NORTHERN AUSTRALIA – TIME FOR ACTION
DEVELOPING NORTHERN AUSTRALIA CONFERENCE 2020 - KEYNOTE SPEECH
MONDAY, 23 NOVEMBER 2020
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Can I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land we gather on today, the Darumbal people, their elders past, present and emerging.
I acknowledge the many dignitaries here with us today and thank the conference organisers for the invitation to speak today.
And to all of you who, like me, are passionate about Northern Australia.
“No doubt can exist in the mind of any practical man who visited North Australia that, before very long, it will become the El Dorado of Australia.”
While many in this room would agree with this sentiment - leaving aside its obvious exclusion of women and resident First Nations people - it is hardly a new one.
Historian Lyndon Megarrity records in his book “Northern Dreams”, that this statement was made by author Thomas Harry, over 140 years ago.
People have been talking about Northern Australia’s “potential” for a long time.
In that time, much has been achieved.
It’s easy to forget the Bruce Highway wasn’t fully sealed with bitumen until the 1960s.
Mining didn’t exist in the Pilbara until the 1960s, and the Kimberley looked very different without the Ord as well.
The Adelaide to Darwin railway was a pipe dream, until it was completed in 2004.
I want to recognise the people in this room, who shed a lot of blood, sweat and tears to make our north what it is today.
A unique, diverse, innovative place, with thriving industries, pristine natural environments and the world’s oldest living cultures.
And the people who call our north home are an equally impressive bunch.
Resilient, entrepreneurial, not afraid of hard work.
People like my father.
Born in Mackay, he left school at 14, to work on the family dairy farm, cut cane through his young adulthood and then met my mum in Sarina, who was on her first posting, as a 19-year-old teacher. I am proud to be the product of Northern Australia!
All of us know how far the north has come. But, to be honest, I think we’re all a bit sick of hearing about the north’s potential.
Since being appointed to this role 18 months ago, I’ve spent every other week meeting tourism operators and gas engineers in Broome, barramundi and mango farmers outside Darwin, teachers and nurses in the red centre, boilermakers and chefs from Port Douglas to Rockhampton, miners in Mt Isa and Moranbah and First Nations communities from the Gibson Desert, to Nhulunbuy and Aurukun.
What all these people tell me - consistently - is that the time for talk is over. It’s time for action.
The last 18 months have presented extra challenges for our north – drought, fire, floods, trade embargoes and of course, COVID-19.
But we can’t let these challenges become a roadblock to action. To realise the north’s potential, we must do more.
Today, I’d like to share with you my thoughts on how the Northern Australia agenda is tracking, and how we can truly deliver on its promise.
LABOR IN NORTHERN AUSTRALIA
In our politically polarised world, it’s striking the Northern Australia agenda has bi-partisan support.
Labor supported the 2015 Northern Australia White Paper, and the initiatives in it.
That’s not surprising, considering Labor’s long history supporting northern development.
Curtin and Chifley rebuilt Darwin, after the 1942 bombing and Whitlam did it again, after Cyclone Tracey.
Chifley established the first Northern Australia Development Committee, in response to fear of “the empty north” being invaded.
Whitlam appointed Rex Patterson as the country’s first Minister for Northern Development. They secured trade agreements with China and Singapore to buy Australian sugar and built roads and water projects across the north.
Hawke and Keating strengthened economic ties between our north and Asia, expanded iconic national parks and legislated for native title, crucial for the north’s First Nations populations.
Rudd and Gillard deepened trade links with our booming Asian neighbours and boosted Darwin as a major defence hub, by locking in a large US military presence.
Even today, Labor holds office right across the north; in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, and has Australia’s three most northern Senators - in Cairns, Darwin and Broome.
EXPECTATIONS NOT MET
Labor’s support for the Northern Australia agenda does not, however, mean we should be uncritical. An Opposition must hold government to account for its failings and suggest improvements.
That’s exactly what we’ve done.
You may have noticed our current Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for making big announcements. Sadly, that enthusiasm is not matched, when it comes to delivering what’s been promised.
Unfortunately, this habit has plagued the Government’s approach to Northern Australia.
We’ve seen it with the $2 billion National Water Infrastructure Loans Facility, announced in 2016, but quietly scrapped this year after not releasing a dollar.
Or the $4 billion Emergency Response Fund, announced 18 months ago, but still not a cent spent on disaster recovery and mitigation, despite the north expecting more cyclones and floods than normal this summer.
