Senate debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Ministerial Statements

2021 Annual Statement on Developing Northern Australia

6:25 pm

Photo of Jonathon DuniamJonathon Duniam (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Forestry and Fisheries) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of the Minister of Agriculture and Northern Australia, Minister Littleproud, I table a ministerial statement on developing Northern Australia.

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

I rise to take note of the 2021 annual statement to the parliament on developing northern Australia and to acknowledge the Hon. David Littleproud, Minister for Agriculture and Northern Australia, because this truly is a government that is focused on developing the northern Australia agenda.

For a nation where just 1.3 million people—5.3 per cent of our population—live in the top 51 per cent of the nation, a casual observer could be forgiven for wondering why we'd prioritise the development of northern Australia. Surely it is too hot, too wet, too dry and too unpopulated to care about, but, for those of us who live, work, or invest in northern Australia, the reality is that it is the part of the nation that has the true potential to deliver the increase of food and fibre production, essential minerals for our new economy, unique and wonderful tourism destinations, defence placement and Indigenous community connections.

Our people are hardworking. They're used to being patient, waiting for seasons, for prices and for recognition from our southern cousins. Only five per cent of our House of Representatives members speak for the northern 50 per cent of land mass, and eight per cent of senators live in the north. A foreign observer wondering why our economy has continued to not just survive but thrive during the pandemic need look no further than northern Australia. The north kept digging, driving, growing, providing jobs and keeping the royalties and taxes flowing, and that's why we care, as a nation, about developing northern Australia.

I often refer to four pillars of developing the north. The first is access to affordable and reliable electricity; we pay, on average, three times more for electricity in North Queensland than those in southern Queensland. The second is access to insurance and finance; we pay three times the price of insurance, if we can get it, in northern Australia, and finance is similarly weighted. The third is the requirement for suitable road, rail, flight and freight infrastructure, and the fourth is access to high-quality medical care, aged care and child care.

I am delighted to say that this government is focusing on those very important issues—particularly the northern Australia insurance fund, which should come into effect next year. This is a $10 billion reinsurance pool which will allow insurers to re-enter the market in northern Australia and will ensure that we are suitably protected. The north performs functions that the south does not and cannot. Through royalties, it funds much of the rest of the nation—including hospitals and schools—and, again, for that reason, the north matters.

Most importantly, though, recently $9.3 million has been allocated to the Regions of Growth pilot program: Broome to Kununurra to Darwin, across Western Australia and the Northern Territory; the Beetaloo basin to Katherine to Darwin, again in the Northern Territory; and Cairns to Gladstone, and Mount Isa to Townsville, in Queensland. The minister has announced the master plans for three of those regions and their respective corridors, 20-year blueprints and five-year action plans to lead a structured and coordinated investment agenda. Most importantly, though, it's in collaboration with state and territory counterparts, industry and communities.

The first master plans will focus on locations within three regions of growth: Kununurra to Darwin, Katherine to Middle Arm and Mount Isa to Townsville. These projects will de-risk the north and give confidence to the private sector to invest in northern Australia. This is important because it is developing plans for the north by the north. I'm truly excited by this advancement in policy thinking.

Minister Littleproud has brought new coordination to the government policy settings in this country because he has turned his mind to coordinating a whole-of-government effort. Traditionally, departments work in silos. What Minister Littleproud has done has encouraged the introduction of more frequent round tables, where federal, state and territory jurisdiction agencies across a range of portfolios—health, defence, infrastructure and many more—sit at the same table and discuss the significant advancements that are being made, both in government research investment as well as in private enterprise.

We know that it is in the north that the significant productivity gains in mining and agriculture and in renewables and new industries will spring up. Resources are taking off, pit-to-port. Vanadium and rare earth mines are being developed, and I applaud the Queensland government for recently investing in a public utility asset for a vanadium-processing facility.

The CRC for northern Australia is doing extremely interesting work. There are promising results from studies into alternative cropping, forestry and cane, utilising industries that are already successful in northern Australia and finding new and more exciting uses for these crops. The important part is that that allows farmers and producers to be more profitable and more successful. We know that makes them not only more sustainable but better land managers, which is something that there has been quite a deal of interest in—in Queensland particularly. And, importantly, it's about Indigenous business development—being able to harness the enthusiasm and the potential of Indigenous communities that are looking for ways to engage their young people and their communities on country, to stay on country and not have to go away.

