. That is how concerned the Nationals, the partners in the Turnbull government, were. They saw fit to email Labor senators.

Of course, it was not just the National Party who emailed us; it was also many of the shires and the councils in the regions which were going to be overlooked. Really, it defies logic—that you would put up boundaries for northern Australia that disadvantage significantly parts of Western Australia which Western Australians clearly see as part of northern Australia.

Perhaps the government has not appreciated just how vast and remote Western Australia is? It is a huge state. It is the biggest state, and it is extremely remote. There are many challenges in northern Australia and there would not be any Western Australians who do not see Carnarvon or Exmouth as Northern Australia. They are certainly not suburbs of Perth and they are certainly not satellite suburbs of Geraldton! But those opposite saw fit to exclude them initially from the bill. It is very telling that when it went through the House none of those Western Australian Liberal House of Representatives members saw fit even to make a squeak—to stick up for their own regions and for their own electorates. They just let it go through, 'Oops! Doesn't really matter!' Perhaps there are not too many votes for them in those towns. But they are uniquely northern Western Australian towns, and no-one in Western Australia thinks otherwise. Obviously—and thankfully—the government is now moving amendments today, which Labor will support, to include the areas that they somehow missed off the map.

Certainly, I want to see real opportunities in the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill for Western Australia, because Western Australia has been really badly let down—particularly by the state government and by Premier Barnett. They have absolutely squandered the available resources from the mining boom being played out in Western Australia. We have lost our AAA credit rating and he has been an appalling Premier.

Certainly, he has no interest in northern Australia. We saw that last year with a bit of an off-the-cuff comment. Out of the blue he said that he was going to close down remote Aboriginal communities—just shut them down! He was just going to move people into town, as they used to do back in the 1950s. That shows you how much the Premier of Western Australia cares about northern Australia. Obviously, he did not mind that two significant areas were being left off the map in terms of this Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill.

As I said, this is a Premier who has absolutely squandered the mining boom to the point now that we are a very poor state. I saw today that we have dropped down again—we are running at about sixth in terms of the states' economies. We used to be No. 1, until Premier Barnett got his hands on the Treasury dollars in Western Australia. He has completely squandered the mining boom and has racked up a debt which, certainly as a Western Australian, I am very concerned about: it is into the billions of dollars. But you do not hear that from those opposite, because they will be interested in pork-barrelling the state government—which is up for election next year.

That state government should actually hang its head in shame, because it has squandered the mining boom. We have announcements such as, 'Well, we'll just close remote Aboriginal communities,' making this statement that they are non-viable without any facts or figures. But, again, we have come to expect that from Liberal governments—they do not really worry too much about facts and figures; they just make it up as they go along.

As I said, just a couple of weeks ago the Western Australian Liberals in the House of Representatives thought it was just okay to vote for a bill which unfairly discriminated against towns in WA's North West. There was no debate in the House, so they did not see the opportunity to make a point then. Not a single Western Australian Liberal member spoke out against it—not even the member for Durack, whose seat encompasses some of the areas which were being discriminated against.

I wonder what the Liberal senators who have received those emails from their partners in the National Party will say it back to them? And I wonder what those Liberal senators will say to many the councils and shires that they have also received emails from? Will they suddenly turn around and, hopefully, acknowledge the good work of Alannah McTiernan, the member for Perth, when they respond to say, 'Yes, at the eleventh hour we've suddenly realised we've made a bit of a mistake when it comes to Western Australia.'?

The level of investment here is significant: $5 billion is available. One would think that Western Australian Liberal members—whether they are senators or from the House of Representatives—would want to make a strong bid for some of that $5 billion to come to Western Australia, to improve the north of Western Australia. But obviously, by their silence, they do not think that is worth investing in.

