ADDRESS TO THE DEVELOPING NORTHERN AUSTRALIA CONFERENCE 2021
LABOR’S PLAN FOR NORTHERN AUSTRALIA – MORE JOBS, IN MORE INDUSTRIES
MONDAY, 16 AUGUST 2021
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Can I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that each of us is beaming in from today, their elders past, present and emerging.
From my home - the Jagera and Turrbal peoples, in Darwin, the Larrakia people and the traditional owners of the land from where you are watching.
I’m very sorry I can’t join you at this year’s Conference.
I’m speaking to you from home quarantine in Brisbane, having just returned from a locked down ACT.
Full credit to the conference organisers who’ve pulled the show together in these strange times.
Northern Australia has certainly done its bit to tackle COVID-19, but a slow vaccine rollout, and a failure to build quarantine stations, have caused more lockdowns and economic harm, including in Darwin today.
Fortunately, there have been few COVID cases in Northern Australia, but the threat remains, especially for First Nations communities, whose people and organisations we must work with, to keep safe.
Economically, resources and agriculture have charged on, keeping our nation afloat. But regions dependent on international visitors are really hurting.
If nothing else, COVID-19 has exposed some of our north’s vulnerabilities, like some regions’ narrow economic base, shortages of housing, skills and child care, and a dependence on overseas workers.
Northern Australia, like the rest of the country, desperately needs a way forward.
That’s why today, I’d like to outline Labor’s plan for Northern Australia.
Our plan is not only about rebuilding the north, to make it stronger and more resilient.
It’s also about how we support Northern Australia, to lead our whole nation out of COVID.
Because the north’s incredible assets - resourceful people, pristine and productive environments, proximity to Asia and the unbroken connection of our First Nations’ peoples - can benefit all Australians.
Labor’s plan is simple – it’s about how we use these assets to create more jobs, in more industries.
By broadening the Northern Australia agenda in this way, we will grab the region’s opportunities and deal with its vulnerabilities.
And in doing so, we can overcome some of the shortfalls in the Government’s own agenda for our north.
The Government’s agenda
When I spoke to this conference last year, I said that while the Government had often talked about the north’s ‘potential’, we hadn’t seen much delivered.
Since then, there have been some steps forward. The Government’s new five-year plan for Northern Australia is a good announcement, but it’s light on resources. To pick one element, it’s hard to imagine that $9.3 million will go far for ‘regions of growth’ as vast as Broome to Darwin or Cairns to Gladstone.
The feedback I continue to get is that the Northern Australia agenda is still not delivering on expectations. More focus on delivery and less on leadership squabbles mightn’t go astray.
Six years after it was announced, the NAIF has still only released six per cent - $342 million – of its $5 billion budget. At this rate, it will take 73 years for all the NAIF’s funding to be rolled out.
Labor supports the NAIF - there is a real gap in financing projects in Northern Australia which the NAIF could fill. I was pleased the Government adopted some of Labor’s suggestions to improve the NAIF, such as allowing it to make equity investments and increasing support for small and First Nations projects.
I hope that the amendments passed by the Parliament – with Labor’s support – will assist the NAIF to deliver. I’d also encourage the Government to pick up Labor suggestions it rejected, such as allowing the Indian Ocean territories to access NAIF funding.
Perhaps the most worrying backward step in the Northern Australia agenda is the winding back of some of its key structures.
The Ministerial Forum on Northern Australia, comprising responsible Ministers from the Commonwealth, Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, has been quietly downgraded to meeting ‘as needed’, before being disbanded later this year.
Funding for the Indigenous Reference Group, established to advise Government on how the agenda should benefit First Nations people, ceased at the end of last year.
These types of structures are essential for the collaboration the Northern Australia agenda needs to succeed.
Water, energy and transport infrastructure, environmental assessments, health care, housing, training all require cooperation between jurisdictions, but there is now no standing forum to reach agreement.
Likewise, collaboration with First Nations people is essential for the Northern Australia agenda to succeed, given their long-term connection, population size and ownership of land.
I encourage the Government to restore these structures, to help drive economic development in our north.
Now, the Government hasn’t been short on suggestions for how to revamp its Northern Australia agenda.
Earlier this year, a Senate inquiry I chaired delivered its report on the agenda’s effectiveness, with mostly bipartisan recommendations.
These recommendations have certainly informed Labor’s thinking on the future of our north.
It was clear from the Senate inquiry that Northern Australia needs a real plan backed by real action.
A plan to back the north so that it can achieve its potential and lead the country out of COVID-19.
That’s what Labor’s economic plan for Northern Australia will do, by creating more jobs in more industries.
We want to create more jobs in the north’s backbone industries – like agriculture, resources and tourism.
We want to create more jobs, in the hidden industries that we often don’t recognise – like health care, education and human services.
And we want to create more jobs in the newer industries, where our north has a massive competitive advantage – like renewables, hydrogen, advanced manufacturing, aerospace and creative industries.
We need to get beyond the schoolyard fights between the extreme right and left about the north’s future. One side says the north can have its traditional strengths but shoos away the new opportunities. The other extreme wants the new industries but disowns the industries that have built the north.
