Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS - Northern Australia

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (18:24): I thank the minister for making the annual statement to the Senate on the government's progress on implementing the Northern Australia white paper. Our shadow minister, Jason Clare, in the other place, will be joining the minister at tonight's function, and there will be the opportunity-

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Moore, are you moving to take note?

Senator MOORE: I am moving to take note. I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

I've already started to take note, Madam Deputy President, and now I'll continue. In terms of the process, our shadow minister, Jason Clare, will be joining the minister this evening at the function, where he will have a chance also to continue discussion about a really important element of future policy. I take the point the minister raised in his conclusion about the importance of having this engagement with our parliament. He said that these reports offered the opportunity to provide 'pressure and energy' to ensure that this 20-year plan will continue and engage with people across the community. Also in that space is the absolutely strong importance of collaboration across governments and the fact that that must be an integral part of the future, and also the acknowledgement of the extraordinarily important element of work with Indigenous communities across northern Australia. We know that one of the elements to make this program operate is to identify where the needs are greatest and also to look at who lives in northern Australia. It is a growing, wonderful part of the world but we do acknowledge that a very large number of Indigenous people live in northern Australia and they must be part of any plan into the future.

One of the things we do know is that these annual reports are important to the parliament. When we had a look at Hansard, we couldn't find a report that was handed down last year. Certainly there was the report the first time, but this is only the second time that a report has actually been made, from looking through Hansard.

Senator Canavan: It was tabled.

Senator MOORE: It was tabled but there was no discussion in terms of the process and the way we operate.

Senator Canavan: I was in the High Court.

Senator MOORE: I take your point, Minister: you were not minister at the time. But I just think it is very important that we ensure that the interaction actually happens. Also one of the elements that needs to be looked at is that we do share a parliament in this place. You are the minister at the moment in this place, but this report should be tabled and discussed in the other place as well. And it is not only in this report; it happens a lot. I think there needs to be the opportunity and the knowledge that, when you have a report of this nature, it doesn't matter where the minister is located; it needs to have that option for debate. We can work better on doing that in future, because I think that is something we do lack. So I get the opportunity now to make some comments about it, even though I am only looking at doing a covering job for the shadow minister, who happens to be in the House of Representatives. There must be a way, not only in public functions but also in the parliament, to have that process. We know that Mr Pyne, then the Minister for Defence Industry, tabled a statement in the other place, but there was not the same opportunity to get the chance to get up and talk about why the program is important and what its focus is. And it was at that time last year when there were acknowledgements that there needed to be some changes. In fact, that was when the review of what was going on was announced. It was an important time and I hope that that will be done better into the future.

As we know, when this government launched the white paper, there was a great deal of fanfare. I will quote some of the things that were said at the time. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that the white paper was designed to create an 'economic powerhouse'. Former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, Barnaby Joyce, said:

We are a nation smart enough and brave enough to take the next step and now we have the government motivated enough to do just that.

They promised thousands and thousands of jobs-and what have we seen since then?

The minister rolled off some figures in his report. But when you look at exactly what has happened in northern Australia, you see that it is not a great picture around employment. Since the white paper was released, unemployment in places like Townsville has got considerably worse, not better. From Gladstone to Darwin there are now more than 33,000 people looking for work. And for many of those who do have jobs, wages have gone down and not up. More than 40,000 people in northern Australia have had their penalty rates cut. And that's not all. When you look at the incredibly important and valuable aspects of education in the north, you see that local schools have lost the funding that they were supposed to get-$70 million from schools in the Northern Territory and $100 million from schools in Central and North Queensland. Universities have been cut too-$15 million from Charles Darwin University in the NT, $36 million from James Cook University in North Queensland and $38 million from Central Queensland University, which now has a range of campuses across the north. There are over 9,100 fewer apprentices across Australia. On that basis, things have got worse for the north, not better. We are worried that there is a lot of talk and not enough action.

Around the NAIF, the minister identified in his comments that this particular program had not been proceeding in the way that he had hoped. There is, in fact, a review called to see what was going on in the first two years of the program. There's no bigger example of areas where there's been talk and media but not as much action as was promised and is obviously needed. The NAIF, the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, was the centrepiece of the government's promise to the north. When the NAIF Act passed parliament in this place, Senator Canavan said:

The Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility continues the legacy of other great nation building initiatives that Australian governments had taken in the past, like the Snowy Mountains scheme and interstate railways.

That may have been a slight exaggeration, but we all need a goal, because, after more than 3 years, it has only announced one project in Queensland, which the minister identified in his contribution.

The NAIF also has been promoted. While it's been building and building and being reviewed, the NAIF has caused considerable media coverage. The NAIF did media during Beef Week in Rockhampton, talking about potential investments. There was lots of talk about all the possibilities. There are still lots of possibilities and potential, but unfortunately, from where the community stands, there hasn't been significant action. Particularly now, when we have drought-stricken farmers in Central Queensland and, in fact, across the community, at Beef Week there was quite a deal of expectation that something was going to translate for this incredibly important industry in our community.

We believe that NAIF has not lived up to its promises. It's no longer the centrepiece of the government's promises; it's now a symbol of things that must be done better. Certainly we acknowledge that recently there has been some movement from the NAIF in Western Australia and the Top End. That is positive. Labor welcomed those announcements. But after three years, given the importance with which this element was promoted, it's just not good enough-not when 33,000 people are looking for work.

When Labor were in government, one in every $7 invested in infrastructure was spent in the North. We committed more than $5 billion, and we didn't leave it just sitting there with promises attached. We need to get the NAIF money, which has been identified and promised, out. Every minute you delay has an impact. For example, in Darwin, the construction on the Inpex project is wrapping up. In this place, we've had a number of contributions over the past years about what that impact was, how many people are involved and how this has a real impact not just in the immediate area of Darwin but across the whole north. Last year, there were around 9,000 people working there, more than 1,100 of whom were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which was a really positive element of that project. There are now around 3,700. These people are finishing their jobs in Darwin and they are leaving town. That has been identified both within Darwin and across the Territory. If the government had had its act together, it would have announced enough projects in the Top End to keep those workers there months ago so that, instead of people being faced with the decision to leave the area to get work, they could have continued to plan and live in the Territory with the confidence that there were jobs that they could take. That would maintain the expenditure and the community aspects that are so important in any area but, I think, particularly in the North, where, again, there had been so much hope and expectation.

The government isn't delivering what it promised. The people of northern Australia have been asked to trust into the future, and that is important. In fact, they've always been asked to trust into the future, and they're not getting their trust responded to. People in the north should be able to trust their government to deliver the things that are important to them. That's why we've told them that a Shorten plan would do things at the next election. These are not election promises; they are clear plans into the future for how we would look at a plan for northern Australia. We'd put back the money that we've identified as being cut from schools, because we understand that the only way to an effective future is to have a strong education base. Again, that builds families and communities. Just last week, we announced that we'd deliver a record $14 billion investment into public schools. We have also planned to put $700 million cut from hospitals back into the system. Importantly, as I said earlier, we would look at genuine wages and we would return penalty rates.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator Moore. Your time has expired.

Senator Moore: I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.