But if there is one symbol of the Morrison Government over-promising and under-delivering in the north, it’s the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility.
Five years after the $5 billion NAIF was announced as the centrepiece of the 2015 White Paper, only $218 million has been released.
That’s right, after five years, less than 5 cents in every dollar promised has been handed over.
This is just not good enough.
Northern Australia absolutely needs long term vision, but it also needs projects and jobs now.
My criticism is not of the NAIF’s hardworking officials. It needs political leadership to make it work.
Labor wants the NAIF to work, so for three years we’ve offered constructive suggestions to get it moving.
We’ve called for it to fund the north’s many smaller projects. We’ve called for greater engagement with First Nations communities. We’ve called for it to act less like a commercial bank and get behind more innovative projects.
I am therefore pleased the Government has finally picked up some of our suggestions.
But for a lot of organisations I’ve spoken to, the fact that we’re four reviews into the NAIF and we’re still talking about these sorts of issues is a pretty big bugbear.
That really sums up the message I’ve received across the north - that, for all its good intentions, the Government’s Northern Australia agenda has just not met expectations.
Labor wants this agenda to succeed.
But the time for empty promises is over.
People want more than platitudes about “potential”. They want action, especially now we’re in recession.
COVID IN THE NORTH
Even before the pandemic reached our shores, Northern Australia faced significant economic challenges.
These challenges are now magnified by COVID-19, which is playing out differently in different regions.
Only last week I was in Darwin, where the construction industry is excited by the population growing, after years of decline.
Agriculture and mining have pushed through COVID, but are threatened by ongoing disputes with our biggest trading partner.
Our tourism industry is booming in some places, but struggling in others, with international border closures prolonging the pain.
Areas relying on JobKeeper and JobSeeker have been hit badly by the Government’s recent cuts, with more cuts to come.
For many people in our north, those cuts mean less money for essentials.
For the wider economy, they mean less money spent in local shops, meaning the north’s recession will bite deeper and longer than needed.
But at the same time, COVID has also brought opportunities to our north.
The widespread rollout of telehealth and Zoom have had major benefits, reinforcing the need for a much stronger strategy for communications in the north.
Pressure on global supply chains has shown up our neglect of home-grown manufacturing, which the north is perfectly positioned to meet.
And many businesses across the north have survived because locals made a conscious decision to keep backing them.
These changes, to the way we work and live mean that 2020 offers us a once in a lifetime opportunity to reset and renew the Northern Australia agenda.
COVID-19 has made the whole country re-evaluate the need for skyscraper city offices, and where they choose to work.
Currently Northern Australia is home to about 1.2 million people.
COVID has got people on the move from Sydney and Melbourne into Queensland and the Top End. This has the potential to kick-start years of northern migration.
But it won’t just happen on its own.
If we want the north to lead the country out of recession, it’s going to take more than unfulfilled promises.
It’s going to take action. And it’s certainly going to take our political leaders getting over ideological fixations that only hold the north back.
There are too many on the political left and right who argue the north can only have the old or the new.
That we should stick to the industries that have served us well and ignore the opportunities emerging.
Or that we should kiss our traditional strengths goodbye, along with the jobs, tradition and royalties that go with them, in sole pursuit of the new
Both these views are wrong. Both sell the north short, for mere political gain.
Both seek to use Northern Australia as the site of a destructive culture war, that leaves its residents as casualties.
This behaviour is better suited to student politics than grown-ups, but sadly it dominates debate about the north.
This tired, shallow approach might generate social media outrage, but it doesn’t create one northern job, or grow one northern business.
Labor says we don’t have to choose. Labor sees an optimistic future for the north, built on both its traditional industries and its newer ones.
A LABOR AGENDA FOR THE NORTH
Today, I want to outline how Labor would revamp the Northern Australia agenda, so we emerge from this crisis with a stronger, broader economy in our north and better opportunities for its people.
Labor won’t allow the north to be left behind, simply due to its distance from the corridors of power.
We want all our north’s people to run successful businesses and have well paid, secure work in a wide range of fields.
We want all kids in the north to have every educational and training opportunity, and their families to have the sort of health care, that their city counterparts take for granted.
We want the north to have the road, communications and other infrastructure that puts them on a level playing field with the rest of the world.
It can be done, and now is the time. Time for action.