Why should the north be forced to choose? Why should Northern Australians be used as pawns in a political game?
Labor says we don’t have to choose. Labor says we should get behind our traditional strengths and the hidden ones and the new ones.
That’s how we create jobs in the north. That’s how we ensure our northern towns and regions grow. That’s how the whole nation comes out of COVID-19 stronger than before.
The north’s backbone industries
The north’s backbone industries are a key part of the future.
Industries like agriculture, forestry and fishing, which directly employ over 50,000 people in Northern Australia. I know, from visiting mango farms and cattle stations across the north, that there’s great opportunity to grow the industry. But it needs a government that will really listen, to support the industry grapple with the changing climate and continue moving up the value chain.
We should also be expanding some of the newer parts of the sector, such as aquaculture and carbon farming. Vast projects like Sea Dragon and Tassal’s prawn farm near Proserpine, which I visited last year, offer high skill jobs that pour good incomes into local economies. Likewise, carbon farming can generate new revenues from the land in a sustainable manner for First Nations and other landholders.
Similarly, our resources sector has huge ongoing potential – both in our existing strengths like metallurgical coal, gas, copper and zinc, as well as new economy minerals. We should continue creating jobs and producing wealth in regions like the Bowen Basin and the Pilbara for a long time to come, while also developing the north’s abundant supplies of rare earths, vanadium and lithium, that will supply the world’s batteries and other new technology. Similarly, our Mining Engineering, Technology and Services sector has so much potential to grow, exporting the knowledge and capability we have built up here in the north. In this environment, the Government’s decision to dump the Resources portfolio from Cabinet is a really dumb move.
Tourism has ridden the roller coaster of COVID-19 more than most. Even now though, we can broaden our tourist offering, around the north’s environment, food and First Nations cultures. But this vital industry is in survival mode and needs support like JobKeeper right now so that it’s still around when conditions improve.
The north’s hidden industries
We should also recognise the huge employment opportunities in hidden industries we currently take for granted like health care, education and human services. These industries still have room to grow, in part because of the north’s massive unmet need.
The health care and social assistance industry has exploded in the past decade, with employment growing by about 50 per cent in Northern Australia alone, making it the north’s largest employing sector.
Education has also gone ahead, with employment jumping by 30 per cent in the past 10 years. As well as educating locals and producing tropical research discoveries, there are still untapped opportunities for two-way learning between Northern Australia and our neighbours. While COVID has certainly built a massive hurdle, we should be planning to get this industry back on its feet now.
Of course, beyond their economic potential, these industries are also crucial to liveability in the north. Our Senate Inquiry found that access to services is a key factor in whether a family relocates or stays. In turn, industry and investors make locational decisions based on the availability of these services.
For both liveability and productivity, investment in social services is crucial to developing the north.
Despite this, the Government’s agenda for the north is almost silent on them. The north’s economy needs them to be at the heart of the agenda, not an afterthought.
The north’s new industries
And finally, we need to turbocharge the new industries, in which our north has a competitive edge.
One of the Senate Inquiry’s key findings was that the Northern Australia agenda needs to get behind these new industries, creating greater and more stable employment.
With a government committed to its development, we could make Northern Australia the world capital of new energy generation. Just as our north has supplied, and will keep supplying, the world’s coal and gas needs, this region has been gifted the renewable resources and hydrogen capability the world now wants. With projects like Sun Cable, the Asian Renewable Energy Hub, Queensland’s Renewable Energy Zones and hydrogen projects across the north, we could create a new, world-leading Clean Energy Corridor.
Imagine the opportunities to drive a new age of heavy engineering and advanced manufacturing in the north on the back of cheap, clean power. After years of manufacturing decline, we can reindustrialise our north - bringing manufacturing onshore by offering cheap power, creating good jobs for decades to come.
More minerals and food processing – value adding to the raw materials we currently send offshore. Like Townsville’s Sun Metals zinc refinery – Queensland’s second biggest energy user – committing to 100 per cent renewable power by 2040. Companies like this will cut their power bills and emissions and create jobs while also insulating themselves from impending overseas carbon tariffs.
We could also start making more of the wind turbines, solar panels and other products that we currently import. We can truly harness the defence manufacturing opportunities in Cairns, Darwin and elsewhere that come with the north’s strategic location.
Of course, getting serious about climate change is central to this. People in the north understand the implications of climate change better than most – you live it every day. And the cheaper, cleaner power that reaching net zero emissions by 2050 will drive is the ticket to more jobs and more wealth across our north. That’s why it’s supported by everyone from the National Farmers’ Federation to BHP and the gas industry. They know that’s how they’ll make money and it’s time the Government stopped holding the north back.
Time doesn’t permit me detailing all the industries that are emerging as big jobs drivers in the north – like the arts, creative industries and aerospace. The point is there are incredible new opportunities afoot that build on the north’s traditional strengths. And we should do all of them, not choose one or the other.
But we won’t create more jobs in more industries by doing more of the same. Labor’s plan offers something different.
How we will do it
It starts with actually delivering infrastructure. These days, we have the tools available to connect northern communities – to each other and the world.