Of course, what was being proposed was to exclude these towns in Western Australia. The bill that was passed just a couple of weeks ago excluded the towns of Coral Bay and Exmouth, north of the Tropic of Capricorn. That is what they were excluding. The town of Exmouth is now going to be added through a special provision in the bill, and so is Carnarvon. If we applied the same rigor to where the lines were drawn in Western Australia as was applied in Queensland, most of the Gascoyne would in fact have been defined as 'northern Australia' and able to access the fund. I am not sure what happened when the ruler was drawn; perhaps they were not enough Western Australian Liberals looking at where the ruler was being drawn. But they seemed to be satisfied with cutting out significant parts of Western Australia from accessing the fund. But, as I said, there is an amendment today. Let's hope that it will get up, because I, as a Western Australian senator, and Labor support development; so we will be supporting those amendments. Turning to the other part of what was happening, Western Australia was on the cusp of missing out on millions of dollars in development opportunities, and that is what concerns us. As I said, that is now being addressed through the work of the Labor member for Perth. Carnarvon is the economic heart of the Gascoyne, with enormous development potential in horticulture and agriculture. I am not sure who in their right mind would have left it out.

The north does have a number of significant challenges. Road maintenance backlogs are a feature of the northern road system. We still have significant parts of northern Western Australia where there are gravel roads and there are significant truck movements on those roads, so road maintenance is an area that really does need to be looked at. There is a limited population, which is a feature of the West Australian north. It is a sparsely populated area, much of it remote, but it is absolutely worthy of investment, because the north of Western Australia is particularly beautiful. The tourism opportunities in the north are developing, but there are places still vastly untouched in these stunning regions. For example, there is really no way to get from Kununurra, the major town in the far north, through to Halls Creek other than by driving. You can take a mail plane, but it only operates a couple of days a week, and in Halls Creek you cannot hire a car. Having done the trip from Kununurra through to Halls Creek, I know it is about a four-hour drive and, once you get to Halls Creek, there are no car hire facilities. You have to hire in and out of Kununurra—a drive out and a drive back—or you plan your trip around when the mail plane is operating. These are just some of the challenges being faced in remote parts of Western Australia. Halls Creek is a town that most people would have heard of—it is a remote centre but not a place that people have not heard of—yet it is an incredibly hard place to get to.

Last week the Australian Bureau of Statistics released statistics about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in terms of disability, discrimination, educational opportunity and disadvantage. We in this place all know that we have a lot of work to do. Significant numbers of Aboriginal people within Western Australia live in our north-west—in fact, the whole of northern Australia has significant populations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We know that the Kimberley, for example, has the highest rate of suicide in the world. There needs to be a much greater emphasis on involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in a very meaningful way in how we develop infrastructure first and foremost for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

From a report I looked at from one of the inquiries of a joint House committee, I must say that the view of the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science certainly requires modernising, to say the least. They thought the key role for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' engagement in the northern Australia strategy was to be the labour force—completely missing any opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be part of the seed development, part of the ideas generation, part of that development. It seems that the department just came in over the top of that and said, 'We have to have meaningful engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in terms of employment.' Of course we do, but our first engagement should be with the traditional owners of the land as to what they want to see—that is, what are the cultural and economic development opportunities for them, not just as a second-hand labour force but as a critical party in the development of projects? Five billion dollars is a lot of money. Let's use some of it to improve some of those health statistics of Aboriginal people—particularly in the Kimberley, but also in the Gascoyne, in the Pilbara and so on—because they are appalling. For Western Australia to have the highest rate of Aboriginal suicide in the world is a statistic that should stop us in our tracks. It should make us focus on what really needs to happen.

The departmental official went on to say in their evidence:

The second aspect I guess—

'I guess' sounds like a bit of a thought bubble—

in terms of the engagement, could relate to Indigenous groups investing in projects as well.

What an appalling throwaway line! The main thrust of the department was to have Aboriginal people available as some kind of labour hire company who perhaps as 'a second aspect … could'. What kind of throwaway line is that? That is just a thought bubble with no strategic planning around how we really do proper engagement for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples whose land this development will take place on.

Contrast that, if you like, with the Kimberley Land Council's submission to the inquiry, where they said:

The KLC supports a balanced and considered approach to development, where industry, conservation and biodiversity initiatives and traditional owners and culture can coexist.

