Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia Report tabling - 04/09/2014

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (15:38): I present the final report of the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia,Pivot North: an inquiry into the development of Northern Australia, together with the minutes of the committee and I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.

Leave granted.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

In presenting the report, I first of all want to express my appreciation to my Senate colleagues on this side of the chamber, Senator Smith and Senator Canavan, for allowing me to present the report. Although I was not and am not a formal member of this committee, I did attend most of the hearings and meetings. The development of Northern Australia has been a passion of mine since I first came to this chamber some 24 years ago. Indeed, in my first speech, which coincidentally was given 24 years ago on this day next week, I made significant reference to the development of Northern Australia. In the six years prior to the election of the Abbott government, I was the coalition spokesman on Northern Australia and in that capacity travelled very widely, consulted very extensively and argued the case across the North—and indeed the rest of Australia—for a serious push to develop Northern Australia.

I also thank all the other senators and members of the House of Representatives for their contribution to this report. It is, you will note, a unanimous report of the committee: from the coalition, from the Labor Party and from the Greens. That is rather unusual—I might say unexpected—for an inquiry of this breadth with a lot of different issues. The committee worked well together to come to a conclusion that I think will be useful for the future. I particularly want to thank Warren Entsch, the chairman of the joint select committee. Warren is a personal friend of mine and a great Northern Australian. His passion for the North almost equals mine. I also want to mention, in addition to those senators who may well speak on this report, former Senators Sue Boyce and Alan Eggleston, both of whom were on the original committee but who retired from it when they left the Senate at the end of the last financial year.

The inquiry has formed one part of a broader process aimed at looking at ways to develop Northern Australia. The Australian government made a commitment to produce, within 12 months of the last election, a white paper outlining its vision for the future of Northern Australia. The committee's findings and recommendations will inform the white paper process, assisting the government to formulate its policy for the future development of Northern Australia.

The inquiry into the development of the North was greeted with a huge amount of enthusiasm and anticipation but also with some scepticism about possible outcomes. Since 1937 there have been numerous investigations, reports and recommendations aimed at developing Northern Australia which are gathering dust on shelves. It is now up to the government to prove the sceptics wrong and get things moving.

Indeed, as the Minister for Regional Services back in 2001, I started a process which got about to this stage but then faded away—and nothing happened. My colleagues and I are determined to ensure that the work done by this committee, and by other groups that have been formed around this effort, does actually come to fruition. I am disappointed that the process was a little delayed. As I said when I moved an amendment to the motion setting up this committee, it is my desire to ensure that something does in fact happen following this process.

The development of Northern Australia is one of the great challenges and opportunities facing the nation. Northern Australia covers over 40 per cent of Australia's land mass and generates something over 50 per cent of Australia's export earnings but contains less than five per cent of Australia's population. It has abundant land, water and mineral resources. It has medical and educational institutions with world class-facilities.

Northern Australia is on the doorstep of Asia and is part of the tropical world, part of the Torrid Zone which circles the globe between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer. By 2050, the tropical world will be home to over half the world's population. There are great opportunities for the people of Northern Australia within the tropical zone. The development of the North has in the past lacked a commitment by governments at all levels to pursue investment and development in a consistent, sustainable and coordinated way.

The committee has made some 42 recommendations covering a wide range of important issues. There are seven priority recommendations and, given time, I will return to those later. The remaining recommendations include particular development proposals and measures to address opportunities for and overcome impediments to development. To realise the opportunities development could bring, the committee has made recommendations to establish a CRC for northern agriculture and to develop a national institute for tropical sports and sports medicine. The committee also recommended the exploration of new methods to better engage the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce. This is particularly significant given the large and growing proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Northern Australia. The committee has recommended the implementation of long-term strategies for the development of capital infrastructure and agriculture in Northern Australia. Those strategies will underpin the long-term growth and development that Northern Australia needs.

There are serious impediments to Northern Australia's development which must be addressed. To do this, the committee has recommended improved regulatory arrangements for aquaculture and better regulation of fisheries to enable sustainable growth of the industry. The report also addresses growing concerns over fly-in fly-out employment, calling for improved taxation arrangements to encourage local employment in the resources sector.

I am pleased that, with the change of the terms of reference, the committee was able to focus on other taxation matters and I am particularly pleased that the committee has addressed and made recommendations in relation to an upgrading of the zone tax rebate, which will be an important element in the further development of Northern Australia.

The main purpose of the committee's recommendations is to promote investment in and the liveability of Northern Australia. One major constraint that Australia faces is growing the population in the north. That is absolutely critical.

In presenting this report I also want to mention my thanks to the committee secretariat, who have done an absolutely magnificent job. The amount of information that has come in, been sorted through and been put into a readable form is enormous, and the committee, currently led by Ms Stephanie Mikac, previously by Peter Stephen and including secretaries Dr John Carter, Dr Bill Pender, Ms Loes Slattery, were magnificent. The administrative officers Emily Costello, Megan Pealy and Carissa Skinner have also been very helpful.

On behalf of the chair I would like to thank all those who contributed to the inquiry and those who gave evidence. A lot of it many of us have heard before, but it has now all been gathered into one very comprehensive if quite lengthy tome which has resulted from the inquiry. The committee undertook an extensive program of travel for public hearings and inspections and received, as I said, many valuable submissions.

I again thank all of those involved in the committee. Having me, Senator Siewert and Ms Alannah MacTiernan in the one room on the one committee would, some might say, pose challenges, but I am delighted to say that, although we obviously will disagree on some elements, by and large we are all dedicated to the sustainable development of the north. I hope that our comprehensive report in fact endorsed that.

I do not have time to go through any of the recommendations; I will have to save that for some other time. Thanks to those involved. Thanks to the secretariat. Thanks to all those who contributed. I commend the report to the Senate.

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