Townsville port is Australia's largest northern port for sugar, lead, copper, zinc, fertiliser and molasses, and live cattle as well. It is also the largest container and automotive port in northern Australia. More than eight million tonnes of goods worth more than $10 billion are handled through there each year.

So this is an exciting future, funded and supported by this coalition government. It is important that we do turn our whole-of-government attention to developing, as I said, cross-portfolio solutions for the north. We need to positively discriminate for northern Australia. In Townsville alone, $562 million was spent on flying consultants into that city, a city that has incredible and useful capability and capacity in business consulting, health consulting, transport and freight consulting, yet we continue to fly people into that city. I think if I did the numbers, it would be the same right across northern Australia.

I am tired of businesses having a token office—a post office box and a serviced office—in our northern cities and calling that being 'based in the north'. They then call for government projects when they don't pay the salaries into northern Australia. The people don't live there; they don't have their white-collar salaries in the north, their kids in the schools or their lawns being mowed. These are the sorts of things that develop our northern capacity. So when I say I want to positively discriminate in favour of the north, it is to demand that appointments are filled by people who live in northern Australia, that contracts for consultants are awarded to companies that are genuinely based in the north and to support projects and organisations that pay their wages and live in northern Australia, not fly-in, fly-out. It is only with that kind of practical approach that we can fulfil our true potential and destiny, and I applaud the Minister for Agriculture and Northern Australia for the work he has done in truly driving this agenda and holding us to account.

6:35 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I would have loved to have been there in person. Unfortunately, that has not been possible, but I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to this and to take note of the minister's statement on northern Australia. I congratulate Senator McDonald, who I know has taken on a new role in relation to northern Australia, and I congratulate Minister Littleproud on providing his first update as Minister for Agriculture and Northern Australia to the House of Representatives. However, it must be said that, six years on from the introduction of this government's white paper on developing northern Australia, the truth is we are still waiting on this government to deliver on many of the promises they've made to the north. We hear a lot of talk from this government about the potential of northern Australia, but six years on we still haven't seen a whole lot delivered. I think most people in northern Australia would have expected to see more on the ground from this government six years after that white paper was released.

This week, while I haven't been with you in Canberra, I have taken the opportunity to spend the last two days in Cairns, where I have seen a lot more of that potential on display both in the traditional industries that Cairns is very well known for and in new industries. What we need is a federal government that's going to get behind that potential, whether it be in Cairns or other places in Queensland, the Northern Territory or Western Australia, and convert that potential to reality. Unfortunately, over the life of this government, time and time again we've seen advances in the northern Australia agenda derailed by leadership squabbles within the National Party. It is the National Party that has held this portfolio for most of the life of this government. Recently, we saw Minister Keith Pitt ousted from the job as minister for northern Australia, after only one year in the role, as the result of another leadership change in the National Party. It is disappointing, I think, to everyone in northern Australia watching on to see the Nationals fight for their own jobs rather than for the jobs of northern Australians.

We've also seen significant turmoil at the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, the key policy and program behind the government's northern Australia agenda. That was exacerbated recently by the shocking and unexplained resignation of its CEO. Labor supports the NAIF, as I and my predecessors have always made clear, and there is a genuine gap in financing projects in northern Australia which the NAIF could fill. Over the last couple of days in both Cairns and Brisbane I've met with businesses who are currently seeking funding through the NAIF, and there is no denying there is a financing gap when it comes to projects in northern Australia that the NAIF could be filling. That's why I was pleased that over the last 12 months the government adopted some of the suggestions proposed through the Senate inquiry into the federal government's northern Australia agenda, such as allowing it to make equity investments and increasing support for small and First Nations projects. But, six years after it was announced, the NAIF has still released only 8½ per cent or $427.6 million of its $5 billion budget, so at this rate it'll take 70 years for all of the NAIF's funding to actually be rolled out.

It has also been concerning this year to see the winding back of some of the offers of northern Australia's key structures. This included downgrading the ministerial forum on northern Australia to an as-needed format and cutting off funding to the Indigenous Reference Group for northern Australia. It's pleasing that the government, under Minister Littleproud, has now confirmed that the Indigenous Reference Group will be re-established—that should never have been in doubt. But it is concerning that so little consideration was given to the ongoing importance of engagement with First Nations northern Australians, especially given the land ownership and the sheer population of First Nations people in northern Australia. These types of structures are essential for the collaboration that the northern Australia agenda needs to succeed.

