Senate debates

Tuesday, 17 October 2023


Annual Statement to Parliament on Northern Australia; Tabling

6:29 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

I, on behalf of the Minister for Northern Australia, Ms King, table the Annual statement to parliament on northern Australia.

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

I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

Northern Australia is the powerhouse of this country. It has pioneered and drives our most important industries, including agriculture, mining, tourism and defence. These industries have created prosperity for individuals, for families, for companies and for Australia as a nation. They also feed us, employ us and protect us. None of us should ever take northern Australia for granted or underestimate its contribution to the Australian standard of living.

Until Australians started feeling the shocks of an ever-increasing cost of living under the Albanese Labor government, we ranked equal fourth for the highest standard of living in the world. A strong economy, quality of life, education and health care are the main factors that contribute to this global ranking. The northern economy is the foundation of these pillars, largely through the billions of dollars from resources royalties and company taxes that fund the construction of new schools, hospitals and infrastructure throughout our communities. If you have a good hospital, school and roads where you live, then you can most likely thank northern Australia.

Anybody who has spent time in northern Australia can smell the syrupy thickness of opportunity and resourcefulness in the air while at the same time marvel at the ingenuity, resilience and courage of the very few who have created a living and lifestyle there. Northern Australia is vast. Its size and remoteness are almost unimaginable to those who live in our cosmopolitan capital cities and bustling regional towns. In Queensland you can drive 600 kilometres from Richmond to Normanton and not see a house except for a few in the one town along the track, which is Julia Creek, which has a population of 500. Northern Australia makes up 53 per cent of our landmass, and only five per cent of us live there.

In agriculture, northern Australia produces 12.5 million beef cattle, which is 64 per cent of the national beef herd. Over generations of backbreaking work in tropical heat, torrential rain and annual cyclones, northern cane producers produce more than 95 per cent of our sugar, and fruit farmers grow 94 per cent of our bananas and 93 per cent of our mangoes.

Every Australian state and territory except for the ACT produces minerals. Try to imagine the $500 billion resources sector without Western Australia, Queensland, the Northern Territory and the great regions of the Pilbara, Bowen Basin and Groote Eylandt. Northern Australia produces the critical minerals that the entire world demands and is crucial to Australia's defence. We have an extensive geological catalogue of critical minerals, with growing potential for other minerals which are yet to be declared critical.

Northern Australia attracts international tourists as well as domestic travellers to its spectacular destinations, with almost a million visitors to the Kakadu National Park, Uluru and the iconic Kimberley region each year, whilst the Great Barrier Reef tourism industry contributes $5.7 billion to the national economy each year.

This all forms the narrative around the strategic geography of northern Australia. This northern frontier is the front line in protecting and defending our nation. Northern Australia is our national border and checkpoint for biosecurity, food security and defence security. The key industries of agriculture, mining, tourism and defence in northern Australia deserve attention and investment, because any positive or negative impacts flow downstream to affect the entire country.

Coalition governments have always prioritised the strategic geography and potential of northern Australia. A coalition government released the white paper Our north, our future: white paper on developing northern Australia in 2015. A coalition government established and then expanded the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. It was a coalition government that established the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia. These initiatives alone have improved the landscape of northern Australia, but we must continue to grow both opportunity and population in the north. The purpose of the white paper was to stocktake northern Australia's natural, geographic and strategic assets to create a launch pad to further develop the region's minerals, agriculture, tourism and defence industries and to mitigate impediments to growth.

The white paper also highlighted the necessity of infrastructure in the north. It was a development blueprint for nation-building projects, new roads, new dams, upgraded airstrips and freight transport options. The coalition established the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility in 2016. We announced in 2022 that the NAIF appropriation would increase from $5 billion to $7 billion to support continued private investment in economic development and population growth across the north. The Office of Northern Australia, established to implement the northern Australia agenda as identified in the white paper, has been absorbed into the department of infrastructure and we fear its independence of advocacy will disappear into the depths of the Canberra bureaucratic bubble. The Cooperative Research Centre for Northern Australia, another core element for progressing the northern Australia agenda, is committed to research for long-term, sustainable economic development. The CRC has initiated 96 cutting-edge projects to grow opportunity and prosperity in the north. This is a 10-year program which runs its course in 2026, but what is the Albanese Labor government doing to extend the invaluable CRCNA's work?

Coalition governments give the north a voice by listening to what it wants and understanding what it needs. Another coalition commitment was the master plan to accelerate regions of growth. The master plans are designed to deliver a 20-year blueprint for economic development, with the first regions of growth being Beetaloo Basin to Katherine to Darwin, Mount Isa to Townsville, Broome to Kununurra, and Cairns to Gladstone. How is the Albanese Labor government progressing these corridors of growth and economic development? Yes, we hear silence. It would seem that the Albanese Labor government does not value northern Australia with the same fierce pride and confidence that the coalition does, as it has ripped away crucial funding for the north at each of its federal budgets.

Infrastructure funding for Northern Australia has been scrapped, including the Building Better Regions Fund, as well as vital water security projects such as the Hells Gate dam and Urannah dam, with uncertainty hanging over the Hughenden offstream water storage project and the Cairns water security project.

If the Prime Minister or any minister took the time to drive around northern Australia, rather than FIFO-ing in, they would immediately see that, as resilient and resourceful as it is, this part of the country too, needs safe roads, capable bridges and water security. Picture a single-lane, unmarked, dirt-edged national highway just north of Sydney, like the one just west of the Great Barrier Reef tourism region. Picture Geelong, cut off from the rest of the country for five months each year, as Doomadgee Aboriginal Shire Council is during the wet season. Picture mealtime without the northern Australia beef herd and crops of sugar, bananas and mangos because there is no guaranteed water supply.

If Australia is to maintain its OECD standard of living, if Australians are to continue enjoying new schools, new hospitals and new roads, if Australians are to retain high levels of employment and remain safe upon their shores then it is imperative that the government commits to the continued development of northern Australia. Australia has always been a wealthy country by world standards and, consequently, there is an expectation of a comfortable standard of living, adequate food, water and housing. But this long-held expectation is now a luxury to many Australians, as weekly rent, mortgage repayments, electricity, petrol, insurance and grocery bills surge beyond our ability to pay and stay afloat. As Peter Dutton said in his budget reply speech this year, very few Australians can say they are better off today than they were when Labor was elected.

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I remind the senator to address members in the other chamber by their full titles.

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

Thank you very much. When governments withdraw support to northern Australia and the capacity for the north to continue the economic lifting for the rest of the country, every single Australian can expect the cost of living to soar even further. Each additional impost and opportunity removed from the north drives up prices for everybody, whether they live in Darwin or Hobart. It used to be said that we rode on the sheep's back, alluding to wool being the source of Australia's prosperity. Now it is mining, agriculture and tourism. It is correct to say that we ride the northern Australian wave, because, when northern Australia prospers, the whole nation prospers and every Australian is better off. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.