Senate debates

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Statements by Senators

Queensland: Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility

12:54 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As I have said on many occasions in this chamber, regional Queensland urgently needs jobs and urgently needs new projects funded by this federal government. Unfortunately, the federal budget handed down recently again failed to deliver any new funding—particularly to Central Queensland. Fund after fund have been set up by this government previously, allegedly to build projects in regional Queensland, but are failing to do anything.

There is no better example of this than the government's two-year-old Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, a $5 billion fund that was set up by the then Abbott government nearly two years ago. To this day, it has continued to fail the people of regional Queensland. Not one new project has been funded, not one job created and not one shovel has been in the ground creating jobs in regional Queensland, despite being up and running for nearly two years. In fact, the only money that has been spent by the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility is the highly-paid salaries that have gone to its directors. I will have a bit more to say about the directors shortly.

This Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility—or, as we have come to term it, the 'No Actual Infrastructure Fund'—is clouded in secrecy. It is impossible to get information from this government about the kinds of applications that have been made for funding from this fund. It is impossible to get any information at all about the apparent conflicts of interest that a number of directors of this fund have. The entire fund is shrouded in secrecy, and the government will not say anything about its operation, despite the fact that it has been given $5 billion of taxpayers funds to spend.

The act that governs the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility is very clear about the duties of directors to act in good faith and to disclose any possible conflicts of interest. Those requirements of the act are reflected in the fund's own conflict-of-interest policy, which requires directors to disclose any conflicts of interest that they may have, whether they be actual conflicts, potential conflicts or apparent conflicts. There is also a requirement in the fund's own policy that applies to its directors, that directors excuse themselves from discussions about funding applications which might give rise to a conflict of interest against them. But as I said, it is impossible to find out any information from this government about whether those policies have been complied with.

In recent weeks, a number of serious concerns have been raised about a number of directors of this fund—in particular, one director, Ms Karla Way-McPhail. This is an issue that I pursued at estimates, but I thought it was important to update the Senate on this as well.

This issue about Ms Way-McPhail's conflicts of interest is not just about something that affects one particular director of this fund; it actually directly involves Minister Matt Canavan, the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia. What we uncovered at Senate estimates recently was that Minister Canavan had actually put forward Ms Way-McPhail for nomination to the facility's board around two years ago. That is no great surprise, because he admitted in estimates that she is a friend of his. That is also not a surprise—they are from the same part of the world, from Yeppoon in Central Queensland, and Ms Way-McPhail is a well-known supporter of the LNP in Senator Canavan's backyard. So it is no surprise that he is a friend of hers. He admitted at estimates that he has seen her at numerous LNP fundraisers. Again, that is not a great surprise, because we were also able to establish that in 2014-15, Ms Way-McPhail had been a donor to the LNP in Queensland to the value of $1,200.

What we were able to establish at estimates is that there is a direct connection between the appointment of Ms Way-McPhail—a friend of Senator Canavan's, a donor to the LNP and, as I will talk about later, a hyperpartisan supporter of the LNP—and Minister Canavan. He had her appointed to this board to oversee $5 billion in taxpayers' funds.

Their personal connections are one thing, but it does go beyond that. As I said, there have been numerous concerns raised in recent weeks about serious potential conflicts of interest, or potentially even actual conflicts of interests, that exist in relation to Ms Way-McPhail. If you do a company search for Ms Way-McPhail, as I have done, you will see that she has extensive business holdings in Central Queensland, an area that potentially does stand to gain from funding applications made to the NAIF.

I should say that Labor supports the NAIF. We support funding being distributed from the NAIF to get projects up and running. What we do not support is the apparent conflict of interest between at least one director of this fund, who was appointed by Minister Matt Canavan, and the potential for her to use her position to gain personally. What does that mean? As I say, among her extensive business interests, she is the owner and director of at least two different mining services companies: Undamine and Coal Train. They are mining services companies which, among other things, provide labour hire and other services to the mining industry. It is already on the public record that there is at least one major mining project that is currently seeking funding from the NAIF to assist it with an infrastructure project, and it is quite likely—although we do not know this for sure, because the NAIF will not tell us—that there are numerous other mining companies who want to operate in Central Queensland. Good on them. We support those kinds of projects going ahead, but it is quite likely that there are numerous other mining projects in central and northern Australia which are seeking funding from the NAIF, seeking funding from a body which has a director who personally stands to gain from those applications if they are granted.

But her interests do not only extend to the mining industry. Ms Way-McPhail is also the director and owner of another company operating in Central Queensland: The Keppel Barge Pty Ltd. That is a company that operates a barge service between the mainland and Great Keppel Island, a tourist island well known to many Australians which is potentially facing further redevelopment. In addition to owning this barge company that operates with Great Keppel Island, Ms Way-McPhail has also been the director of a community protest group called Our Keppel Our Future. That group was formed with the explicit purpose of supporting redevelopment of tourist facilities on Great Keppel Island by a company called Tower Holdings. And what do you know? We have been able to establish that Tower Holdings has also applied for funding from the NAIF. In addition to the mining companies that are seeking funding from the NAIF to do things in Central Queensland which Ms Way-McPhail could personally benefit from, there is also another company which is seeking to build a tourist development on Great Keppel Island. The NAIF may well grant it funds. That development may well go ahead. That would be a good thing for the region, but Ms Way-McPhail is operating a barge company which could personally stand to gain. Let's remember: this is Ms Way-McPhail, friend of Minister Canavan, appointed by Minister Canavan, donor to the LNP.

Ms Way-McPhail's issues in relation to her membership of this board go beyond these potential conflicts of interest. She has also demonstrated herself to be a highly partisan supporter of the LNP and the government. Until she deleted her account on Facebook, she was a regular contributor expressing her political views on Facebook. On Senator Canavan's own Facebook page, where he made comments about the mining industry, Ms Way-McPhail commented that a vote for the ALP equals a vote for the Greens equals a vote for the end of the resource sector. No miner or secondary industry that supports mining would even consider voting for these anti-mining political parties.

So we have a director of a $5 billion fund, appointed by Minister Canavan, a friend of Minister Canavan, a donor to the LNP, has extensive interests in the mining and tourism industries, which may both benefit from applications to the NAIF. She was also, until she deleted her account, commenting publicly on Minister Canavan's own Facebook page and the Facebook page of Michelle Landry, the member for Capricornia, making highly partisan comments. You really have to ask yourself whether this is an appropriate person to be overseeing what are supposed to be independent decisions about the allocation of $5 billion in taxpayers funds. We really have to ask whether we can have any confidence that she is actually approaching this job in an independent manner.

So what should happen? For starters, this afternoon Labor has moved a motion to establish a Senate inquiry into the apparent conflicts of interest which riddle the northern Australia infrastructure facility. We were unable to get answers from the minister at estimates, so we have had to take this course of establishing a Senate inquiry to look into this further. I also noticed that, when some of these allegations first were raised back on 29 May, an article in The Guardian quoted the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Joyce, as saying there would be an investigation into these apparent conflicts of interest, so I would be very interested in the minister now coming and advising us what the outcome of that investigation has been.

But, more than anything, what we need is some actual transparency around the operation of this board. Minister Canavan should come in here today, advise the Senate of what conflicts of interest have been disclosed by both Ms Way-McPhail and any other directors of this board. He should advise whether these directors have absented themselves. More than anything, I do not think that it can be proven she can remain on this board. He should sack her today.