I will pick up on one point that Senator McDonald made. She talked about the importance of jobs being located in northern Australia. I agree with her on that point, and it would be really good to see this government follow suit. We learned at Senate estimates recently that the majority of the staff of the NAIF, the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, are based in Sydney, which is hardly northern Australia. There are more NAIF staff in Sydney than there are across the entirety of northern Australia. It's just not good enough, and it's another sign that, unfortunately, this government's promises to northern Australia don't always get delivered.

I say this after spending significant amounts of time in northern Australia and speaking to many representatives, whether it be businesses, unions, governments or community organisations. As the government is fond of saying, the north is ripe with potential, but it needs more than just the recognition of its potential. The north needs a real, bold plan backed by real action. The truth is that we do have the opportunity to set up northern Australia to lead our country out of COVID-19. It has incredible opportunities that could really lead the pace for our country as a whole, but what northern Australia needs, as I say, is a real plan with real action rather than woolly promises that end up not being delivered. That's what Labor's economic plan for northern Australia will do. I will spend the remainder of my contribution putting forward an alternative agenda for northern Australia which actually will deliver on the potential that we know exists in the region.

Fundamental to Labor's plan is a very simple proposition, that what we support and what northern Australia desperately wants is more jobs in more industries. They don't want to be picked off and involved in some culture war between the Greens on the one hand and the National Party on the other, who say that you can only have the new industries or you can only have the traditional industries. What people in northern Australia want is more jobs in more industries. That's what Labor's plan will deliver. We want to create more jobs in the north's backbone industries, such as agriculture, resources and tourism. There remain huge opportunities across these traditional, well-established industries—things like food manufacturing, carbon farming, cultural and environmental tourism, and minerals—to build the supply chain and to value-add by building things like batteries here in Australia, preferably in northern Australia. We also want to create more jobs in the hidden industries, the industries that we often don't recognise and that don't get featured in the government's agenda for northern Australia—industries like health care, education and human services. Go to any major town in northern Australia and you will find that the biggest employers are those sectors, but, despite the fact that they're such big employers, they're not part of the government's northern Australia agenda. That has to change, because they have huge economic potential and they cater to the service needs and lifestyle needs of our north.

Of course, Labor also wants to create more jobs in the newer industries, like renewables, hydrogen, advanced manufacturing, aerospace, and creative industries, where the north has a massive competitive advantage. Again, you don't hear much from the government about those industries, but they are fast growing, they have huge opportunities, they generally provide well-paid jobs and they pick up on the cultural and knowledge base that northern Australia has in abundance.

One of the Senate inquiry's key findings was that the northern Australia agenda needs to get behind these new industries, creating greater and more-stable employment across the north. As an example, with a government that was truly committed to its development, rather than a government that had to be dragged kicking and screaming to net zero emissions by 2050, we could make northern Australia the world capital of new energy generation. Just imagine the opportunities that we have to drive a new age of heavy engineering and advanced manufacturing in the north on the back of cheap, clean power. After years of manufacturing decline, we could reindustrialise our north, bringing manufacturing onshore by offering cheap power and creating good jobs for decades to come. That's just one example in one sector.

There are many opportunities like this arising across northern Australia, but they need a real plan that actually acknowledges the industries and gets behind them, rather than pooh-poohing them, which is what we've seen far too often from this government. We need to see some serious commitments from the government to deliver opportunities in infrastructure, in skills and in social infrastructure. Any time you go into northern Australia—it doesn't matter where you go—housing is one of the first issues that are raised with you. Skills shortages is the other. Again, we've seen serious underinvestment from the government in those areas. We can't possibly expect to take the opportunities that exist—whether they be in those traditional industries, in the hidden industries or in the new industries—if we don't provide that basic social infrastructure. Again, that is just not part of this government's plan.

Labor has a clear plan for more jobs in more industries. We will deliver the infrastructure, the skills and all of the other social infrastructure that's needed. It's time for a change in northern Australia. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted.

Question agreed to.