VALUE ADDING IN OUR TRADITIONAL INDUSTRIES
The north’s traditional industries are central to this.
Our whole nation is lucky the north has built up vast expertise and wealth in agriculture, resources and tourism.
As Labor’s leader, Anthony Albanese, has repeatedly said, we should continue exporting commodities like coal, iron ore and other minerals, gas, beef and crops to a world that’s hungry for them.
The jobs in these industries are important – to families, to the north and the nation – and they deserve our ongoing support.
But to fully realise these industries’ potential, we need to take them to the next level, through diversification and value adding.
The Government has made noises along these lines. But where’s the action?
What’s really come of their Critical Minerals Strategy, to develop the north’s abundant reserves of the rare minerals now in demand for batteries and other high-tech industries?
Let’s really invest in the relationships that northern businesses, governments and universities have made with our Indo Pacific neighbours.
Let’s use the fact that Australians must holiday at home, to broaden our tourism offerings, and show them environmental jewels and unique First Nations cultures they’ve never seen.
Let’s lift the value the north receives – and create more jobs - by processing more of our produce into meals, and more of our minerals onshore.
How long have we’ve been saying we can do more with our raw commodities than just ship them overseas?
Let’s use this moment to transform our resources, through the mass value adding we’ve been talking about forever.
RENEWABLES AND MANUFACTURING
Key to that is exploiting the north’s biggest and most unfair competitive advantage – its vast, untapped reserves of cheap renewable power.
Our north is sitting on a gold mine of solar and wind resources, with massive opportunities in hydrogen and other fuels as well.
Harnessing them can make our country a renewable energy superpower, and Northern Australians the superheroes.
Besides the obvious environmental benefits, cheap, renewable energy – backed up by batteries, pumped hydro or gas - offers our northern manufacturers the ability to drive down energy costs and really compete with other countries.
Who knew - tackling climate change could actually create jobs?
This is the point Anthony Albanese made in his very first vision statement as Labor leader.
It might be why BHP, Santos, the National Farmers Federation and many others have joined Labor in committing to net zero emissions by 2050.
This issue is ground zero in the culture war I referred to earlier.
On the one side, some say renewables just don’t work.
Tell that to the thousands of northerners with solar panels on their roofs.
Or Townsville’s Sun Metals zinc refinery – the second biggest energy user in Queensland - which just today announced it will convert to 100% renewables by 2040, after slashing its energy costs by building its own solar farm, with a hydrogen plant to come.
Or Genex, or Sun Cable, who are planning massive solar and hydro plants across the north, supplying cheap, clean power – and jobs - here and overseas.
These people and businesses deserve our support, not our scorn.
That’s why in his Budget Reply speech, Anthony Albanese committed to rewire the nation, by modernising our energy distribution and linking renewables to our national energy grid.
If we get behind them, renewables can deliver Australia the cheapest industrial power, giving us an unfair competitive advantage over the world and fuelling our industrial resurgence.
Just imagine the jobs we could generate in the north’s manufacturing powerhouses, by connecting them to cheaper, locally-sourced renewable power.
Of course, the argument that renewables don’t work is as wrong as the opposing one, that we can convert to renewables overnight.
The fact is the north will continue to source much of its power from coal and gas for years to come - and we should treasure every job they create.
But why would you fight off new jobs – in making, installing and maintaining renewables, and in powering a new era of advanced manufacturing – in rail, marine, defence, food and minerals processing?
Why would you stop the north getting those jobs, and let southern states or other countries have them, without a fight?
Labor says we don’t have to choose the old or the new.
Our traditional industries and our new ones both have something to offer.
Both have jobs to create. And we should take action now, to grow them both.
NEW INDUSTRIES IN THE NORTH
Of course, there are many other industries where the north has developed great expertise. Realising their full promise should also be a focus of a revamped Northern Australia agenda.
Not long ago, I visited Mackay’s Real Time Instruments, which makes cutting edge equipment to measure the purity of minerals, all over the world. How many more well-paid jobs could be created if we marketed more firms overseas from our mining equipment, technology and services sector?
Our bigger defence presence in the north must bring more jobs in defence services, manufacturing and maintenance, through stronger local procurement.
Our north’s proximity to the equator and low population gives it a unique opportunity to capture jobs in space and drones.
With 43% of the world’s population living in the tropics, the north is well placed to export its services expertise, like tropical architecture, town planning, disaster, water and environmental management, health and medicine.
