We need the north to be considered the powerhouse for Australia

November 12, 2019

Senator Malarndirri McCarthy interview with Adam Steer, ABC Radio Darwin

ADAM STEER, ABC DARWIN: You may have noticed more federal politicians from down south popping up to Top End press conferences this week. The Minister for Northern Australia, Matt Canavan, jumped in front of the camera on Tuesday to announce Northern Territory airports had just become the second territory company to secure a loan from the five billion dollar North Australia Infrastructure facility, also known as NAIF. That came just before a Senate inquiry into the effectiveness of the Federal Government's northern Australia agenda held in Darwin and Nhulunbuy over the past two days. ALP Senator for the Northern Territory Malarndirri McCarthy is a member of the select committee which hosted the hearing. Senator, good morning. What have Territorians been telling the inquiry?

MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY: Good morning, Adam, and good morning to your listeners. We've been hearing directly from organisations in relation to their concerns about the slowness of funding rolling out across the north, in particular concerns around loans. The fact that under the NAIF program here in in the Territory in particular, people will have to apply as a loan, whereas in other circumstances, interstate it has, there have been provisions for grants. And that's just some of the differences that people have provided in terms of their evidence to our Senate committee.

STEER: It's been four years since the Government released its Northern Australia White Paper. The delivery of it has been underwhelming, to say the least. Why haven't you put more pressure on the government?

MCCARTHY: Well, the pressure has always been there. I think in fact, just having this select committee this week has shown what the pressure is providing to see so many Federal Ministers rolling into the north as we're about to embark on asking questions around funding that should be distributed across the north is very curious and very coincidental, don't you think? And so I think the pressure is definitely there. It's just that we need more pressure to apply that they actually spend the money Adam.

STEER: Former Labor leader Bill Shorten said he would abolish the “failed” NAIF if he won the election and establish a new fund to transform Darwin into a manufacturing and export powerhouse. Would you support that stance?

MCCARTHY: We certainly need. We certainly need the north to be considered as the powerhouse for Australia generally, not just in one particular area of the market.

We know we lead the way with our livestock in terms of cattle exports and live cattle exports that where we’re at now in terms of the Labor Party is obviously having a good look at our policies and the review that was released yesterday is the starting point for that.

STEER: Do you support NAIF?

MCCARTHY: Look, I think the fact that NAIF hasn't delivered makes it a real concern, Adam, and this is why we scrutinise it. We naturally want, if there is $5 billion available for the people in northern Australia to receive that money, well give it to them. Why is it still being waved as a carrot?

STEER: Luke Gosling, your counterpart in Federal parliament, told me earlier on this week that he thinks the NAIF should be used to fund a number of mining projects. We spoke to the Minerals Council yesterday. They say there are between 12 and 14 mining projects ready to go right across the Northern Territory. Would you would you support NAIF being used to fund mining projects?

MCCARTHY: I just want NAIF to be spent. See, that's the problem. It doesn't matter what project I support. If this government, this federal government is not spending any money. We've got Charles Darwin University they’re screaming just for a couple of millions of dollars, not billions to relocate, to advance and to keep the students that it needs to here in Darwin, in the Northern Territory. And yet NAIF cannot move quickly enough on the city deal.

STEER: Labor's review into its election performance was released yesterday as you mentioned. Were you interviewed for it?

MCCARTHY: Yes, I was. Adam, I was certainly interviewed by Jay Weatherill on my thoughts in terms of the federal campaign. And I was very pleased to see that some of the areas that I was certainly pushing in terms of First Nations coordination and policies linked with State and Territory areas was very much acknowledged in the report.

STEER: It was a bit of a shock defeat for the Labor Party. The bookies even had on the day, I seem to remember, 7 to 1 for Labor to win. In your opinion, what went wrong?

