20 May 2021

SUBJECTS: NT forgotten in Federal Budget; Morrison’s Budget infrastructure funding fails; federal quarantine bungle; Bladin Point; NAIF; Food Future Conference 2021; federal workforce shortages; water supply; international students.

LUKE GOSLING, MEMBER FOR SOLOMON: Good morning everyone, thanks for coming down to the beautiful cenotaph in Darwin. It's always awesome to have friends from the cities and towns down south and our Labor colleagues here from Tasmania and Queensland. It's great to have them here. There's a heap going on in Darwin at the moment.

From my perspective as the local member for Darwin and Palmerston, the federal Budget missed us in the Territory to a large extent, which was disappointing, but there is plenty that we plan to do as an incoming federal government after the next federal election. One of the things I'm really proud of is that so many of our shadow ministers have come up here to Darwin to see how we can assist the Northern Territory to develop.

Everyone understands, whether it be agriculture or mining (or) any other part of our economy, there's so much more we can do with a bit of infrastructure assistance from the Federal Government. It was obviously very disappointing to see only one percent of new infrastructure funding for the Northern Territory over the forward estimates, which is over the next four years. Federal Labor understands - and it's great to have Murray Watt who is the Shadow Minister for Northern Australia here - Federal Labor understands that if we're going to develop northern Australia, we definitely need more than one per cent of funding over the next four years.

Also awesome to have Julie Collins here - she's our Shadow Minister for Agriculture. And with so much agriculture potential here in the north, it's obviously an amazing way for her to understand with the Food Futures Conference on at the moment, some of those big needs that our industry has got to develop into the future. So, great to have our friends from the south down here.

This morning, I went out with Senator Murray Watt with his hat on not only as the Shadow Minister for Northern Australia, but also as the Shadow Minister for Disaster Management, to look at the Bladin facility, which has the ability to quarantine up to 1500 people. Now Bladin, with its own hospital, is ideally placed and we've been telling the Prime Minister this for some time. Bladin is ideally placed to stop these outbreaks and lockdowns that we've seen down south and to safely get more stranded Australians back home to Australia. And also to help industry, whether it be university sector with international students or indeed the agricultural sector getting, safely, seasonal workers in to pick our crops. That Bladin facility is perfectly placed with its own hospital facility to do that in a really safe way. There's no doubt that the Morrison Government have stuffed up two things in a pretty major way: the vaccine rollout and national quarantine. Here in Darwin with the Bladin facility, there is the opportunity to double the amount of people who are safely brought into Australia. So we call on him again to take our facilities up here seriously, take our infrastructure up here seriously and our workforce challenges that we do have. Thanks for coming out to have a yarn and I'll hand over to Senator for the NT, Malarndirri McCarthy.

MALARDIRRI MCCARTHY, LABOR SENATOR FOR NT: Thank you Luke, and good morning everyone. I'd like to acknowledge that we are on Larrakia Country and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging. But also I would like to welcome, sincerely, as Luke has said, our colleagues Senator Murray Watt and Julie Collins here.

We just saw the delivery of the Budget last week, and we know in the Northern Territory that we are missing out considerably. We see many announcements by the Prime Minister, in particular the announcement of Kakadu - $216 million. And we haven't seen anything hit the ground. We've heard from Tourism Top End who want to see more in that area. We saw in the Budget the abolition, or so-called abolition, of CDP, the Community Development Program, as of 2023. And yet there is a vacuum of information as to what is going to happen immediately, and it is of serious concern.

And next week we have the Senate Estimates Committee into the Budget process, and I will be scrutinising very closely all those figures, in particular around the roads funding or lack thereof here in the Northern Territory, and also around the CDP program and the cashless debit card program. So this Government is all about announcements. It doesn't deliver. We have seen the very poor rollout of the vaccination program in the Northern Territory, and it is of serious concern still that many Territorians are not vaccinated.

JULIE COLLINS, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE: Thanks, Malarndirri and Luke, and it's great to be here in Darwin. When I first got the agriculture portfolio earlier this year, Luke came to me and he said 'you need to come to the Food Futures Conference in Darwin, you must be there'. And it's great to have been at the conference with my colleague, Senator Murray Watt in his shadow portfolio for northern Australia.

