Opposition’s Statement In Response To The Government’s Northern Australia Annual Statement


I thank the Minister for his statement to the Senate updating us on the implementation of the White Paper on Developing Northern Australia: Our North, Our Future.

He is right to emphasise the ongoing importance of developing Northern Australia.

Northern Australia is a key part of the Australian economy. It is the source of much of our resource and agricultural wealth. Tourists from all around the world come to see its raw beauty and much of our extraordinary indigenous heritage.

Investment in water, energy, transport, tourism and communications infrastructure is critical to the development of Northern Australia and we welcome this long overdue statement of progress on the implementation of the White Paper.

The development of Northern Australia is not a new idea. It goes back a long way.

Initially our primary motivation was that if we didn’t occupy and develop Northern Australia, another country will.

In 1926 Prime Minister Stanley Bruce declared the development of Northern Australia to be “of immense strategic importance.” In 1944 Prime Minister John Curtin also proclaimed it to be “essential to future security”.

During the 1955 election, Labor leader Bert Evatt also made this argument. He said, “the development and peopling of the northern areas of Australia, covering the Northern Territory and extending to the north of Queensland and Western Australia, is vital to national welfare and defence.”

Towards the end of the 1960s, the arguments for the development of the North changed.

In his first speech as Prime Minister, Harold Holt linked the development of Northern Australia not to defence or it being vulnerable to foreign occupation, but rather to beef, roads and the encouragement of private mineral exploration.

In his historic 1972 ‘It’s Time’ election policy speech Gough Whitlam also made the need to develop the north a priority. He said “Labor’s objective is to develop the vast and valuable resources of Northern Australia for the benefit of the Australian nation and future Australians.”

Gough was right. People living in Northern Australia, and indeed all Australians, stand to reap the benefits from a Government with a vision for Northern Australia.

Northern Australia already makes an enormous contribution to our national economy, particularly through its resources, agriculture and tourism industries.

Northern Australia makes up about 55 percent of Australian exports. The resource sector is a big part of this, accounting for over two thirds of Australia’s minerals and fuel exports.

In agriculture alone Northern Australia is a major global player – 12 million cattle and more than 3,000 sugar farms, make Northern Australia the world’s fifth largest beef and sugar exporter.

Another defining feature of Northern Australia is its size and its population. It makes up about 40 percent of the Australian continent. It is bigger than most European countries, but has a population of only about one million people.  And of that million almost 30 percent are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of Northern Australia is a key part of unlocking Northern Australia’s economic potential that isn’t adequately addressed in the White Paper. But I will come back to that later.

The Minister’s statement highlights a number of important milestones and we are pleased to finally welcome the appointment of Ms Laurie Walker as CEO of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility.

The White Paper itself is in part a compilation of existing government programs and initiatives, sprinkled with new spending commitments.

The Northern Australia Tourism Initiative which provides $13.6 million for small and medium tourism businesses to get one-on-one business advice combines the Entrepreneurs’ Programme, which was formally known as the Entrepreneurs’ Infrastructure Programme, with the Australian Small Business Advisory Services Programme. This is a welcome initiative but doesn’t go far enough.

The Government has also committed $75 million over the next ten years to establish a new Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) in Townsville.

The idea to establish a CRC responsible for developing Northern Australia is not new. It was first flagged in the Coalition’s June 2013 election policy, The Coalition’s 2030 vision for Developing Northern Australia.

It was apparently on Ian Macfarlane’s desk for sign off before Mr Turnbull replaced Mr Abbott in September last year.

Then in November last year John Wharton was appointed to run consultations with stakeholders and participants again on the direction and research agenda for the CRC and it was supposed to commence in the middle of this year.

But like most of the initiatives included in the White Paper, we are still waiting.

It’s also been more than a year since the Abbott/Turnbull Government first announced the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) and still no funds have been allocated to projects in the region.

In fact, only one formal application for funding has progressed to due diligence stage.  When asked last month whether funding would flow before the end of the year, last month the Minister offered no guarantee.

After rushing legislation through Parliament in the last sitting week before calling the election, Malcolm Turnbull spent his time promoting the NAIF in North Queensland throughout the campaign.

In May the Prime Minister said:

            The commitment to Northern Australia from our national economic plan is enormous. We have a $5 billion, Northern Australia          Infrastructure Fund that will be providing loans across Northern Australia.

Malcolm Turnbull— Interview on ABC Far North Qld —18 May 2016

And in June he also said:

            Well our focus is on jobs, jobs and growth and particularly in Northern Australia. As you know, we have massive investment in           the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund.

