It's time to bring forward infrastructure projects

September 02, 2019

 MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY, SENATOR FOR NORTHERN TERRITORY: Firstly I’d like to acknowledge that we are on Larrakia country. And I certainly want to acknowledge that my colleague Brendan O’Connor is here as Small Business Minister - Shadow Minister. Almost Minister, hopefully one day. He’s here with us and we are going to hold a round table this morning with businesses from around Darwin just to be able to give Brendan an insight as to some of the issues here. We know that we are experiencing some difficulties in terms of the economy.
 
I think it’s really important to have Brendan here to listen, certainly to the Chamber of Commerce and other business that are coming this morning so that we can start to really map out the direction that we want to go over the next couple of years in pushing the Scott Morrison Government to focus, in particular, on Northern Australia, but especially here in Darwin. So I welcome you here, Brendan.
 
BRENDAN O’CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR SMALL BUSINESS: Thanks very much Malarndirri. It’s great to be here with my Senate colleague. I’ve been here for some days now talking with Luke Gosling and other Territorian Members of Parliament, and most importantly businesses. And today Malarndirri is hosting a small business round table that allows for Federal Labor to listen to a very important constituency. It’s a very important part of our economy, namely millions of small business around the country.
 
So this listening tour took off some week ago, starting in Hobart. I then recently convened meetings in Melbourne. We’re in Darwin, we’re in the Territory today but we will be back. We’ll be travelling throughout the country listening to many small businesses about the issues that they confront each and every day. Whether it’s dealing with cash flow problems, dealing with the impositions of tax and not getting sufficient depreciation to allow for better cash flow. Whether it’s dealing with commercial tenancy arrangements, the real difficulty that franchisees, small businesses and smaller tenants have dealing with what sometimes are very onerous commercial tenancy arrangements with very unfair and onerous provisions. Talking about connectivity, the failure in some areas of the country to have sufficient broadband to grow their business. Whether it is dealing with other regulatory matters, even those at state or territory or local government jurisdiction, we are looking at those too because through COAG the federal government, a future Labor Government for example at the federal level could work through COAG to assist on some of these issues.
 
So whether it is employment advice, whether it is dealing with other commercial arrangements. Whether it’s dealing with connectivity, whether it’s ensuring that they have a tax framework in which they can not just survive but thrive. Small businesses are, and it’s been put by many people, often seen as the backbone of our economy. They employ over four million Australians. Many thousands of Territorians are employed by small businesses.
 
What we do know, when you think about Darwin’s economy, it can go up and down easily. I think it’s coming out of a very difficult time. It of course had a boom time. What we want to make sure is very important places like Darwin and the Territory that have smaller economies are able to be sufficiently diverse so that they are able to ride out the peaks and toughs of economic growth. What has happened unfortunately in some parts of the country after the mining boom, the mining construction phase, and those booms that happens in economies, you see a fall off of employment, and a fall off in economic growth. That’s been the experience of, of course, this community, this city as well.

By ensuring that small and medium enterprises are successful you actually mitigate the likelihood of a fall in economic growth, or as you say stopping that boom-bust cycle that happens in economies throughout the nation. And small business are at the heart of that policy answer because if they thrive, if they continue to grow even if, say a major project like Inpex moves from the construction phase onward you can see that the adverse impacts of the end of that phase are mitigated by the growth and the performance of small businesses.
 
And so today, the opportunity for Malarndirri and I to meet with small businesses and also meet with peak employer bodies who represent small businesses provides us with an opportunity to be informed by them on what is happening on the ground, what can governments do to help them grow and what Labor can learn from these roundtables.
 
As Anthony Albanese the Labor Leader has said recently, we are in the listening phase. We are listening to constituents, we are listening to people in areas of public policy including small business. That’s why I’m here today and of course I will be returning throughout the course of this parliamentary term to pick up new ideas, to listen to the difficulties. Because whilst there are generic challenges for businesses in this country there are some challenges some obstacles that are in the way of small business that are peculiar to the actual area, in this case Darwin. So I’d like to hear not just general concerns but also ones that might be specific because it’s through that process that ability to engage can federal Labor be best placed to put the best policies forward at the next election. Happy to take any questions.
 
JOURNALIST: What realistically can Labor do from opposition to promote better business initiatives in the Territory?
 
O’CONNOR: For example, I’ll just give you one example, when I was last Small Business Minister we introduced the instant asset tax write-off, which actually allowed the immediate depreciation of assets purchased by small business. Now, the current government abolished that initiative in 2014. But what Labor did in opposition was argue the case that they should reinstate that policy, and in 2015 they did. So whilst it is far better to be in government if you want to initiate things that will help small businesses, you can actually work even within a parliamentary term to put pressure on a government to listen to small businesses. And we’ll be seeking to do that.
 
This is not just about formulating policies for the next election, it is also putting the weights on the government to say they have an obligation to do the right thing by businesses. And if we think they are not doing that then we are not looking to wait until the next election, we will be prosecuting the argument that the government should be bringing forward initiatives.
 
For example, we’ve already said our economy at the moment is really, really not performing very well. We’ve got low economic growth. We’ve got the lowest wage growth on record. We’ve got 1.8 million Australians looking for some work or looking for any work. We have all these problems that beset our economy. We ask the government to think about bringing forward infrastructure projects. That won’t just help large players, that will help medium and small enterprises if they bring forward some of those infrastructure projects. We think that’s really important given the anaemic condition of the economy.
 