In some cases, it’s not even about creating new industries in the north, just recognising they already exist.
While the common image of a northerner is a burly miner or farmer, the biggest and fastest growing sector in the north is actually health care and social assistance, with education not far behind.
Proper investment in health, aged and disability care will deliver more jobs and improve quality of care.
Making childcare more affordable, also promised in Anthony Albanese’s Budget Reply speech, would employ more educators and allow parents to rejoin the workforce.
But whether it’s growing the north’s traditional industries, or expanding the emerging ones, it’s going to take more action from Canberra than we have seen to date.
There are three very simple things the Federal Government could do, to really deliver on its promise to the north.
First, it could bring forward northern infrastructure.
Connecting our north’s communities – to each other, to the rest of the country and the world – is critical to their development.
How can we expect a small business in Broome, Tennant Creek, or the Tablelands, to compete, if they can’t get reliable broadband or transport their products to market?
How is it acceptable that the Prime Minister’s list of 15 infrastructure projects to be fast tracked across Australia doesn’t include a single project in the Northern Territory, nor any in Queensland north of Brisbane?
Australia doesn’t stop at Kirribilli House, and nor should infrastructure spending.
There are practical projects screaming out for funding, things like road improvements, water efficiency, upgraded phone and internet services, cyclone shelters and flood levees, which would all create local jobs and reduce the north’s separation from the rest of the country.
The north also needs the Government to step up on skills.
Northern Australians should never miss out on a job simply because they can’t access training.
Even before COVID-19, the north was desperate for chefs, therapists, welders, and engineers, among others. How is this possible, when so many young, First Nations and other northerners were unemployed.
Perhaps it’s because there are 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees in this country than when this government was elected, seven years ago.
North Queensland alone has lost over 8,000, or 46%, of its apprentices and trainees since 2013, and this is replicated across the north.
The problems extend to regional universities, which have had to slash staff after being excluded from JobKeeper, and whose research and students will be hit hard by new funding changes.
Over the last few years, employers have often filled job vacancies by importing skilled labour from overseas. That’s going to be harder with closed international borders.
Our aim should always have been to train local people for local jobs. In a post-COVID world, we have no choice.
If we are to build up our traditional industries and our new ones, we urgently need to train our own.
FIRST NATIONS ENGAGEMENT
Finally, for the Northern Australia agenda to succeed, proper engagement and partnerships with First Nations peoples are essential.
Across the Kimberley, the Northern Territory, Cape York and the Torres Strait, First Nations people comprise up to 80 per cent of the overall population.
50 per cent of the Northern Territory is Aboriginal land, along with 85 per cent of the NT coastline.
The huge disadvantage experienced by our first peoples is well documented and the Northern Australia agenda must play a part in fixing it.
There are real success stories, with land councils and other First Nations organisations running shops and cattle stations, providing housing and employment in very remote places.
The infrastructure and skills needs I’ve already addressed are a big part of the solution.
But if we are truly going to close the gap, the Northern Australia agenda has to deliver.
Key to this is resolving the complexities around land tenure. I know firsthand it’s a continuing source of frustration for investors, land councils and First Nations people alike. But we must break through, and national leadership is critical.
Some of the needs are far simpler.
Like providing training to Indigenous corporations, on how to work with government and business. Something you’d think had happened long ago, but raised with me again last week.
Or providing safe, appropriate housing. I was shocked when I was in Aurukun this year, to learn of extended families, of up to 25 people, sharing two and three-bedroom homes. This is unacceptable at any time, let alone when COVID required social distancing.
We cannot deliver an agenda for the north, without the needs and aspirations of First Nations people being at its centre.
And you know what? We can do it. If we have the right leadership.
In this regard, I want to commend the work of Peter Yu and the Northern Australia Indigenous Reference Group.
They deserve our support. They deserve to have their ideas backed - with action.
In conclusion, I strongly believe that when Northern Australia wins, all of Australia wins.
The north’s achievements are truly remarkable, but so much more is possible with the right government support.
Decentralisation arising from COVID-19 brings a once in a lifetime opportunity. With a bit of effort, the north could lead the nation out of recession.
Both our traditional industries and our new ones have so much potential.
But let’s not just talk about potential. Let’s realise it.
Let’s get behind the old and the new.
Let’s deliver the infrastructure, the skills and the genuine engagement with First Nations people that progress requires.
Let’s seize this moment.
And let’s take action – today.