Friday, 26 November 2021

I rise to take note of the 2021 annual statement to the parliament on developing northern Australia and to acknowledge the Hon. David Littleproud, Minister for Agriculture and Northern Australia, because this truly is a government that is focused on developing the northern Australia agenda.

For a nation where just 1.3 million people—5.3 per cent of our population—live in the top 51 per cent of the nation, a casual observer could be forgiven for wondering why we’d prioritise the development of northern Australia. Surely it is too hot, too wet, too dry and too unpopulated to care about, but, for those of us who live, work, or invest in northern Australia, the reality is that it is the part of the nation that has the true potential to deliver the increase of food and fibre production, essential minerals for our new economy, unique and wonderful tourism destinations, defence placement and Indigenous community connections.

Our people are hardworking. They’re used to being patient, waiting for seasons, for prices and for recognition from our southern cousins. Only five per cent of our House of Representatives members speak for the northern 50 per cent of land mass, and eight per cent of senators live in the north. A foreign observer wondering why our economy has continued to not just survive but thrive during the pandemic need look no further than northern Australia. The north kept digging, driving, growing, providing jobs and keeping the royalties and taxes flowing, and that’s why we care, as a nation, about developing northern Australia.

I often refer to four pillars of developing the north. The first is access to affordable and reliable electricity; we pay, on average, three times more for electricity in North Queensland than those in southern Queensland. The second is access to insurance and finance; we pay three times the price of insurance, if we can get it, in northern Australia, and finance is similarly weighted. The third is the requirement for suitable road, rail, flight and freight infrastructure, and the fourth is access to high-quality medical care, aged care and child care.

I am delighted to say that this government is focusing on those very important issues—particularly the northern Australia insurance fund, which should come into effect next year. This is a $10 billion reinsurance pool which will allow insurers to re-enter the market in northern Australia and will ensure that we are suitably protected. The north performs functions that the south does not and cannot. Through royalties, it funds much of the rest of the nation—including hospitals and schools—and, again, for that reason, the north matters.

Most importantly, though, recently $9.3 million has been allocated to the Regions of Growth pilot program: Broome to Kununurra to Darwin, across Western Australia and the Northern Territory; the Beetaloo basin to Katherine to Darwin, again in the Northern Territory; and Cairns to Gladstone, and Mount Isa to Townsville, in Queensland. The minister has announced the master plans for three of those regions and their respective corridors, 20-year blueprints and five-year action plans to lead a structured and coordinated investment agenda. Most importantly, though, it’s in collaboration with state and territory counterparts, industry and communities.

The first master plans will focus on locations within three regions of growth: Kununurra to Darwin, Katherine to Middle Arm and Mount Isa to Townsville. These projects will de-risk the north and give confidence to the private sector to invest in northern Australia. This is important because it is developing plans for the north by the north. I’m truly excited by this advancement in policy thinking.

Minister Littleproud has brought new coordination to the government policy settings in this country because he has turned his mind to coordinating a whole-of-government effort. Traditionally, departments work in silos. What Minister Littleproud has done has encouraged the introduction of more frequent round tables, where federal, state and territory jurisdiction agencies across a range of portfolios—health, defence, infrastructure and many more—sit at the same table and discuss the significant advancements that are being made, both in government research investment as well as in private enterprise.

We know that it is in the north that the significant productivity gains in mining and agriculture and in renewables and new industries will spring up. Resources are taking off, pit-to-port. Vanadium and rare earth mines are being developed, and I applaud the Queensland government for recently investing in a public utility asset for a vanadium-processing facility.

The CRC for northern Australia is doing extremely interesting work. There are promising results from studies into alternative cropping, forestry and cane, utilising industries that are already successful in northern Australia and finding new and more exciting uses for these crops. The important part is that that allows farmers and producers to be more profitable and more successful. We know that makes them not only more sustainable but better land managers, which is something that there has been quite a deal of interest in—in Queensland particularly. And, importantly, it’s about Indigenous business development—being able to harness the enthusiasm and the potential of Indigenous communities that are looking for ways to engage their young people and their communities on country, to stay on country and not have to go away.

Townsville port is Australia’s largest northern port for sugar, lead, copper, zinc, fertiliser and molasses, and live cattle as well. It is also the largest container and automotive port in northern Australia. More than eight million tonnes of goods worth more than $10 billion are handled through there each year.

So this is an exciting future, funded and supported by this coalition government. It is important that we do turn our whole-of-government attention to developing, as I said, cross-portfolio solutions for the north. We need to positively discriminate for northern Australia. In Townsville alone, $562 million was spent on flying consultants into that city, a city that has incredible and useful capability and capacity in business consulting, health consulting, transport and freight consulting, yet we continue to fly people into that city. I think if I did the numbers, it would be the same right across northern Australia.

I am tired of businesses having a token office—a post office box and a serviced office—in our northern cities and calling that being ‘based in the north’. They then call for government projects when they don’t pay the salaries into northern Australia. The people don’t live there; they don’t have their white-collar salaries in the north, their kids in the schools or their lawns being mowed. These are the sorts of things that develop our northern capacity. So when I say I want to positively discriminate in favour of the north, it is to demand that appointments are filled by people who live in northern Australia, that contracts for consultants are awarded to companies that are genuinely based in the north and to support projects and organisations that pay their wages and live in northern Australia, not fly-in, fly-out. It is only with that kind of practical approach that we can fulfil our true potential and destiny, and I applaud the Minister for Agriculture and Northern Australia for the work he has done in truly driving this agenda and holding us to account.