In the Kimberley we have been using a two-pronged approach to do this. Using this model, we are engaging in commercial projects on one side and creating a cultural enterprise that utilises our land but produces social and environmental outcomes on the other side. Through using this model we are ensuring the very best f our people, our country, our culture and our future. We want any future economic development of the Kimberley to include existing projects and we urge the inquiry to consider the Kimberley as a trial site for the strategic regional assessment of economic and social development.

That submission from the KLC is a far cry from the department's thinking—a far cry. Again it shows how lack of engagement, particularly with Aboriginal people in northern Australia, has been ignored throughout this process. I heard Senator Sterle say in his contribution to the northern Australia infrastructure bill that he wanted to see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as members of the board that will oversee that project. I certainly echo those sentiments because, when you look at Western Australia in particular, apart from other Aboriginal enterprises there are something like 44 stations there, so this is a significant input by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people which has been overlooked. I urge the government, in whatever it does next, to start to look at proper consultation with the traditional owners in northern Australia to make sure that we have projects that they want, that will benefit them, that they develop, that they drive and that they develop skills from.

1:30 pm

Photo of Glenn LazarusGlenn Lazarus (Queensland, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Excuse me for sounding a little sarcastic, but I think there must be an election coming up! Finally, after three years of governing this country, we are seeing some promise and giving people some hope that their future may look a bit bright. It will not surprise you, but I am standing up to support the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill 2016. In fact, I will support any bill that supports Queensland and helps to create real, quality jobs for the state of Queensland. My home state of Queensland is on its knees and has been for some time now. Finally we are seeing an announcement from this coalition government that may well give them a lot of hope.

We desperately need infrastructure projects in Queensland. We need water infrastructure to move water across the state to where it is needed. Our farmers have been for a long time and are still on their knees. Rather than selling off our country to the Chinese and other foreign buyers, we urgently need to support our farmers and other agricultural landholders to succeed and to grow their businesses. We are perfectly positioned to be the food bowl of Asia and we need to ensure we support our farmers to achieve this. We should be selling the milk, not the cow.

We need a new sports and entertainment precinct in Townsville. I thought Jonathan Thurston could not have made it any clearer on grand final night last year during his speech that Townsville and the game of rugby league desperately need a new stadium or entertainment precinct in Townsville. We need to upgrade the Townsville-Mount Isa rail link. We need to upgrade the Bruce Highway and other transport corridors across the state. We need new aged-care facilities to ensure our retirees are able to live out their lives in comfort and with decency and respect. We need improved facilities right across rural and regional Queensland, including basic facilities like public pools, transport terminals, libraries, upgrades for schools, hospitals, recreational centres, sporting and grandstand facilities and community centres.

But I do not want to see this bill result in the coalition awarding concessionalised loan funding for projects to all their mates or donors from overseas countries, and I do not want to see this bill resulting in an increase in 457 or other temporary work visas. So, on behalf of the people of Queensland and the rest of the country, we want the government to give the people of Australia an undertaking here today that concessionalised loan funds will only be provided to projects where the successful project owners are Australian owned businesses or are majority Australian owned; that the successful projects will only use Australian goods, equipment and services or no less than 90 per cent Australian content; that 100 per cent of the jobs created by the projects funded will be given to Australian workers here in Australia—and many in my home state of Queensland.

I and the people of Queensland want a guarantee that the funds will not pay for one 457 visa holder or any other temporary overseas worker visa holders. I and the people of Queensland want a guarantee that the government will include a requirement that 5 per cent of all jobs associated with projects funded will be allocated for apprenticeships so we can get our youth back into jobs and work across rural and regional Queensland. Not only will this help with jobs for our youth; but it will also help to grow our trades: our electrical trades, our building trades, our metal work trades and many other trades.

I and the people of Queensland want a guarantee that any products moved around the country associated with projects funded will be moved on Australian ships with Australian crews. I do not want these projects funding overseas ships and overseas crews. I and the people of Queensland want a commitment that funding will be allocated to upgrade port facilities across the state of Queensland and to invest in shipbuilding projects. Our shipping and maritime industry is on its knees, and this will ensure we assist to support and grow this vital industry. I and the people of Queensland also want a commitment that green energy projects will be given funding priority to ensure our country is positioned to urgently transition to green energy. The funding associated with this bill is being provided by Australian taxpayers, and Australian taxpayers—not foreign companies and not other countries—deserve to benefit from their taxes.

