Northern Australians know how important Northern Australia is

06 November 2019

SUBJECTS: Senate Inquiry into the Governments Northern Australia Agenda, Northern Territory infrastructure, closure of Uluru climb, the NAIF

MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY, SENATOR FOR THE NORTHERN TERRITORY, : Well, I'd like to just acknowledge that we're standing on Larrakia country and that it's very good to have the Shadow Minister for Northern Australia, Senator Murray Watt, here as chair of select committee, looking at Northern Australia and trying to really examine the issues that are impacting Northern Australia. But more importantly, just how successful is the Australian Government going in the many programs that it says it has going here - in particular, in the Northern Territory. So I'd like to now just welcome Senator Murray Watt.

MURRAY WATT,SHADOW MINISTER FOR NORTHERN AUSTRALIA: Thanks, Malarndirri. It's always great to be in Darwin with my friend Malarndirri McCarthy, thanks for having me here today. This morning has been a really useful exercise to bring the Senate Inquiry into the Government's Northern Australia Agenda to Darwin.

Labor initiated this inquiry not long after the election, in response to a lot of feedback that we'd received both in the Northern Territory and across northern Australia, that people remain very excited about the Government's Northern Australia Agenda, but were pretty disappointed with what had come of it four years after it had been launched. And the evidence that we've received today here in Darwin pretty much backs that up. People everywhere you go in Northern Australia, whether it be here in Darwin, in Queensland or W.A., still believe very strongly that Northern Australia has a very bright future and has enormous potential. But if we're going to realise that potential, it still needs to see greater investment and engagement from the Federal Government.

It's interesting that the day before we hold this Senate Inquiry, we've seen a flurry of activity from ministers flying into Darwin to re-announce funding for projects that were announced some time ago. All sorts of ministers doing all sorts of things, just coincidentally before the Senate Inquiry comes here to Darwin. But disappointingly, we're still waiting to see the Prime Minister spend one day in the Northern Territory after the election. He's found time in his busy schedule to spend 36 days overseas since the election, on 10 separate overseas trips. But he hasn't deigned to spend a single day here in the Northern Territory. And I think that's indicative of the approach of the Federal Government to the needs of the top end.

When you meet with people in Darwin and when you listen to the witnesses who've appeared here in the inquiry, it's clear that Darwin and the Northern Territory as a whole do have enormous potential. The traditional industries here have a lot of potential still, and there's a lot of emerging new industries as well. But we need to see much deeper, much more long term and much more regular commitment and engagement from the Federal Government if we're going to see that ambition realised.

The other thing that has really come through strongly today, is that obviously for the Northern Territory, where you have such a high proportion of the population being First Nations people, there's got to be a much stronger emphasis from the Government in its Northern Australia agenda in relating to, in dealing with and recognising the needs of indigenous people as a distinct group within this community.

So I'm certainly hopeful that out of today's hearing, we'll be able to come up with some good recommendations to the government about how its Northern Australia Agenda can be improved further. And let's hope that the Government is willing to listen to those recommendations when we report next year. Did you want to add anything to that, Malarndirri?

MCCARTHY: Yes, I do. I think when we look at the other areas, in particular with First Nations people, we can see that there's major policy areas like the community development program with CDP, the issues that are being raised around the cashless debit card that is being planned for the Northern Territory. And all of this is quite critical in trying to understand what is the vision, that the Government has for Northern Australia.

So well take questions.

JOURNALIST: You guys have heard from a few different groups today. Can you tell us about what some of the evidence you heard, what what's working and what isn't?

WATT: As I say, I think clearly all stakeholders can see that that the Federal Government has a general interest in what's happening in Northern Australia. But some of the key things that have leaked out is the need for increased and earlier investment in infrastructure, particularly things like roads, energy and telecommunications infrastructure. We've heard from a number of witnesses that some of the infrastructure projects, particularly roads, are absolutely essential for developing the north.

The fact that in this day and age, you've still got hundreds of kilometres of distance between major communities that is still on unsealed roads that are the victim to floods on an annual basis, is a problem. And we've heard from a number of witnesses that while it's good that the Federal Government has committed to build new roads and upgrade roads in the Northern Territory, a lot of the funding for that is still many, many years away. And so there's been a call from a number of witnesses to bring forward some of that infrastructure. Interestingly, that's something that we've been saying everyone from the Reserve Bank down, call on this government to do. To bring forward infrastructure projects so that we can get jobs happening now and to connect territories in remote parts of the Northern Territory.

The other thing I think that's really come through strongly, particularly from some of the witnesses in the education sector, is that as important as it is to build the hard infrastructure - roads, water, energy, things like that. It's also really important to make sure that there's a proper investment in skills and the educational needs of the Northern Territory. There are some really exciting industry opportunities here, both in traditional and new industries. But to realize those that potential, we need to make sure that we've got the skills locally and people have been offered the training that's needed to take up those opportunities.

JOURNALIST: Matt Canavan yesterday was asked about the Federal Government's commitment to developing the north and said that they were, but these things sort of take that time to get off the ground. Is that a good enough excuse?

WATT: No, I don't think it is. I do wonder how long it is that people in the north have got to wait for this Government to get its act together. I have now been in power for two terms. They've been in power for over six years. They launched their Northern Australia white paper four years ago and all we get from the Northern Australia Minister is excuses and that things take time. People in Northern Australia have been waiting decades to see Canberra and the Federal Government take them seriously and deliver the kind of infrastructure and other investment that's needed here. So I don't think the Government has got another day to wait, they need to get on with the job. How many terms in office is it going to take for this Government to start treating the Northern Territory seriously and treating the north of Australia seriously in general? How long is it going to take before we see the Prime Minister bother to show up and actually listen to people about what's needed and then get on with delivering it?