MCCARTHY: Look, I think that certainly canvassed very strongly in the report, which was reading through last night. And it highlights the recognition by so many across the country who just so expected – and there was a line there that said we were being treated as a government in exile, even though we were the opposition. And I thought that was interesting. And it was an interesting way of looking at it, because when I reflect on the way we were lobbied and campaigned in the lead up to the election, that's perhaps correct, because so many organisations had just assumed, it was a given, that we would perhaps step into that role of government officially and therefore the pressures were being applied post what they expected of us. So it was interesting to read all that. It was also a bit depressing. Clearly, you know, reading the report and recognising there were some things there that that could have been done differently. But I am pleased to see the report and I think our party will certainly consolidate and move forward.

STEER: What about issues around franking credits, around negative gearing? How big of a role did that play in the loss of the federal election?

MCCARTHY: Look, for me personally, travelling across the Territory, it was not an issue but certainly listening to my colleagues and recognising what was going on in the southern states and clearly coming through this report, it had a detrimental effect. People were either confused and unsure, felt angry. And the clear thing that came through was there were just too many messages about what Labor could and would do if we got into government. And the franking credits was one that clearly caused a great deal of angst and confusion.

STEER: There was many retirees who were standing to lose – not that much money – but certainly between two and five or six thousand dollars with the abolishment of the franking credits, do you think in hindsight the Labor Party should have put a cap on it of, say, ten thousand dollars or something before they –

MCCARTHY: Look, you know, we can all be wise in hindsight. I think where we're looking at is that the balance was between the need to spend so much more in our schools and health system and knowing that we couldn't go into major deficit and that we had to give an explanation as to where we'd be saving the costs. And clearly that was our judgment at the time and clearly it wasn't accepted and worked. So we have to reconsider all those things.

STEER: Interestingly, the report found low income workers swung against Labor, where really they should have, considering your party, trumpeted bigger tax reductions for lower income earners than the Coalition. So how did you lose that working class vote?

MCCARTHY: Yeah, look, I think that's something that will have to keep canvasing amongst ourselves in terms of our respective constituencies. If you compare, say, Queensland with the Adani coal mine and the Greens movement that went through a clearly there were workers there who wanted Labor on their side. Then if you compare that to the needs in, say, for example, seats in Victoria, where there was more of an emphasis on the climate and the concerns around that, it was really about trying to get the balance right. And clearly we couldn't get the balance in the way that we wanted to.

STEER: Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott last night reflected on the Abbott Turnbull Morrison government in a speech at his own tribute dinner.

TONY ABBOTT, FORMER PRIME MINISTER: And Scott Morrison, our prime minister, who's near miraculous victory, redeemed the current government from being judged by history, an embarrassing failure. That's the truth, Scott. Had we lost this election, this government would have been judged an embarrassing failure.

STEER: How did Labor not capitalise on a government like the one Abbott described there?

MCCARTHY: Well, that, again, is certainly highlighted in the review's report that came down Adam and again, that's something that we will constantly have to ask ourselves where we we failed in that regard.

STEER: You're on ABC Radio down quarter past nine Adam Steer with you this morning. Malarndirri McCarthy is the Labor senator for the Northern Territory. The Northern Territory lost its only full time Auslan interpreter just a few weeks ago when Liz Temple finished up the job. There are no plans to replace her. This will affect deaf people who need access to health, legal services. Skype is now the only option, but of course, Skype relies on reliable Internet connection, which remote communities don't always have. This is the chair of the Australian Sign Language Interpreters Association, Julie Judd talking about the situation earlier this week.

JULIE JUDD, AUSTRALIAN SIGN LANGUAGE INTERPRETERS ASSOCIATION: This is happening and how vital this service is. And I'm pretty sure that this would have been trying to get the attention of all the government departments that are up there to let them know that this is a real dire situation.

STEER: Will you push for the full time, enter into Auslan roll to be reinstated?