So we don’t just think it’s all after the election. We can do things now. Of course at the same time we want to be best placed to be ready to form a government if the people have confidence in us. And the best way for us to do that is to listen to small businesses and other stakeholders about the best way forward.
 
JOURNALIST: Have you been or will you be discussing with small businesses owners the adequacy or otherwise of Newstart payment?
 
O’CONNOR: We’ve already said we would have certainly examined the level of Newstart if we were elected. We made a commitment to review it quite quickly. And we really now impress upon Scott Morrison and his government to review Newstart. We believe it is very, very difficult to live on that income. Of course we would rather people get work than rely on that income, but let’s make sure people are better placed to find work because they are not struggling with either insecure accommodation or the inability to invest in skills or the inability to even feed themselves.
 
We really need to look at that issue and we believe the government should do something, should have a quick review because Newstart is too low. It’s for the government to determine what it does but we do think that’s a big issue.
 
And that’s another thing you can do. If you put money, a modest but reasonable amount of money, in the pockets of Newstart recipients that will be spent immediately in the economy. So infrastructure projects, reviewing Newstart, bringing forward tax cuts, these things can be done by the Morrison Government today. What that will do is increase economic growth, increase employment opportunities and that would be good for all Australians.
 
JOURNALIST: Malarndirri, what are some of the issues or concerns business owners here in the Territory have raised with you?
 
MCCARTHY: Look, I think first off it’s really about how we can keep getting people here to the Northern Territory. Obviously in the last month or so we’ve had the Darwin Festival and we’ve got so many events during the dry season. And I was at the Top End Tourism General Meeting the other night listening to businesses there. They were very pleased with the recent couple of months. But obviously it is attraction of good flights in and out of Darwin in particular. That is something I will be advocating for strongly when we have the Senate Inquiry here into remote airfares. We’ve been able to see Qantas make the move from Yulara. Resident from Yulara and Alice Springs can now fly to Darwin. The tourism businesses were now talking about how do they capture that market. Even though you’ve got people in Alice Springs worried they actually wanted to fly down south. But we want to be able to strengthen and boost our economy here by making sure our travellers also domestically stay here as well.
 
JOURNALIST: How much does the review of Virgin routes concern you then in that Darwin flights could be changed?
 
MCCARTHY: Look, it’s always a concern in the gateway with flights. I’ve known that in my time as Tourism Minister here in the Territory. We’ve got to hold onto the flights that we’ve got. But we’ve also got to ensure that we entice more flights, especially international flights here into Darwin. We’re a 24/7 airport and the reason we are that is because we want to attract other international airlines here.
 
JOURNALIST: What do you make of Terry Mills starting a new political party here?
 
MCCARTHY: Look I think we’ve seen the history here of Terry Mills in terms of being the former Chief Minister. He stood as an independent. He wanted to have an alliance with Robyn Lambley. He’s got an engagement with other independents in the parliament. I think what it shows is he really doesn’t know what he is doing, the fact that there is always other that he is looking at. The reality is that the people of the Northern Territory said they didn’t want the Country Liberal Party. And I think we see an election coming up but we know that you just can’t work with Terry Mills.
 
JOURNALIST: Do you think he will be able to attract enough numbers though to get a party up and running?
 
MCCARTHY: I’m sure there’s going to be more parties going around the Northern Territory who are going to come together. But we know this is leading towards the Northern Territory election. We do have a government in power who are doing everything they can to put the Northern Territory economy back on track. Clearly the message really is don’t go to other parties when you’ve got a party that is doing the best that they can.
 
JOURNALIST: People in Labor have been saying that they feel that are coming out of the economic slump here in the Northern Territory. What’s your personal observation? Is there any kind of evidence for that kind of statement?
 
MCCARTHY: Well, as I say I did attend the Northern Territory Tourism meeting the other night where there were many, many businesses who attended and there is a general sense of optimism. I think it’s more anecdotal that there is a sense that we are turning, that we are coming back up. Obviously we want to see that reflected in the statistics. But you do need strong, stable government to bring you through those economic times and we do have that here in the Northern Territory.
 
JOURNALIST: What issues do you think will be coming up this morning given that you probably know some of the businesses that are attending?
 
MCCARTHY: I think, just as I said previously, making sure that we are enticing people here to the Northern Territory, not just as visitors and tourists but also to live here. We clearly want to build our population in the North. We don’t want to lose any more economic funding, from the federal government. Scott Morrison needs to recognise and genuinely treat the North as the future of this country. It is here. Darwin is the gateway, but also right across to the Kimberleys and to Cape York the North needs infrastructure. Infrastructure Australia needs to spend more on our roads and our infrastructure here, not down south.
 
O’CONNOR: Just on a final point, I just want to reinforce what Malarndirri just said, For several years now we’ve had a Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund as an allocation under the federal budget, and yet none of the money has been spent in the Territory. So what we would say is release some of the money that was allocated for the Territory. Work with the Territorian Government and make sure that the infrastructure projects start here. That will certainly help the economy lift. So it really is a leadership role required here of the government in Canberra working with the government here and if they were to do that we would see very good prospects for this economy. I think there are certainly green shoots, and that’s a wonderful thing. But I think the federal government could do a little more to help this very important part of Australia and I think they should do that.
 
And the final thing I’d like to say on behalf of Malarndirri and myself and Federal Labor is to extend our condolences to Melanie Tyndall’s family and friends and colleagues at the NT Police. It was such a tragic loss on Saturday. I know there will be many people mourning her loss and we just wanted to extend our condolences to her family and friends and, as I say, the NT Police who were her colleagues.
 
DOORSTOP - MONDAY, 2 SEPTEMBER 2019