NAIF Second Reading Speech

13 May 2021

Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Amendment (Extension
and Other Measures) Bill 2021
Second Reading


The NAIF needs a bold correction, and senators like Senator Canavan, who have drunk the Kool-Aid of mining companies across the country, certainly need a lesson in trying to understand where First Nations people are coming from and their need to be able to care for and look after country, culture and kin. It doesn't help when we think about the $5 billion. Just imagine what we could be doing with $5 billion to improve the lives of the most impoverished Australians and those Australians who live in northern Australia. How about opening up the opportunities to those northern Australians who would dearly love to be able to access that $5 billion to build better homes and to have employment strategies that are long term, consistent and enable people to provide for their families, without the kind of sarcasm that comes from members opposite, who so want to dwell on their mates, punishing and rubbishing the people of the north who do their best, in circumstances where, economically, they are not on the same level as those opposite?

The Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Amendment (Extension and Other Measures) Bill 2021 is an important piece of legislation in terms of what it could do for Australians in the north. The NAIF needs a bold correction, because $5 billion is not something to sneer at, not something to wave in front of the most impoverished people in this country and say, 'Hey, look at what we've got, and you want this.' That is not what this discussion here in the Senate is about. There needs to be far greater responsibility and acknowledgement of the mistakes—and there have been plenty of mistakes on the five- or six-year journey of this northern Australia infrastructure fund, or, as my colleague Senator Murray Watt has termed it, the 'no actual infrastructure fund'.

It's in this government's DNA to make a big announcement and fall flat on delivery. Certainly the people of the Northern Territory can see that. Sure, I commend businesses like the Humpty Doo Barramundi fish farm. I had the opportunity to go out there and have a look. I think they are doing a terrific job, a wonderful job. They were doing that anyway, but they've certainly been assisted, as they rightly should be. And there are people who work at Voyages in Central Australia, First Nations people wanting opportunities in the hospitality industry, businesses in Central Australia, who desperately need tourism to do well for that part of the country. They shouldn't be laughed at and mocked for wanting to persevere in having access to $5 billion.

When the budget came down on Tuesday night, the people of the Northern Territory were told that budget 2021 would include an additional $150 million for the Northern Territory national network highway upgrades, for strengthening and widening, and $48 million for road safety projects. But none of this funding will hit the road in the coming financial year, and the Northern Territory will only see crumbs of the promised new roads infrastructure. But always there are strings attached to that kind of funding, aren't there, Madam Acting Deputy President, and, let me tell you, I will certainly be investigating those strings.

Ninety-nine per cent of new Northern Territory funding is beyond the forward estimates. Let me repeat that: 99 per cent of the Northern Territory funding—new moneys—is beyond the forward estimates, perhaps as much as three elections away. So, hello, what do we have here? An announcement and no delivery. An announcement specifically for a purpose: to either prepare for an election or bring about a great wedge amongst First Nations people who want to look after country. Our roads are on the never-never when it comes to this government. This will hold up vital development, jobs creation and a hope of new industries and economic development in remote regions.

What it also does is show what's missing here. What's missing is the genuine engagement with First Nations people across northern Australia. I know the NAIF and those board members on it will highlight the two projects that have been involving First Nations people. We talk about an Aboriginal mining company in Western Australia. I would like to know more about that relationship, but I want to see those First Nations groups who look after country and sea country—our rangers, our seafarers—have ability to engage in the NAIF and to access this $5 billion. Where is the support and encouragement for them? Why is it that there has to be a siloed view that what you take from country is the only thing that is good enough for NAIF? How about giving back? How about giving back not just with country but in terms of the cultural connection that First Nations people have with the different kinship groups right across northern Australia in the desire to be able to create a home and family life with access to funds that ordinary Australians, most Australians, have?

That is what I want to see with the bold correction that this NAIF requires—the bold correction of enabling First Nations people to be consulted and genuinely engaged, not come to at the last minute and asked to sign off on things simply because it suits whoever it is that might be pushing forward a particular development in northern Australia. We've seen far too many examples of that, and it's got to stop. Australia, it has to stop. First Nations people are made to feel that they come to the table when it suits those who are making the deals, and it has to stop. There has to be thorough engagement. In the Northern Territory, there are only one or two projects that have come through NAIF, and that is not good enough for the people of the Northern Territory. Five or six years of waiting. There cannot be another five or six years of waiting to come. Things have to change. Stop wasting the opportunity of the north.

The government's amendments here to the NAIF, when implemented, are supposed to be a step in the right direction, but people in the north have every right to be sceptical of promises made by this government. Last week it was revealed that Keith Pitt used his ministerial veto power to block funding to a NAIF approved renewable energy project in North Queensland. That project would have created 250 jobs and delivered cheaper, more reliable power for Cairns. It's just another example of this government neglecting the north.

In the Northern Territory, we have work going on into building one of the world's largest solar farms. The Sun Cable $22 billion project in the Barkly region includes a 10-gigawatt solar farm. It's a massive project and, if it proceeds to financial closure, it may be looking to the NAIF for financial support. But even that project still needs thorough investigation in terms of the relationships with First Nations people. And that's not to put that project down. It's actually about reminding all businesses right across the country that we, as First Nations people, mean business. And we would like, and need to be, respected in that process. We can't let the renewable energy dinosaurs on the other side veto another key project, which could drive so much development opportunity in northern Australia. There are also many smaller groups who want to use the natural resources of the wind and sun energy of the north. Let them do it. Encourage them. Provide an incentive within this program.

Labor will be moving a number of amendments to this legislation, one of which would remove Keith Pitt's veto power so he can't put a stop to any more job-creating projects in northern Australia. And also in a bid to encourage more investment in renewables, one of our amendments will allow the NAIF board to encourage projects that assist in achieving net zero emissions by 2050. We would also require for-profit private sector projects to meet a rate of return in line with that of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. I would like to add here that Labor's amendments require the inclusion of the Indian Ocean territories within the definition of northern Australia. A massive shout-out to our constituents on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island. We have a family in detention who desperately need to get out. I say thank you to the families on Christmas Island who are trying to work with us on many issues, particularly the issue of removing that family from detention. So, as far as Labor is concerned, hopefully Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands will be included in the definition of northern Australia.

Another of our amendments will require First Nations representation on the NAIF board. Currently the NAIF board is made up of Western Australian and Queensland representatives. I understand there was a Northern Territory representative on the board in the initial stages, Barry Coulter, who has now retired. But we do need to see First Nations individuals and organisations represented as part of NAIF going forward, and that is an amendment that we will certainly be putting forward.

In closing, I would just say that the NAIF does need a bold correction. It has an incredible number of faults. The $5 billion is not to be sneered at. I urge this Senate, I urge the parliament, to consider those Australians in the north who do not have access to the kind of wealth that is clearly out there for many others and to use wisely this opportunity to enable those Australians to have a go.