Regional Investment Corporation Bill 2017 - In Committee

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (12:10): I'm interested to hear of the amendments and the government's agreement to them, and I want to ask one question about that. But before doing that: I don't always agree with everything Mr Joyce proposes, but I do very much appreciate and support his actions in moving some obvious government agencies out of Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne and putting them into rural communities. There has been a lot of criticism of Mr Joyce in relation to the veterinary authority moving. I applaud that, and I applaud the fact that this organisation is to have its headquarters, apparently, in Orange.

I do sound a note of warning, of course, that, where government ministers are doing this, they shouldn't send them all to New South Wales. There are other states of the Commonwealth where these agencies could well be situated. With modern communications and good internet these days—which you're getting under a government that understands the NBN and is trying to make it as good as Labor promised but never had any ability to deliver—you really don't need to live in the next door office building in Canberra to be able to properly administer particular government departments and, particularly, agencies. I applaud Mr Joyce's and, indeed, the government's approach of moving some of the obvious ones; not every one could go out into the country.

I'm disappointed that Border Force hasn't been moved up into the north of Queensland or the north of Australia where some of its operations are principally organised. Some of the activities of that organisation haven't been agreed to be put there, as I've been campaigning for for some time. But I do applaud the government doing this, and I again make the point that with modern communications you don't have to sit in the next door building in Canberra to be able to properly administer the Public Service; you can spread them out into the country. In fact, I suspect that very few public servants these days speak to each other; they usually get on the internet and email each other when they want to pass on some communications. So, that bit I do applaud but with the warning that they shouldn't all be set up in New South Wales and Victoria. There are other states of the Commonwealth where, with communications, this could happen.

There is a question that I want to ask the minister. It seems to me that there are similarities between this organisation and the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. I am furious that Australia has let itself into this situation with the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. The federal government set up a policy to develop Northern Australia; it promised it at two elections. The people of Australia supported the coalition because of its proposals to develop the north. Part of the proposal was that there would be an independent board that would deal with applications. An independent board, not a government or a politician, would deal with these applications. The board was a very good board, I think, of people with expertise in business and in the work that that organisation would do. The Commonwealth government made, as an election promise, certain commitments. The Commonwealth government provided the money, and then we find a state Labor government that has a different policy approach to things completely curtailing, completely abjuring and completely abrogating the Commonwealth government's policy, election promises and commitments.

How can that possibly be good for Australia? People elected us. They say to us, 'You promised to do this. Why aren't you doing it?' It is because—and I know they keep saying it's the Constitution—in the way we set that up, we had to pass the money through the states and we gave them some ability to veto a Commonwealth government policy and election commitment of the coalition. Here is a state government that has nothing to do with it not putting a cent into it and not contributing anything, except raw political deals with the Greens political party to stop the Adani project no matter what. It has nothing to do with the state government. The board of NAIF is not an environmental tick-off agency. In fact—and I keep repeating this—the Queensland Labor government actually ticked off the Adani project in every aspect. The Queensland Labor government approved Adani for its environmental requirements. The Commonwealth government, the department of the environment and all the bureaucrats we have there looking at the EPBC Act went through the lot of it. They ticked it off after a rigorous consultation process. In fact, on top of those two environmental agencies, all those bureaucrats and all those experts in the environment area dealing with it—in addition to that—the High Court's had a chop at it as well. There have been several Federal Court and High Court decisions in relation to environmental matters. They've all been dealt with. So it should go ahead. It should be left to the board to decide if this is the sort of business proposition that should be supported. But, no! The board are being targeted—personally, I might say—by activists and accused of being environmental vandals. It's got nothing to do with the board of NAIF. The NAIF board is a bankers board, not an environmental board. The people responsible for the environment—the Queensland government, the Commonwealth government and the courts—have all looked at it and determined it.

It just disturbs me that a sovereign government that is elected on a particular policy cannot get that policy implemented simply because a state government of a different political persuasion, in this case the Labor Party doing deals with the Greens political party, is stopping a Commonwealth initiative. That is wrong and it should not happen in the case of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility.

My question to the minister is this. In this instance, I must confess I haven't closely studied the Regional Investment Corporation and the details as much as I did with the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, but I want to make sure that, in agreeing to the amendments put forward by Labor, we are not again giving state governments, be they Liberal state governments in New South Wales or Labor state governments in Queensland, the ability to override Commonwealth policy and to abrogate coalition election commitments which the people of Australia supported and expect to be dealt with and to be honoured. Can I be assured that, in this case, by accepting the amendments proposed by Labor, we are not repeating that folly of giving other governments—who have nothing to do with it, are not putting in the money and are not promoting a particular policy approach—that ability to then abrogate and avoid and overturn the policies and commitments of an elected federal government?

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (12:22): I appreciate the minister's assurance in that regard. I must say that, at a recent inquiry into NAIF set up by the Senate, by the Labor Party and the Greens, it was raised that there were conflicts of interest which were unresolved. Again, I understand that, under the CAC Act and other Commonwealth legislation—and, indeed, under the NAIF's own legislation—there are the natural requirements for disclosure where there are conflicts of interest and for avoiding even participating in discussions or votes where that occurs. So I just hope that these amendments don't take that disclosure obligation, or that avoidance of any involvement in anything in which a board member may have a conflict of interest, any further.

I won't pursue this further, except to say—just returning to the Adani issue—that not only were all the environmental approvals given, not only did this go to the Federal Court and the High Court any number of times and not only hasn't the NAIF board been able to do its job because of the intervention of the Queensland government—which has absolutely nothing to do with it—but also, more importantly, in this inquiry there were a number of contributors at the Darwin hearing who spoke about the importance of Indigenous involvement, in that instance in the development of Northern Australia, and how it was important to get Indigenous people involved.

I know in the Adani case the local Indigenous population, by I think a majority of about 98 per cent, supported this. Why did they support it? It is because they wanted jobs for themselves and their children. They wanted to be able to employ their children on their own lands. Yet, notwithstanding that, the Greens political party and now the Labor Party government in Queensland—and, indeed, it seems Mr Shorten and the federal Labor Party with their sop to voters in Batman—have also ignored the wishes of the local Indigenous people who wanted that project because it provides jobs for them.

Clearly you hear a lot of bleating from the Greens and the Labor Party about Indigenous employment, but when there is a real opportunity for Indigenous employment, as there is with the railway line construction in Central and North Queensland, the Labor Party, rolling over to the Greens political party again, simply ignore the wishes of Indigenous people. It seems that Mr Shorten, in his determination to fight with his Green mates in Batman and to promise the people of Batman anything that the Greens will promise, is saying, 'We don't give a stuff about Indigenous employment.' I suspect there are not a lot of Indigenous people in Batman, so that wouldn't be an issue in that particular electorate. It is in Central Queensland. It is in North Queensland. It is in northern Australia, where we are trying to get development that will assist Indigenous people into real jobs. What do we get? We get the Queensland Labor government rolling over to the Greens who keep them in power in Queensland. Now in Batman, because Mr Shorten has the fight of his life on with his former allies in the Greens political party, they will both promise anything they need to win the latte set, completely ignoring the wishes of Indigenous people who want real jobs in northern Australia.

And so, Minister, I won't delay the passage of this legislation anymore. Suffice it to say that we have your assurances that the requirements on accountability and conflicts of interest are not outrageous. They are part of the normal approach. We expect all government agencies, all public servants, all minister and all parliamentarians to disclose and, where they do have a conflict of interest, to remove themselves from any discussion that relates to the subject matter before the board.

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