We are very keen to listen to Territorians and to locals here about what we need to do from Opposition and what we need to put pressure on the Government to do, in terms of future development of northern Australia. It was particularly great to talk to producers from the NT and around the country, particularly from northern Australia yesterday and last night about the issues and the challenges facing growth here in the NT when it comes to agriculture.

And the big thing that I heard was the lack of workforce. Labour is a real critical shortage here in the NT, particularly when it comes to agriculture. I understand we just got through, particularly the mango season and the growing season, barely. But talking to some of the farmers about the amount of fruit that they had to dump, that was unable to be picked. And how heartbreaking that was given that they'd had good rain and had a good season and yet the crop wasn't able to be picked at its premium. This means that Territorians are missing out. And as we've heard from Malarndirri and Luke, they're missing out when it comes to the Budget more generally. But the Government has had a labour workforce strategy now sitting on its desk with 37 recommendations about how to improve the workforce here across the country. They haven't responded adequately. As I said yesterday, they still have in their response JobMaker, which, of course, they've abandoned in the Budget because it was an abject failure. What we get from this Government, the Morrison Government, is lots of announcements, but very little delivery on the ground. The Government talked about 25,000 vetted workforce from overseas, only 5000, or 5500, have come and made it to Australia to pick crops. So even those workers that are already vetted, they have not been able to get into the country. And as we've heard, it's because they've stuffed up quarantined and they've stuffed up the vaccine rollout. The Government needs to do more. It should have done more sooner. And now we've got this critical workforce issue. They've known about it for a year and still they do nothing. I'll hand over to Murray to say a few words.

MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR NORTHERN AUSTRALIA: Thanks, Julie. It's great to be back in Darwin, I think this is my eighth trip to the Northern Territory since starting as the Shadow Minister for Northern Australia a couple of years ago. And it's fantastic, obviously, to be joined by local colleagues Malarndirri and Luke, and Julie Collins, our shadow ag minister.

Like Julie, the reason I'm in town this week particularly is because Luke was hammering down my door demanding that I get up here for the Food Futures Conference. And it's been a really useful opportunity to reconnect with the ag sector here in the Northern Territory, which we know is such an important export earner and employer across the whole of the Top End.

And like what you've heard from Malarndirri, I think last week's Federal Budget was yet another disappointing exercise from this Federal Government when it comes to its Northern Australia agenda. I recently chaired a Senate inquiry looking at how effective the Government's Northern Australia Agenda had been over the last five years. That was a cross-party inquiry where the majority of recommendations were reached on a bipartisan basis. And that inquiry found quite clearly that, as with so many other things from this Government, the promises that it had made to the north about development, about projects, about jobs just have not been fulfilled. And we saw that again in last week's Federal Budget when the Government had an opportunity to put some real money behind the Northern Territory, whether it be in infrastructure or resolving the workforce shortages that Julie was talking about, it went completely missing in action yet again. Only one per cent of the so-called "new" infrastructure funding that the Government promised for the Northern Territory is going to be delivered in the next four years. What is the point of getting out there and making all these big announcements and sucking people in to only turn around and disappoint them when they actually read the fine print? So that's what we see over and over from this Government when it comes to northern Australia.

The NAIF is probably the best example of the Government over-promising and under-delivering to the Northern Territory and across the north in general. That was announced six years ago with a $5 billion budget available to be spent on projects and jobs across the north. And while they've now approved funding for over $2 billion of that money, if you actually look at what they've released to support projects, it's only about $350 million of its $5 billion budget - that's six per cent of its budget. At this rate, it's going to take 80 years for them to spend the $5 billion that the NAIF has available to support projects and jobs across the north.

So if there's one message that we can leave with the Government after our visit here: it's time to get on with it. Everyone is sick of hearing these promises about how 'the north has got so much potential' when it's actually not backed up with resources and real effort from the Federal Government. It's about time they started delivering. We've had enough of the announcements. Let's see some money on the ground. Let's see some things actually starting to happen in the north rather than just more promises. We're all happy to take questions on anything we've covered, or other things.

JOURNALIST: If we could start with you and Bladin Point, I know you've been out there to visit. What do you think it could be used for, and have you heard the Chief Minister's comments [inaudible] pushed to the side?