We would like a response and a commitment from the government—today—that you will deliver on all of our requests. If the coalition genuinely cares about the people of Australia, it will commit to these things today. These requests support Australian jobs for Australian workers and create real jobs for the real people of Australia now.

1:35 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I unambiguously welcome the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill 2016. It is an important step towards giving industries in northern Australia, particularly the agricultural sector, access to finance to invest in viable infrastructure projects for which they may otherwise have been unable to attract sufficient investment to get off the ground. To reflect on Senator Lazarus's speech: of course we need to make sure that the money is spent wisely and that there is accountability for that. I know that Senator Whish-Wilson in his contribution made mention of that as well in terms of having either a cost-benefit analysis or another transparency mechanism to ensure that the loans given are there for maximum benefit and are subject to scrutiny of how those loans work out in the longer term. The criteria for investment, all those related issues and the outcomes of those investments need to be considered as well.

Madam Acting Deputy President Lines, I note that in your contribution to this bill you made reference to Carnarvon and areas that were left out of the bill. I understand, from the brief discussions I have had with the minister and representations made to me just last Friday by the peak industry body for horticulture, AUSVEG, that there will be some sensible amendments to that to deal with those issues. I think that is an example of the Senate doing its job. It was not something that was raised in the House of Representatives to any real degree. This is where the debate will take place. This is where those sensible amendments in relation to Carnarvon and other areas in Western Australia can be debated and, hopefully, passed. So that is important.

I just want to make this point. The Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia's report on this bill quite rightly points out:

Northern Australia is a region of vast potential. The development of infrastructure that can generate long-term growth in the population and economy of Northern Australia is crucial in realising this potential.

I want to acknowledge those advocates on both sides of the chamber who have been campaigning for this passionately. I should acknowledge Senator Ian Macdonald, who has been a long-time champion for this, and also the work of someone who I will genuinely miss when he leaves this place: Senator Bill Heffernan, who a number of years ago chaired the Prime Minister's Taskforce on Northern Australia. He was ahead of his time. He spoke with passion and clarity about what needed to be done. It was a position that he held when John Howard was Prime Minister, and it is a pity that his expertise was not used in a bipartisan way. I make that point to say that Senator Heffernan has been an outspoken advocate for developing the North, with his great knowledge of the bush in both the North and the south of this country.

But northern Australia is not the only region with vast unrealised potential, nor is it the only region in desperate need of assistance to generate long-term economic and population growth. I will reflect on that shortly, but I want to point out that I think every Australian should be interested in this bill, because the research material that has been provided to me states that the state of infrastructure in northern Australia has been a recurring issue in a number of reports over a number of years. Senator Heffernan's committee was one of those that looked at that earlier on. The Northern Australian Infrastructure Audit, conducted by Infrastructure Australia, found, for example:

Maintenance backlogs are a feature of the northern road system …

It said:

With limited population and often small industry sizes … it can be difficult to capture the … economies of scale that allow commercially viable infrastructure services at competitive prices.

And it found:

70 per cent of premises in Northern Australia received the lowest broadband quality rating in 2013 …

The Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia inquiry into the development of northern Australia found that in northern Australia:

The absence of economic infrastructure, particularly water, power and transport, impedes opportunities for economic development and liveability …

That is why it is important that we have government intervention in this form. There are some in this parliament—dare I say more so in the coalition, and I do not include the minister, Senator Canavan, in that category—who say, 'Leave it up to the markets.' Well, sometimes the markets fail us. Sometimes some targeted, sensible government intervention can actually assist economic development and make a huge net economic benefit come into play. That is why this legislation is very important.

