COMMITTEES - Economics References Committee - Report

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (18:47): The Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility was one of the high points of the northern Australia white paper, which was released by the coalition government, by then Prime Minister Abbott, in 2015. It set out a blueprint for the development of the north of our country on the basis that a strong north means a strong Australia. Already, about 50 per cent of Australia's export earnings come from northern Australia, even though northern Australia only has about five per cent of Australia's population. Northern Australia has always punched well above its weight when it comes to supporting Australia.

The Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility was really one of the features of the white paper. I was pleased that the committee decided to have a look at it, investigate it and report on the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. Unfortunately, as with everything relating to the development of northern Australia, this became an ideological and political football, the plaything of the Australian Labor Party. It had $5 billion set aside for very favourable—dare I say cheap—loans for development projects in northern Australia. Regrettably, one of the errors the government made—as much as I might say in spite of my opposition or caution about this—was that, when the federal government and this independent body that was set up made a recommendation for a loan to an entity that was going to develop northern Australia, they thought, for constitutional reasons, it had to be done through a state government. In my state, that means the Queensland state government. The Queensland state government is a Labor Party government, and it's there because of Greens preferences. It stays in power—and there's nothing the Labor Party and the unions like more than being in power—because of the Greens, who exercise undue influence on it.

Every single proposal put to the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility in the early days was either not dealt with or, in the case of Adani, which Senator Bartlett has just mentioned, deliberately avoided—vetoed—by the Queensland government. The Northern Australian Infrastructure Facility, although no decision had been made, had indicated that it was looking at the Adani proposal favourably, and then the Queensland government said it would veto any loan to Adani, notwithstanding that there wasn't a cent of Queensland government money in it and notwithstanding that the Queensland Labor government had already approved the Adani project. But they didn't want this project to go ahead and to be seen as being supported by a federal coalition government, with these favourable, long-term, lower-interest-rate loans. The Premier used the ridiculous excuse that, because her husband had worked for an international accounting firm which happened to have done some work for Adani, she couldn't allow it to go ahead. But it wasn't Queensland government money. It had nothing to do with the Queensland government, and the Queensland government had already approved every environmental and other condition for the Adani mine and the railway line to Abbot Point.

Since then, the Labor Party has made it one of its projects to try to undermine and destroy the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility purely for crass political reasons: so that the Commonwealth coalition government, the Turnbull government, could not claim any credit for major development projects in the north— which would have happened prior to this had this $5 billion fund, which we had specifically set up to develop the north, been available.

Since then, there have been some announcements made of major and significant loans, but these still require the approval of the Queensland government. One that I was involved in most recently was a loan to James Cook University to set up an engineering science hub, which would make money and allow them to repay the loan over a period of time. But even that requires the consent of the Queensland government, and, when last I heard, that still hadn't been forthcoming. We've made the announcement. NAIF has made the announcement. James Cook University has made the announcement. If I'm wrong on this, I'll apologise to the Queensland government, but up to a couple of weeks ago we were still awaiting the tick-off of the Queensland Labor government, and that was needed because James Cook University is a university and it's subject to Queensland state government legislation.

This NAIF fund that the committee inquired into is a great initiative. It has over $4½ billion still sitting there for anyone who has a reasonable business proposition for the north, and there are many around. I know most of the board members of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. A couple of them are people from the north who I've known over a long period of time. They are highly qualified, highly experienced people passionate about the development of the north but with a business, accounting and financial background that will ensure that this taxpayers' money is properly spent and that due diligence is done. It is a regret to me that, all the way through, the Queensland Labor government, supported by the Greens political party, have done everything they could possibly do to undermine the good work that the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility is capable of doing and was set up by the federal Liberal and National parties, the federal government, to do.

I know it is difficult to appeal to Queensland Labor and Greens senators in this chamber to put their ideology aside, put their hatred of the coalition aside and actually do something positive for the state that they are supposed to represent; I think that is a bridge too far for most of the Queensland Labor and Greens senators. And, of course, the Queensland state Labor government will continue to frustrate the goals of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility and the goals of the federal Liberal and National government, who are very keen to develop the north. Why do we want to develop the north? We want to develop the north because we want to provide jobs for northerners and we want to encourage people to move from the crowded cities of Sydney and Melbourne up to the north, which they can only do if there is work for them. There needs to be real development in the north for those jobs to become available.

Liberal governments over the years have been keen on developing the north—going back 50 years to the Ord River scheme. It is actually happening. It has happened much more slowly in the last five decades than I would have hoped, but it is coming into its own in the Ord River. There are a lot of things. NAIF has given money to a aquafarming venture in the Darwin area. There's been money given to a Western Australian company for work over on the west coast of Western Australia and for James Cook University, which is starting to happen. The NAIF board have been diligent and thorough in their investigations of every application that's come before them. The Labor Party have criticised them for being slow and unable to make decisions. But it is taxpayers' money, and, appropriately, they are doing the correct due diligence. I think the board are wonderful, I think the proposal is wonderful and I think the whole concept is great. I just wish the Greens and the Labor Party would step aside from their ideology and political hatred of the government and join with us in developing the north. I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.

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