But whether it’s water, energy, disaster resilience or digital infrastructure, or the roads that are vital connectors for industry, residents and remote First Nations communities, we get a lot of Federal announcements, but not a lot delivered.
In this year’s Budget, Queensland received the lowest share of new infrastructure spending, per head, anywhere in the country. In the Northern Territory, only one per cent of new infrastructure funds will be spent in the next four years!
If you’re unsure what to expect on infrastructure from an Albanese Labor Government, have a look at our record. When we were last in power, with our leader Anthony Albanese as the Infrastructure Minister, we more than doubled the infrastructure spend per person across the country and doubled the roads budget. When we speak about infrastructure, we deliver it.
The Northern Australia agenda must also be broadened to include social infrastructure needs. It’s as much an economic issue as a social one.
As I said earlier, there remains massive unmet need for health and aged care, leaving locals short of services and creating a disincentive for relocation. Addressing this need will create lasting employment across the north.
Housing is another huge need. Northern employers simply cannot attract workers because there is no housing available. And even when there is, house prices and rents are out of reach.
And that’s before we get to the national disgrace that is housing in remote First Nations communities. Shocking conditions that contribute to so many other health, social and economic ills, with no government plan to fix them.
Labor is determined to fix this. We will have more to say, but we’ve already committed to a $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund which over the first five years will build 20,000 social housing dwellings and 10,000 affordable housing places for essential workers who are being priced out of the market. The fund will also provide $200 million for the repair, maintenance and improvements of housing in remote First Nations communities.
Whether it’s housing or other social infrastructure, the north deserves better and the region’s economic development depends on it.
Of course, if we’re to deliver this infrastructure, or to build our traditional, hidden and emerging industries, we need to tackle the issue businesses constantly raise with me - skill shortages.
These shortages have been exacerbated by inability to bring in workers from overseas. But let’s be honest, our north was experiencing skill shortages well before COVID.
Sadly, we are now paying the price for the $4 billion this government cut from TAFE before COVID, which means we have around 30 per cent fewer apprentices and trainees in North Queensland and Darwin than when this government was elected eight years ago.
Until COVID, we could paper over these cuts by bringing workers in from overseas, but not any more.
It’s well past time we made a serious investment in the skills of our own. That’s why an Albanese Labor Government will require that one job in ten on major Federal projects be filled with an apprentice, trainee or cadet. We will establish Jobs and Skills Australia to match the training we provide with the skills gaps of industry and we will invest $100 million to provide incentives for new energy apprentices to ensure we have skilled workers for the growing new energy sector. And we will develop a new employment program, in partnership with First Nations peoples, to replace the failed and punitive CDP program.
A lack of finance continues to hamper development and job creation in our north. Too many financiers see risk rather than opportunity.
Apart from the NAIF, two of Labor’s biggest commitments will help leverage the investment the north needs.
First, we can’t secure the Clean Energy Corridor I mentioned without a major overhaul of the nation’s electricity transmission network. Labor’s ‘Rewiring the Nation’ policy will do just that, with a $20 billion investment, partnering with industry, to modernise the electricity grid. That investment is crucial to linking the north’s renewables to deliver cheaper, cleaner power to the north and the nation.
This is crucial to rebuilding our manufacturing industry and Labor’s $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund will go further, partnering with the private sector to invest in projects that value add. Regional development is a key focus of this fund, so the north must get a slice of the action. This will help create the jobs I mentioned in minerals and food processing, shipbuilding, defence, renewables and medical manufacturing.
Quite apart from direct investment, we also need to see the Federal Government step up when it comes to de-risking private investment. I want to commend the Northern Australia CRC for its good work in this space. By working with investment proponents, other jurisdictions and traditional owners at an early stage of project development, investment in a range of industries could be brought forward.
Rather than pursuing an adversarial approach to reform of environmental laws, we need a Federal Government that will bring all stakeholders to the table to reach enduring reform, giving business the certainty it needs to invest.
On that note, we must improve collaboration between all levels of government and between all stakeholders. As the national government, Canberra must play a leadership role in bringing competing views together and hammering out a solution.
That’s why the demise of the Ministerial Forum is such a missed opportunity, but it goes beyond that. As I travelled around for hearings of the Senate Inquiry, from Thursday Island to Nhulunbuy and Zoomed into Broome, I was struck by how little engagement there had been about the Northern Australia agenda with local communities. Any agenda for the north must be driven from the grassroots, not from Canberra or another capital city, and that’s what Labor would do.
Possibly the biggest area for improved collaboration involves our First Nations peoples. A big portion of the northern population, owners of great swathes of land and coastline across the north, yet the Indigenous Reference Group is still waiting for ongoing funding to be a voice for First Nations people. If we are to truly Close the Gap, if we are truly going to empower First Nations people to leverage economic opportunities from their land, then they must be active partners in the Northern Australia agenda.
We live in unusual times. Even today, we’ve seen lockdowns announced in Darwin and extended in other States and Territories.
With a broad, bold agenda, we can get through this, with our north leading the way.
Blessed with so much potential, it’s time we supported the north to realise it.
We should back our traditional industries and get behind the new ones. We should create more jobs in more industries and an Albanese Labor Government will do just that.