This bill will provide traditional concessional loans—that is, loans at concessional rates, below market rates—for the construction of northern Australian economic infrastructure. The minimum facility loans will be $50 million, and the financing of eligible projects must not exceed 50 per cent of the total project debt. The parameters are reflected in the draft investment mandate, which proposes $50 million as the minimum amount of financing as a non-mandatory eligibility criterion and would require, as a mandatory criterion, that the finance provided by the facility not exceed 50 per cent of the total project debt. The draft investment mandate also stipulates that the facility must consult Infrastructure Australia when it is deciding whether to provide a project with financial assistance of more than $100 million, which I think goes some way to addressing some of the issues raised by Senator Whish-Wilson. I am not suggesting it addresses them all, but it does nod in the general direction of saying we need to consider the costs and benefits of a particular investment. There must be transparency in this process, but it also indicates the need, where appropriate, for government intervention where the market has failed.

This fund will cost taxpayers a fraction of the $5 billion that is at stake, because they are the terms of the concessional loans. I understand that the financial impact statement for this bill estimates the facility will cost $39.7 million to operate over a five-year period but will generate $40.2 million in fee revenue for the same period. When you consider that the loans will be paid back and they will be prudent investment decisions, this really is a no-brainer. It is a case where targeted investment to build up that critical infrastructure—that critical mass in the North of Australia—and to build up those industries that have so much potential will essentially pay for itself. It seems to me that this is something that the private equity markets were not able to do. It really harks back, I think, to the Snowy Mountains scheme. If we took a cold, hard, economic rationalist view of the Snowy Mountains scheme, I do not think it would pass muster, but when you look at the nation-building implications of that scheme, the long-term benefits, I see parallels between what this bill is proposing and the Snowy Mountains scheme. I hope it is as successful and as nation building.

But it would be absolutely remiss of me, as a senator for the state of South Australia, not to reflect on what is happening in the south of Australia. Northern Australia, as I said, is not the only region with vast, unrealised potential, nor is it the only region in desperate need of assistance to generate long-term economic and population growth. Just today, CommSec's State of the states report ranked South Australia as Australia's equal worst state economy:

South Australia's economy has been ranked as the equal worst of the Australian states after Tasmania nudged upwards to join SA in seventh place.

That is not something to be proud of, and it indicates some very deep systemic issues in my home state of South Australia. I will focus on South Australia.

South Australia has one of the lowest rates of population growth in the nation. From September 2014 to September 2015, South Australia's population increased by only 0.7 per cent. Only Tasmania and the Northern Territory saw lower rates of population growth, increasing by 0.4 and 0.3 per cent respectively. South Australia's population growth is about half of the national population growth. In fact, in the three decades to 2014, South Australia's population grew by 350,000, almost 20 per cent, at a time when the national population grew by 55 per cent. These figures clearly demonstrate that it is not only the north of Australia that needs an injection of capital and population but southern Australia does too.

I have been very happy over a number of months to work with Mark Glazbrook, the managing director of Migration Solutions in South Australia, who is highly regarded as a migration agent, is somebody who has been an industry leader and is someone who I am very pleased to be associated with. We have been working on an economic migration program for those states and territories that have well below the national average population growth and well below the national average economic growth. Clearly those regions—it might be regional New South Wales or regional Queensland—do not have the population growth that is needed for those communities to grow.

We need those solutions and I unambiguously advocate for incentives for economic migrants a lower threshold than the $5 million required for those special investor visa migrants. We have seen several hundred people take those up but mainly in the eastern states. It is important that we have those measures in place to assist those areas of the country which do not have sufficient population growth or economic growth. Even 2,000 business migrants and their families bringing $1 million to $2 million net each to invest in addition to being self-sufficient would provide a multibillion-dollar boost in a state such as mine. There is no question that Australia is a very attractive destination for the rest of the world. Former Prime Minister Abbott—I may have disagreed with him on many things—said that being an Australian is almost like winning the lottery of life. Despite our problems, Australia is still one of the greatest places to live in, I believe. We need to look at economic migration boosts so that we have the population to drive economic growth. I also want to make the point that South Australia does have a long and proud history of farming and agriculture. We are world renowned for our high-quality fruit and vegetables, wine and dairy products to name just a few. Jacobs Creek and Maggie Beer enjoy international reputations and are ambassadors for South Australia's ability to grow and export top-quality goods.