WATT: Yeah I appreciate Luke organising the visit out to Bladin Point today, it was certainly the first time I've been out there and I was really impressed with the quality of the facilities that they've got. There's a 1500-bed facility which is currently being used by the US Army to bring people in and put them through quarantine as they rotating troops. And it's also being used by Inpex to house its workers that are being brought in from interstate for the shutdown. But in a couple of months’ time, it's going to be entirely vacant. We're going to have a 1500-bed facility with a hospital - an in-build hospital that could be operationalised, ready to go, that could be used for quarantine.

As Julie said, the biggest issue that was raised with us at the Food Futures conference by farmers yesterday was the desperate need to get more workers. They have relied over the last few years on bringing in workers for fruit picking in particular, and that can't happen at the moment because there's no quarantine facilities for them to use coming from Brisbane or any other major city, one of the big concerns that people have got is that quarantine is not working. If you've got a hotel quarantine system which relies on staff coming in and out of the hotels, the cleaners, the catering staff, the security guards, it's a very high risk that COVID  will be taken out of those hotels into the general community. The beauty of the Bladin Point facility is that it's 40-odd kilometres from Darwin. It can actually house all of the workers who are needed to support people who are staying there for quarantine. So the reality is that Scott Morrison's failure to put forward a quarantine plan means that Australia is being held back. We can't get the workers we need. We're exposing our broader population to the risk of outbreaks from hotel quarantine. There's all sorts of problems that arise from just pretending that this can all go away. And look, I have seen the Chief Minister's comments. I didn't interpret them as him saying 'absolutely not under any circumstances'. I think the Northern Territory government is quite rightly concerned that they don't want to have to wear the cost of setting up another quarantine facility in addition to Howard Springs. But this is where the Prime Minister should be playing a role. Have a look in the Constitution, it is there in black and white that quarantine is a federal government responsibility. And instead of that, we've got a Prime Minister who just wants to run away and duck shove it over to the states in the territories. He should be leading. He should be sitting down with all of the chief ministers to work out how we can make this work, what funding's needed, what staffing is needed, what construction is needed. Let's just get it to happen.

JOURNALIST: Even with the difficulties of staffing Howard Springs, we know they haven't been able to get staff there, how would we do that at Bladin?

WATT: I recognise that that is an issue with Howard Springs at the moment. But again, that's where you need federal leadership. If the Constitution is crystal clear that quarantine is a federal government responsibility, why isn't the Prime Minister sitting down around the table with the Chief Minister to work out these issues? There may very well be staff, medical staff and other staff, interstate who might be able to come up here for a period of time. But no one's having any of those conversations with the states at the moment. The Prime Minister's just saying 'I'll leave it to the states to work it all out. That's their problem'. It's not their problem. It's his problem. And he keeps ducking the problem and making it someone else's problem instead. So I think these problems can be resolved, and it's important that they are, because as I say, it's not just about Scott Morrison not following through. This actually has a real cost to Australians. It means farmers can't get the workers they need. It means that we're always at risk of more lockdowns which shut down our economy. And it leaves tens of thousands of Australians still stranded overseas by a government that isn't prepared to pick up the phone. There hasn't even been a federal government person out to Bladin Point to even have a look at the place. That's how  disinterested they are. It's time they got on with it and solved these problems because it's their job.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the NT has adequate water resources for a cotton industry, as is being planned by the farming industry here?

MCCARTHY: Look I think that there's a lot of work that needs to be done - substantial work that needs to be done - into examining the capabilities for the north. The area of the cotton industry - that work has not being done. I'm on the Regional and Rural Affairs Transport Committee of the Senate, and I would suggest that what we should be doing is actually having an inquiry into those capabilities. Because we also have to look at the concerns that have been raised interstate, in particular in New South Wales, around cotton growing. So we have to listen to all sides on that. And that's certainly something that I would like to take on board. I'm not sure if our Shadow Minister would like to say more on that?

COLLINS: So I was talking to some of the cotton growers in New South Wales just last night who are talking about moving into northern Australia. They're talking about moving to northern Western Australia, where they've got the Ord scheme and some of them are talking about moving to the NT in the Gulf. What they want to do is to talk to Governments of both persuasions, state and federal, about water supply. Everybody knows you can't plant a crop unless you've got water supply and sustainability of that crop. And I know that the cotton growers, they want to work with all tiers of government to make sure that they've got an adequate response.

JOURNALIST: Is there any concern - from either of you, whoever is best placed - with, I guess, the scheme up here for water allocations, whether there's enough certainty for growers and also whether the strategic Indigenous water reserves are being taken into account?