Malcolm Turnbull— Interview on ABC Far North Queensland – 22 June 2016

Residents and businesses are sick of a Prime Minister who is all talk.

With high unemployment across Northern Australia the Turnbull Government must begin to invest and create the sustainable jobs that locals need.

Tourism is one of the biggest employers in Northern Australia. But a lack of high-quality facilities and tourism infrastructure limit our ability to increase our share of the growing Asian tourism market.

Tourism is our third biggest export in value terms behind iron ore and coal. It accounts for one in every twenty export dollars. But the World Economic Forum’s latest Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index ranked Australia 7th for overall competitiveness and 20th for tourism infrastructure.

We have some of the world’s most amazing natural environment experiences, but we risk being dragged down by sub-substandard tourism infrastructure.

The government has a key role to play here in supporting investment in world-class infrastructure which underpins a world-class tourism experience.

By 2030 there will be more than three billion people middle class people in Asia looking for tourism opportunities in our region and beyond. We want them to choose Australia.

Cruise tourism is growing 20 per cent a year, creating more demand for port access. Airports in the north are also seeking to expand to meet expected demand. Without world class facilities, we aren’t going to be able to compete, sending jobs overseas.

At the last election we made the commitment to allocate $1 billion from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility to a Northern Australia Tourism Infrastructure Fund, to boost partnerships with the tourism sector and provide incentives for investment in new and upgraded tourism infrastructure across the north.

The government could do this but they haven’t. They didn’t even take a tourism policy in the last federal election.

To make matters worse, since the Coalition Government announced its flawed review into the Backpacker Tax, both the number of backpacker visitors to the Northern Australia, and the number of nights they stay have seriously declined.

In fact, lodgements for working holiday visa applications have fallen 10% under Coalition. There were 24,000 fewer backpackers present in Australia at the end of 2015 compared to the same time in 2013.

The Backpacker Tax has been a mess from day one. In fact, in many ways the Backpacker Tax tells you everything that is wrong with the Turnbull Government.

After more than a year of unnecessary pain and uncertainty for the agriculture and tourism sector, the Turnbull Government has now finally back flipped, after pressure from George Christensen and the right-wing of the party who are really running this government.

Labor will carefully examine Backpacker Tax 2.0, but one thing is for sure, decisions like the Backpacker Tax show the Government takes Northern Australia for granted.

The Government’s plan to develop Northern Australia also largely ignores its most important resource – its people. In particular it’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. As I mentioned earlier 30 percent of the population of Northern Australia is made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  

A critical part of unlocking the potential of Northern Australia is increasing the capacity of the Indigenous population to contribute to the development of the region.

This involves building more than just hard infrastructure it also means building skills and tackling chronic problems related to housing and health.

However the White Paper says very little about this. In fact the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community of Northern Australia seems to have not been really consulted in the development of the White Paper at all.

During the question and answer session at a recent CEDA event the Minister told the audience that native title is one of the biggest barriers to growing agriculture and crops.

Comments like this create the impression that the government sees Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander landowners and custodians as an obstacle to the development of the north, rather than the key.

Native title is of particular importance to Northern Australia as the majority of determinations and current native title claimant applications are in Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland.

Roughly 80 percent of Northern Australia is directly or indirectly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land. The government needs to stop viewing Indigenous land rights as an impediment to development and embrace native title and traditional land ownership as cultural, social and economic assets.

One of the Indigenous leaders who has been very critical of the White Paper process and the lack of consultation is Peter Yu, the CEO of Nyamba Buru Yawuru.

In June of this year he spoke at the Developing the Northern Australia conference in Darwin and said there that there had been no formal engagement between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the Government over the future development of northern Australia.

The Prime Minister has failed to reverse a single dollar of the $500 million in cuts that Tony Abbott made to Indigenous programs and frontline services. Despite a promise that there would be no jobs or services lost, the opposite is true.

At the last election Labor committed to doubling the number of Indigenous rangers employed under the Working on Country Indigenous Ranger Program, the Turnbull Government is refusing to give Indigenous Rangers the long-term job certainty they deserve.

Indigenous rangers are role models in their communities, with the program providing a pathway to work and a profession that has been shown to improve Indigenous health, incomes, crime rates and incarceration rates.

This is how we can close the gap: one meaningful, practical step at a time. 

As the Minister’s report shows, there is still so much work to do to translate big expectations into concrete, deliverable outcomes that will have a lasting impact.

Labor looks forward to continue working with the Government to achieve this.