It is important that we do not take the view that it is either/or; we can do both. We need to drive investment and growth in northern Australia with this appropriate sensible government intervention by acknowledging that the markets do not always get it right where there is, if not an element of market failure, an issue of market absence by there not being the funds to develop northern Australia. We also need to acknowledge what will happen in South Australia and what will happen in Victoria for that matter when the automotive sector ceases manufacturing in this country. The Bracks review work by Professor John Spoehr at Flinders University made it very clear that up to 200,000 jobs will be at risk at the end of 2017. That will scar the nation's economy unless we have alternatives in place, unless we move with great haste and with great political will to deal with those issues.

I welcome these bills but we should not ignore the challenges facing those southern states that are languishing in economic and population growth or ignore the challenges ahead in the automotive sector. The shipbuilding announcements and submarine announcements made recently are obviously welcome for the state of South Australia and indeed for the nation. The submarine contract—as welcome as it is—is a wonderful thing for the nation in that we are not going to be building those submarines offshore but it is still a number of years away before we start cutting steel. Those job losses in South Australia and in Victoria will be hitting us very hard by the end of 2017 if not earlier. I would urge the government to take the same sort of thinking, the same sort of foresight it has had in developing northern Australia to consider the existing infrastructure, the potential and the denuding of manufacturing in the southern states, which pose significant challenges to the nation's wealth and to the job prospects for many tens of thousands of South Australians, Victorians and Tasmanians as well. Tasmania has been struggling with power shortages and the like, which have obviously dampened investment and opportunity in that state.

I also make the point that if northern Australia is to grow, it will need things like steel and steel is important. Arrium, based in Whyalla and providing structural steel, is in administration. We cannot afford to lose any of our steel makers whether it is rolling steel at BlueScope or structural steel at Arrium in Whyalla, because that would undermine our manufacturing capacity.

I do not want to bore the minister; he looks a little bit bored and restless. Do not underestimate the importance of our steel sector. I want northern Australia to grow but I also want it to be using Australian steel made at Port Kembla and in Whyalla because once we lose capacity to make steel in this country, we lose our capacity as a manufacturing nation. I look forward to this bill being passed and I look forward to it doing good for the nation but I also look forward to the government acknowledging the deep problems that the southern states have, particularly those states that have been reliant on manufacturing.

1:51 pm

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a great honour to rise to sum up the debate on the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Bill 2016 and Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2016. As someone resident in northern Australia, I am very passionate and excited about what these bills and what the government's broader agenda to develop northern Australia can achieve.

I want to thank all the contributors to this debate. It has been fantastic to be here. I have been able to be here for most of the debate to listen to many others in this chamber speak passionately about the development of the North. When I had the honour of coming into this portfolio, one of the first things I said was that I want this to be bipartisan. This should be a nation-building exercise. This should be an exercise which we attempt to do as a nation and commit to do over many decades. I am sure that over those many decades there will be governments of different colours and varieties, and as long as we are all supporting this agenda and moving in the same direction we can actually implement a lot over that time frame.

I thought Senator Xenophon might find a way to speak for something like 10 or 12 minutes about southern Australia in a bill about northern Australia, but he is absolutely right to point out that this is in the league of other great nation-building initiatives that we as a country and that this parliament has taken in the past. Whether it be developing interstate railways, the Snowy Mountains Scheme or other initiatives that have often been geographically focused, the Commonwealth government, in partnership with state governments and the private sector, has over our 115-year history as a country done a lot to develop specific areas of our country and leave a great legacy for future generations. These bills are in the same genre, the same pattern, of economic development and of nation-building infrastructure that we would like to build—in this case for northern Australia because we see the unique opportunities that that part of our country does provide.

As other speakers have outlined, together these bills will provide $5 billion in concessional finance to deliver this transformative infrastructure. They will accelerate the development of the North, open up new market opportunities, reduce costs for businesses, create jobs, encourage a larger population base and create an environment that will enable further infrastructure investment. The investment will ensure that the government does its job in providing the basic infrastructure that farmers, miners and other individuals can use to make their investments and create even more jobs and more industries. These bills are a key part of our agenda to build on our country's strengths and create more jobs and new opportunities for all Australians. There is no lack of opportunities in the North, but there is a lack of infrastructure, and these bills are specifically designed to help fill that gap.