JOURNALIST: So you see the NAIF and the Northern White Paper as not working or fundamentally flawed do you, and not putting us on the path to fully developing?

WATT: I'm certainly not critical of the Northern Australia White Paper in itself. As I say, I think people are very excited to see a Federal Government come out with a white paper but the problem is with is with the follow through. And that's what you often see from Matt Canavan and this Government as a whole - there's a lot of talk, but there's often not a lot of follow through and actual delivery.

The NAIF is a perfect example of that. I saw that Matt was in town yesterday re-announcing funding that he'd announced some time ago here for Darwin. And it really shows you how failed the NAIF has been, That if the best the Minister can do, is come back into town, the day before he knows a Senate Inquiry is going to be shining a spotlight on his performance, to re-announce something that he's announced months ago. The NAIF is a $5 billion fund that should be investing in projects here and across Northern Australia. After four years of being announced, it's allocated about 1 per cent of its funding. At that rate, it's going to take 500 years before it actually spends all of the funding that's available for the NAIF. We know that the NAIF has already had one loan that's fallen over, and we've gotten to a point where Matt Canavan has to come into town and re-announce existing funding. It's not good enough. They need to get on with the job and get investment happening quickly.

JOURNALIST: The City Deal also came up, do you mind just telling us what was discussed there?

WATT: The City Deal, I think is an important thing for Darwin and there is again support for the City Deal going forward. I do pick up a level of impatience among people in Darwin that this has taken so long. I think there's also a bit of disappointment that some components of the City Deal are likely to be needed to be funded through the NAIF in the form of loans. Whereas in other cities around the country, we've generally seen the Federal Government providing its funding by a grant. So instead of that, Darwin is going to be expected to take out loans to build some of the infrastructure that the Federal Government should be just supporting. But look were supportive of the City Deals, were supportive of the Darwin City Deal. We just want to see the Government get on and get it done.

MCCARTHY: Can I just respond to that in terms of Professor Maddocks submission to the inquiry and even his evidence today, that the frustration is very genuine, very real. And I think when we look at the NAIF program, that is where the inflexibility of the program is, is that the focus has been on the high end of town, if you like, the billions of dollars projects, whereas something like the CDU relocation to the CBD of Darwin costs in the millions. There has been perhaps a greater expectation that that could have happened a lot sooner and certainly CDUs hoping that will happen next year.

But the other thing that was mentioned to us is that Northern Australians know how important Northern Australia is. It's the rest of the country; it's Southern Australians who perhaps do not realise the real potential of Northern Australia. And I thought that was a really important point that we certainly have to take back on this committee.

JOURNALIST: Should it be a region that is contributing far more to the Australian economy internationally, considering its rain and its location, etc.?

MCCARTHY: Absolutely. We've just been listening to the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association and also NT Farmers who speak highly about the volume of produce that comes from the Northern Territory. The cattle industry is an integral industry, not just to the Northern Territory, but to the whole country, especially our live cattle export. So that recognition or lack of recognition of the value of what we produce up here, has to be recognised right across the country in order for the Northern Territory in particular, to gain momentum and action in terms of the plans going forward.

JOURNALIST: How do you get that message out to make them care?

MCCARTHY: Well, certainly having a Senate Committee is has been an important one. It's been interesting to see the many politicians from the Morrison Cabinet come up here in the last few days and in the days to come. Yet we still fail to see the Prime Minister. So we're hoping that they can actually move a lot quicker, not just in terms of personally arriving to the Northern Territory, but actually putting the dollars where these industries absolutely need them.

JOURNALIST: Did you link those visits from Wyatt, Hunt, Canavan, to the local newspaper criticising them?

MCCARTHY: Well it's very coincidental isn't it, that the front page of the NT News acknowledges that the Prime Minister hasn't been here and all of a sudden we see his Cabinet Ministers all arriving. Is that a coincidence? Well perhaps you can all answer that yourselves.

JOURNALIST: Malarndirri can I ask your thoughts on the proposed increases to the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park that have been flagged.

MCCARTHY: Can I just say that the closure of the climb and the ceremony that took place last weekend was an incredibly moving experience. It was certainly important for our country to send a very strong message of valuing First Nations people. And in this case, the cultural decision of the Anangu people.

Where they go from here, this is [up to the] Parks board of Uluru. Clearly they were very well prepared in the closure of the climb. And I have every confidence that part of these steps going forward is also about the maintenance of existing facilities and tourism projects for the area.

JOURNALIST: But should these fee increases perhaps be delayed or pushed back a little while longer? There's been some concerns from tourism operators who sell packages years in advance, might be out of pocket up to 20 thousand dollars to cover this increase.

MCCARTHY: Look, I'm very confident that the relationship that Parks Australia has with the tourism industry has been one that they've had for the last 10 years in preparation for this closure. Now, if there are discussions about steps going forward in relation to lifting fees, again, I'm confident that their relationship with the tourism industry is strong enough to sustain a very sensible way forward.

JOURNALIST: On the issue of skills having come up in the committee or will come up in hearing today. We've seen recently that Charles Darwin University is going to be downsizing some of its programs. What do what do you think about that?

MCCARTHY: It was clear from Professor Maddocks submission and evidence this morning that CDU is going through a really challenging time. And we do not we do not want to see CDU lose any kind of resources and standing in the broader community, not just in Australia, but internationally. We need this university to work. It needs as much support as it can possibly get. And certainly part of our Senate Inquiry is to ensure that in terms of educational reach, CDU is a critical component of that.

WATT: Thanks everyone.


SUBJECT/S: Senate Inquiry into the Governments Northern Australia Agenda, Northern Territory infrastructure, closure of Uluru climb, the NAIF