Thursday, 30 November 2023
Northern Australia Joint Select Committee; Report
I rise to speak on the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia's Northern Australia workforce development:first report. I want to say how privileged and proud I am to be a member of this committee. I've only just been appointed to it in the last six months, sadly because of Senator Dodson moving aside, hanging up his boots and having his well-earned rest. I'm rapt to be part of it because—it's not a secret—I made my living in the north of Western Australia, and I have a passion for the north of WA especially.
I joined the committee, and we toured under the fine guidance, may I say, of Ms Scrymgour. She is a magnificent chair, and she's backed up by Mr Entsch from northern Queensland. It's a privilege to work with her. I joined in the Western Australian side because we were looking at workforce development through WA. We went up to the Dampier Peninsula, and we met with TOs and Indigenous corporations. Then we had public hearings in Broome, where we heard from the shire's council, indigenous organisations, training and employment organisations and the likes. We had planned to go to Fitzroy Crossing. Unfortunately, on the morning we rocked into Fitzroy, there was some real sorry business, so out of due respect we cancelled that day. We'll go back to Fitzroy. Then we went on to Kununurra and met with the same.
The biggest problem—I'll talk for Western Australia, and I don't think it's any different in the Northern Territory and in Queensland, and it's not just in Indigenous remote communities but also in the big provinces in WA—is the serious lack of two things. One is staff. And I don't know which comes first—the egg or the chicken or whatever—but there's a serious lack of housing as well. We know that throughout Australia, particularly in my home state of WA, housing is 'wow-wee'. Trying to get a rental property is near-on impossible, and trying to get a builder who will finish a house without going broke is a good challenge too in WA. We can't get workers to WA, up to the top end, because we haven't got the housing. I won't speak for Queensland and the Northern Territory, but I think I'm on safe ground there.
I want to touch on several of the recommendations that were developed and fully endorsed and supported by the committee yesterday or the day before—time flies in here, but it was fun anyway. There are a couple of the recommendations I'd like to read out. One is recommendation 3:
The committee recommends the Australian Government, in conjunction with the state and territory governments for Northern Australia, consider ways to provide incentives for appropriate modular homes to be built to address the immediate housing crisis in Northern Australia.
This is an absolute no-brainer. This is not being political. We've had this problem for years and years. It doesn't matter what colour government we've had in; we have had serious lack of housing in the top end. I remember the big multi-billion-dollar projects of RIHP and SIHIP, depending on which state you were in. One was regional Indigenous housing investment, and one was strategic. But even when we did start building the homes, the sad part was that no-one thought to go and consult with the inhabitants, those who would be living in the homes. It was damn embarrassing.
I'll tell you what else was embarrassing: everywhere you went in the top end of WA, along the peninsula in particular, there weren't local faces working on them. The numberplates were predominantly from Queensland. There were a couple of token Aboriginal faces on some jobs—and it's not as though we haven't got Aboriginal plumbers and builders; we've got those people up in the Kimberley—but how does that enhance and improve training and future employment opportunities for our local Australians, our First Nations people? It just goes without saying.
Recommendation 4 said:
The committee recommends the Australian Government develop a Northern Australia focused Regional Infrastructure Strategy with state, territory and local governments. This Strategy should focus, as a matter of priority, on how to address skilled labour shortages, ensure there is a sustainable pipeline of infrastructure, and on building the housing and construction industry in regional areas.
Another one said:
The committee recommends the Australian Government, in conjunction with states and territories, explore options for a Regional Infrastructure Fund—or similar mechanism. Such a fund could be contributed too by all levels of government, to focus on supporting local employment in social, residential, commercial and civil construction projects. This fund would focus more broadly on social infrastructure differing from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility.
And just to round it off, because I know other senators want to move on to other reports, it's just seriously—I don't know if it's a case of 'out of sight, out of mind'. It really does pain you when you travel through the north, particularly with what's happened in one of my favourite parts of Australia, Fitzroy Crossing, right in the middle of the Kimberley there. We saw the bridge go out and we saw that devastation where we lost 96 or 97 homes. For Australians who aren't living there or don't have anything to do with remote communities, we're not talking about homes that house two or three people. We are talking about homes that house so many more people because there's such a shortage. When you see that lack of housing, you're seeing 10 or 15 people trying to live under the same roof—and those houses are gone. How do I know? Because I take all the beds up there that have been donated.
Even now, despite the magnificent job that has been done by the federal and state governments and by the construction company in Western Australia to get that bridge up and reopened, to open up our pipeline between Perth and the Northern Territory—with the greatest respect, we still haven't been able to build one house yet. And that's not to blame anyone. We had to get the bridge open. We've got temporary housing now, which is fantastic. We've seen that coming through the communities and now people can get back on country. Kids can get back with grandparents and families can reunite.
From what I've seen of this committee, it's very collegiate. There are no arguments. The majority of the people on that committee—the majority, not all of us—are based in northern Australia, but I've been running through the north of Western Australia since the late seventies. It is great to be part of it. I really just want to take this opportunity to say I look forward to continuing my work with Ms Scrymgour and the rest of the committee. Let's roll our sleeves up. We've got a heck of a lot more to do before we even start touching on the social issues. I commend the report to the Senate. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.