Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (12:45): I want to use the 15 minutes allowed to me in this matter of public interest debate today to talk about the future. Having just heard the previous speaker, can I start by saying that the future will look bright for our country if we can get our finances and our budgets in order. Thanks to the government supported by the previous speaker, Australia was left in a position where we were approaching three quarters of a trillion dollars in debt. It was debt that did not help our productivity. It was debt that very often supported wasteful and ill thought through projects—and we are hearing all about those in the royal commission on the pink batts scheme at the present time.
The difficulties and the stringent measures in last night's budget are there thanks to the Labor Party, who took office just six short years ago with no net debt at all and $20 billion in the bank and who, in a six-year spending spree, managed not only to get rid of the $20 billion in credit but also to run up a debt that is heading towards three quarters of a trillion dollars. Whilst I do not want to dwell on the budget, I do want to talk about the future—and certainly the budget settings displayed and announced last night will help that future.
You may say I am a little parochial in my views on this as it refers to the area where I live, work and play, but I am one of those who sees the future of Australia in the north of our country. That view is there for many reasons. As I say, I live and work in that part of the world. It is a great part of the world, and it is a part of the world that shows promise for the future. It is a part of the world which can take Australia further forward to the heights that I know that Australia can achieve.
We have practically limitless supplies of water in the north of Australia. With the climate changing as it is and as it has done for literally millions of years, we are being told that the north of Australia may well become wetter as the south of Australia becomes drier. I note in passing one of the reasons suggested for the dryness in the south of our continent is the increasing ice cap in Antarctica. That always makes me smile when people talk about global warming—but that is an aside. There are real opportunities for industry and productivity that depend on water and there are a number of very exciting prospects for the better use of water in the north of Australia—and the productivity, wealth and the increase in the standard of living for Australians that that will provide.
Currently the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia is looking very closely at the development of northern Australia and how that could be achieved and what should be done. I am a participating member of that committee. I do not want to in any way pre-empt anything the committee will resolve in its report later this year, but can I say that, having travelled around many parts of the north with the committee, it is heart-lifting to see the enthusiasm, the vision and the energy of people who have appeared before that parliamentary committee with their well thought through, well determined and well investigated ideas and enthusiasm for development of the north. As one who has spent most of my parliamentary career promoting the north, I find that even I—who have been doing this for many years—learned a lot from the submissions that were brought forward, and I see a very good recommendation from that committee coming forward to the government.
Senators will recall that, at the last election, the coalition made a commitment to the preparation of a white paper within 12 months of the election. The joint committee which I have spoken of is feeding into that white paper process, and I am pleased to see that, as promised, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet is actually working on a white paper that will set out the way forward for the development of the north. It is not of course going to be a paper that says that within 12 months we are going to build all these roads, build all these dams, open up this new land for productive use, open up new trade routes and open up new universities. Clearly, it is not going to say that, but, hopefully, it will set out a 30- to 40-year program of how we can use Australia's assets and the enthusiasm of our people to build a stronger country by developing northern Australia.
We have had evidence from the sugar industry, for example. Senators will know that the Australian sugar industry generates something like $2 billion in revenue annually. It is a low-cost producer, and it is a major raw sugar exporter, with some $1.7 billion in annual export revenue. Some 80 per cent of the country's sugar is exported, and Australia is the third-largest raw sugar exporter after Brazil and Thailand.
The future for the sugar industry can be bright, with government encouragement. One of the issues confronting the sugar industry now is that there has been a lot of investment made in co-generation plants at various sugar mills, which puts energy into the electricity grid. That is why we have to be very careful in any alteration to the renewable energy targets in the months and years ahead. Certainly, a lot of these sugar mill companies have invested heavily on the basis of what the rules were.
At the present time, the Senate is also conducting an inquiry into the beef industry through a beef levies inquiry, and that is bringing up some very interesting facts and figures about that very significant industry in northern Australia. It is an industry that was almost brought to its knees by the Labor government's insensitive and frankly quite stupid decision to ban live cattle exports for a couple of years, but it does have a great future and work has to be done to give that industry every encouragement.
Tourism, obviously, is an industry that figures very prominently in the economies of northern Australia. We have great assets in the Kakadu park, the desert outback, the Great Barrier Reef and the wet tropics—all of those natural assets do bring tourists to our country, and we continue to look after them very well and I congratulate all those agencies who play their part in the protection of those wonderful natural assets. At the same time, we are able—because we are clever enough to do it, these days—to make sure we can have sustainable and sensible development, like the Abbot Point coal refinery, in waters close to the Barrier Reef; we can do that because we know how to do it, and we can do it carefully and in a way that enhances Australia's overall economy.
I want to mention briefly James Cook University and Charles Darwin University, two northern based universities that are doing a wonderful job in educating not only Australians but also people from nearby countries. They are concentrating on areas which are relevant to northern Australia and therefore relevant to the tropic zone around the world, which contains some 60 per cent of the world's population. JCU is doing a great deal of work in looking at that tropic zone and exporting that knowledge and science to other parts of the world.
We are looking at a defence white paper in the not too distant future, and I certainly hope that the defence white paper being brought down by this government will seriously look at the absolute necessity of having our defence bases, our defence facilities, up in the area where they are more likely to be used. That is why I have been a long-term advocate for getting rid of some of the capital ships out of Garden Island in Sydney Harbour and moving them up to the north, where they will be there for border protection, there to defend Australia, and there to use when natural calamities require Australia to send in the troops, so to speak. With the 3rd Brigade at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville, Australia's largest Army barracks and the area that will contain the maritime force which will be using the new LHDs, I think that there is a real argument for additional capital ships to be based in Gladstone, Townsville, Mackay, Cairns—where Australia's second-largest east coast naval base currently is—or Darwin, or even Broome over in the west. So I hope that is being carefully thought about in the defence white paper.
As well, it is important that our Air Force is prominent in the north. For years, the Caribou squadrons were based at Garbutt Air Force Base in Townsville. As to the replacement, the C-27J Spartan, planning for its career started off in, I think, Richmond near Newcastle. Some think it should go into Amberley, but I cannot see why it should not be based where the Caribous were. The Spartans are replacing the Caribou, and therefore should be based in the north—again, closer to where they are ever likely to be used.
On another occasion when I have the opportunity I will expand upon a push for a sensible zone tax rearrangement and review in northern Australia. Back in the dying days of the Second World War, the then Labor government introduced a zone tax rebate to help develop the remoter parts of Australia, and at the time much of the north fitted the category. It was introduced by the Labor government, recognising the additional costs of living in those areas that are remote from the capital cities of the states and of our nation. That requirement is still there—the cost of living is greater. I have to say, in passing, that I do not know that the reintroduction of the fuel excise is going to help in this regard, but that fuel price increase, which will impact most heavily on people remote from the capital cities, is something that needs to be factored in to the need for a review of the zone tax rebate system and to make it more relevant now and to bring it back to the sort of policy front that it had at the time it was introduced back in the late 1940s.
So, with last night's budget setting the scene and the parameters for a prosperous Australia into the future, I certainly look to northern Australia being a part of that and doing its part in building a bigger and better society for all Australians.