MCCARTHY: Well, I think it's enormously disappointing that we've lost that position, Adam, and it's reflective of a deeper concern here in the Northern Territory in particular and our regional areas of Australia. That is, these packages with NDIS are not rolling out and they're not rolling out satisfactorily. They're not rolling out enough. What's happened with Auslan is really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the fact that we have real difficulties or the Government, the Federal Government is having real difficulties in rolling out what it should in terms of entitlements for people here with disabilities. And yes, I will certainly be following this up. We have the Senate next week and I will certainly be wanting to know what's going on for the Northern Territory.

STEER: The Darwin Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Women's Shelter was informed at the end of September that funding for its emergency relief programs will cease at the end of the year. What's your reaction to that?

MCCARTHY: This is a major concern, a major concern given the high rates of domestic violence in the Northern Territory, in particular here in Darwin, to have the Darwin Aboriginal and Islander Women's Shelter experience the cuts that it is. Now, this is not new. They've raised this even before the election and they were given all sorts of confidences that they would be okay. They're not okay. And neither is the Katherine Women's Shelter or the Tennant Creek Women's Shelter. And I'm very concerned about these shelters losing this funding.

STEER: So what would you like to see happen? The funding reinstated?

MCCARTHY: Absolutely. I mean, this has to happen as a matter of urgency. And I will certainly be pursuing that with the respective minister. But it's not good enough. Adam, you know, it's again, another example of how the Northern Territory seems to be getting cut left, right and centre. And there's no real clear vision as to why other than it's complete neglect.

STEER: A couple of other issues before I let you go, Senator. Alarming reports have been released from the Productivity Commission into Children and Family Services here in the Northern Territory, calling for a new approach. Kids up here four times more likely than other Australian children to come in contact with a Child Protection Service, do you believe a new approach is needed here?

MCCARTHY: Well, I certainly need to have a look at that report, Adam. I think that anything that the Productivity Commission raises in relation to the Northern Territory is very important for us to have a look at. Naturally, we want to make sure that our children are cared for and that money isn't being spent unnecessarily. So I certainly have a look at that and see what the issues are.

STEER: You've also had your say on the Cashless Welfare Card. We've had a BasicsCard operating in Northern Territory for some time, since the Intervention in fact in 2007. What's the issue with the cashless Welfare Card if the Basics Card has been operating for such a long time?

MCCARTHY: Well, people who have spoken to us here in the Northern Territory are giving evidence say they don't want it. For your listeners, the basic card is held by 23000 people in the Northern Territory. Now, if the Government's legislation goes through which Labor opposes, if this legislation goes through the people who are on the basics card, the 23000 Territorians will have to go on the Cashless Debit Card and they will then be responsible to do whatever it is under that particular regime. Now, under the evidence that we've been given, both in central Australia and here in the Top End, there's overwhelming evidence to show that a) the basics card didn't work in terms of its output. There was no evidence base behind why there should be a move to the cashless debit card. Academics and human rights groups have said this is not the way to go. We would say that if people want to have the card, there should be an aspect of voluntary input, but not this blanket approach. And Labor will be opposing the legislation.

STEER: You would have spoken to many people on communities, particularly women in communities. It was reported when the basics card first came out that there was many people supporting it because that money wasn't being spent on grog and that therefore associated anti-social problems that come with people being drunk weren't happening as much.

MCCARTHY: They’re anecdotal reports that come back and we have heard different things, but our committee is required to look at the evidence and we have to make evidence-based decisions on legislation. And there is no evidence to support any of that. If anything, what we have seen through this inquiry is places like the Arnhem Land Progress Association with their FOODcard, with Tangentyere and their relationship with Westpac. They've been able to establish community driven options for people in terms of controlling and supporting them in their savings and the way they spend their money. That has worked, but this whole blanket approach has not worked.

STEER: Senator, as always, appreciate you coming into the studio this morning.

MCCARTHY: Thank you

ENDS

TRANSCRIPT - FRIDAY 8 NOVEMBER 2019

SUBJECT/S: Northern Australia Senate Inquiry; Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility; Labor election review report; Federal funding cut to NT Auslan interpreter; Federal funding cut to NT Aboriginal women’s shelters; Cashless Debit Card.