COLLINS: Well clearly water is not my portfolio, and it is my colleague's Terri Butler, but talking to local producers last night, they certainly have issues. And the Indigenous communities when we've been talking to them, they want to open up opportunities on their land and they want to make sure that there is certainty of supply. And certainly the issue of water, when you talk about agriculture and crops and producing here in the northern Australia, is a really serious issue that does need, as Malarndirri said, quite substantial work by all tiers of government.

JOURNALIST: Is there anything you'd like to add?

MCCARTHY: Oh, look, I think I'd just only add to that in saying that we're also mindful of lack of water in the Northern Territory. Take communities like Yuendumu, for example, that are struggling to just develop further housing, but they've got problems with having further water, or enough water. So we have to be very mindful of the fact that there's a large body of work that has to take place in terms of the preservation of the water supply that we do have, but also in making sure that any future growth in other parts of the Territory doesn't restrict those communities that already exist.

JOURNALIST: And you'd be aware there's some water allocation decisions, I understand, that are under review.

MCCARTHY: Oh, look, you know, the issue around Mataranka has been one that I've been aware of for many, many years. In fact, probably close to a decade, I think, in terms of the interest of water in that area. But I think at the national level, what we could be doing is certainly looking at ensuring that there is a body of work to enquire into all of those areas and to listen to all stakeholders.

JOURNALIST: Do you think flood water harvesting on farm dams will damage the barramundi industry?

COLLINS: Well, I think, as Malarndirri said, we need to hear from all stakeholders about some of the proposals and the issues around water here in the NT. And, you know, clearly when I talk to fisherfolk, they obviously want their resource maintained. They want to maintain their lifestyle that is the NT, you know, they want to be able to go to barra fishing. They want to be able to go out and about, whether it be the rec fishers or the commercial fishers. So it is a really important issue to make sure that everybody's voices are heard and that the right thing is done. But clearly, there is, you know, in the wet season, a lot of rain here in the NT and we need to be able to make sure that we utilise it in the best possible way.

JOURNALIST: Another one for Malarndirri - you would have no doubt seen the controversy surrounding the Treaty Commissioner at the moment. Do you think the Opposition is correct in calling for him to step down?

MCCARTHY: Look, I've seen the newspaper article yesterday and today, and, of course, it's of concern to read about such matters, irrespective of who it's occurring to. I would just only ask that there is a fair justice, or natural justice, for both parties in this instance. I don't know too much more than that, but I would certainly always call for that.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the Territory Government has, I guess, addressed the media or addressed the issue enough?

MCCARTHY: Well, you'd have to put that to the Northern Territory Government. You know, I'm the Senator for the Northern Territory, the first I've learnt is writing it in the paper. And it is of serious concern.

JOURNALIST: I've got a question about workforce shortages in the NT, not just in the agricultural area, but I guess in the hospitality industry as well. There have been calls to make it easier for some of our older population who might be travelling through in caravans to work without it affecting their pensions. Do you think it's a good idea to sort of allow that to happen, especially the amount of people that are coming up to the Territory from down south?

COLLINS: Well, I know that there's already a scheme with the pension where by older Australians can actually earn an income in a short period of time and it's annualised, in terms of the limit that they are allowed to earn. So there have been some adjustments made in the past and governments have listened to those types of proposals. But clearly, workforce is a really serious issue here in northern Australia, as it is in other parts of the country, whether it be in agriculture, whether it be in hospitality and tourism. With our borders closed, it has become a really serious issue. And the bottom line is our Federal Government hasn't done enough with quarantine or vaccinations. And if government had done its job, we might not be in this position.

JOURNALIST: Just on that issue. With international students there was a similar [inaudible] as I understand, that hours have been extended for them. Have you had any feedback about whether that's working and would you like to see, for example, more international students bought in to somewhere like the Northern Territory?

COLLINS: Well international students and the changes that were made, I haven't heard any feedback on that, but clearly, you know, that is in response to community shortages of workforce. There are not enough workers, particularly in regional parts right across the country, and the Government hasn't done enough to address it. The Government should be doing more. It's known about this issue for the last 12 months. And here we are still, a year post-COVID, you know, and still the Government is not doing enough when it comes to workforce.

GOSLING: Thanks for coming down.