It has been a great privilege to assist the Minister for Resources, Energy and Northern Australia, the Hon. Josh Frydenberg MP, with the passage of these bills through the parliament. I would also like to recognise the other contributors, both in this chamber and in the other place, to the development of that agenda and these bills specifically. We had a joint parliamentary inquiry last year and the Pivot north report, which identified a range of opportunities for the North, that many members of this place were involved with. Earlier this year we had an Infrastructure Australia audit report. Many of the projects identified in that audit report are potential projects that could be funded by this facility. I should recognise—through you, Madam Acting Deputy President—Senator Heffernan, who has walked into the chamber for question time. It is nice to see you here, Senator Heffernan, for question time. He also was integral, particularly through the Land and Water Taskforce, in reporting on the opportunities existing in the North that have led to this particular government decision.

These bills were tabled in the parliament in mid-March after an exposure draft of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Bill was released in late January. Some speakers have mentioned that it has taken too long. We make no apologies for making sure we had an extensive consultative process for this. The bill has been out for consultation since January. It then went to draft, a draft was released and, of course, we had a parliamentary inquiry as well. I would like to thank those committee members who reported on that. The committee has recommended the passage of the bills. There was only one recommendation: to pass the bills. However, following further consultation with that committee and other stakeholders in Western Australia, we are proposing a minor amendment to the definition of 'northern Australia', which has been circulated in this chamber. The amendment brings the definition of the Western Australian part of northern Australia into line with some of the practices we have approached on the eastern side. We will be bringing in parts of the north-west of Western Australia which are below the Tropic of Capricorn but connected to those places above the Tropic of Capricorn, just as we have done with Alice Springs in the Northern Territory and Gladstone in Queensland. It is important to recognise, too, that after some lobbying from the local member, Ms Melissa Price, we have also included the local government areas of Meekatharra and Wiluna, and not just the larger centre of Carnarvon, which is below the Tropic of Capricorn.

Also, as noted in these bills, we will be releasing an investment mandate that will seek to guide the board of the facility about what its duties are in making these investments. We have put that out for consultation as well and have met with 55 stakeholders and communicated with a further 20 on Indigenous-specific issues. We will be releasing the final mandate soon. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, but there will be some minor changes as a result of those consultations.

I welcome the bipartisan approach we have had to these bills. I note that they have received significant support around the chamber, although there will be some amendments moved later in this debate. I will expand on the government's position on those amendments at the appropriate time. I would like to say, though, that some of the amendments that have been flagged would impose a higher barrier to infrastructure that would be built in northern Australia compared to infrastructure that would be built in southern Australia. The point of these bills is of course to facilitate and encourage infrastructure to be developed in the North, so it would seem kind of strange that those who otherwise purport to support these bills would seek to impose higher regulatory burdens on infrastructure built in northern Australia than on infrastructure built in southern Australia.

In saying that, I am hopeful that these bills will pass and will succeed in delivering economic infrastructure for the North as part of our broader plan to develop northern Australia. I want to thank everyone in this chamber—including Senator Macdonald, who is not here yet—for their contribution to this broader agenda to develop northern Australia. It is a very exciting agenda for our country. It is something the government is committed to in order to deliver jobs and opportunity right through Australia. While these bills are focused on northern Australia and on delivering infrastructure which benefits northern Australia, the development of northern Australia is going to benefit all of Australia. We are all Australians here, and the things that benefit Sydney, Melbourne, Cairns, Kununurra or Carnarvon are ultimately going to be to the benefit of all of us. Given how much opportunity there is in the North, given how much potential there is to develop our land, water and other resources, there is enormous potential for this bill, if it is passed, to deliver massive benefits to the more than one million people who live in northern Australia but also to the Australians that live everywhere else around this country. I thank everybody who has contributed to this debate and commend this bill to the Senate.