June 09, 2021



SUBJECTS: NAIF funds promised but not delivered in Northern Australia; road funding promised but not delivered in Far North Qld; Liberals’ Medicare cuts.

The NAIF: in principle, it's a great idea, but for five years it's basically been 'thinking' and not a great deal has occurred. In Senate Estimates in the last couple of days, it seems like 1.4 percent of the allocated funding has been released here in Queensland. That's an incredible amount after five years. 

Joining me this morning, he's the Shadow Minister for Northern Australia - and he's got a few other portfolios as well - it's Senator Murray Watt. Good morning, Murray. 

Good morning, Murray. How are you, mate?

Nice to have you along, it's like The Two Ronnies! Let's talk a little bit more about this, because I know, you know, it's something that we've discussed many times. You would think by this time things would start to move, especially with the economic crisis that we're basically facing as a result, you know, from a tourism industry on its knees from COVID-19. But it just won't budge, these figures. 

That's right, Murray. I mean, if there was ever a time that Far North Queensland needs to see support from the Federal Government, it's right now. Every time I've been to Cairns and Far North Queensland over the last 12-18 months, I've seen for myself that the city is struggling, from losing international tourism and a few other things as well. And at the same time, we've got this fund sitting there that was supposed to be used to build projects and create jobs right across the north, but has done bugger all.

It's a $5 billion fund, this Northern Australia infrastructure Facility. It was announced six years ago and six years on, only $340 million of that funding has been released. So across the entirety of northern Australia - in Queensland, Northern Territory and WA - it's released only about six per cent of the funds that it's got. And if you look at Queensland, it's only released $70 million across six years. That is just not good enough. 

When you think about the promises that were made when this fund was launched and, you know, with those sort of figures, it's no wonder that people call this, the 'No Actual Infrastructure Fund' because it's very hard to find anything that it's actually done.

To support local businesses, particularly some of our road infrastructure in the tropical north, you know, there's the Kuranda Range, there's various routes further north and further south as well, to the west that basically do need attention. And I guess they're prime candidates for some of this funding. Even the time to get those projects up and running is going to take quite a lead time. But, you know, at the end of the day, there's not a great deal happening with some of these key infrastructure projects, particularly to do with roads, which is one of the essential things that we need to do to support local and I guess grow local business initiatives around the region. 

That's right, Murray, I mean, whether we're talking about the NAIF or road infrastructure funding, generally what we're seeing from this Government over and over again is they love to get out there and announce funding, and do press releases, and get big press conferences where people turn up and roll the cameras and put them on TV. But when you actually look into the detail, nothing ever seems to come from it. 

So we've got the NAIF - $5 billion, promised six years ago, only six per cent of the funds released. The Captain Cook Highway upgrade that Warren Entsch promised at the last election, work won't start for another couple of years yet. And even before the Budget this year, they promised money to upgrade the Cairns West Arterial Road, but once we got into the Senate Estimates your local Senator Nita Green found out that basically most of that work won't happen until 2025. That's a lot of time for people to stay sitting in traffic. 

And I think people feel a bit duped that they hear all these promises being made, and they sort of think 'thank god, finally there's some relief coming or there's some jobs coming', but it takes us getting into Senate Estimates to find out that actually these things won't be happening for years. We need that action now across Cairns and Far North Queensland. People can't wait that long. We need those jobs now, we need that relief on the roads now. And we need that economy growing locally right now, not in five or six years’ time. 

Well look, can we change tack a little bit? And I trust this is not harking back to something that, I guess, caused a bit of concern in previous years, I'm talking about the 'Mediscare' drama. But there has been some announcements in the last couple of days, and I believe it's something that's come up, particularly with Mark Butler as well, with respect to Medicare and some of the impacts and you know, what could be described as some watering down of Medicare. Give me some background in relation to this concern that's arisen in the last few days. 

Yeah, this is a really big concern, Murray, especially for any of your listeners who are waiting for surgery and other health care. What we've found out - and it's really just been slipped out by the Government quietly over the last few days - is that once we get to July 1, in a couple of weeks’ time, there's about 900 rebate items through Medicare that are going to be abolished. 

The way Medicare works is that you've got to qualify for a particular type of rebate that the Government approves. And they're getting rid of about 900 types of health care that currently people can claim a Medicare rebate for, that after July 1st, they won't be able to. Even the AMA has come out and said that this is undoubtedly going to mean that people are going to be paying more to see the doctor. 

Now, I don't remember having heard the Government get up and announce this before, and tell the Australian public that they're going to be paying more to go and see a doctor. But it's just been slipped out quietly, only two or three weeks before these changes happen. So I think that's a pretty sneaky way for the Government to launch an attack on Medicare. And what it means is things like hip surgery, shoulder surgery and heart surgery, things a lot of people listening to this program might be booking in for, or have loved ones booking in for, if they go and see the doctor and get these things done after the 1st of July, they're going to be paying a lot more for it. 

I just think it's really another attack on Medicare from this Government. You know, to get political for a moment, Labor's always stood by Medicare. We brought it in, back under Bob Hawke, and the Liberals tried to get rid of it. And we've seen repeatedly them launch attacks on Medicare to really try to undermine the idea that if you're an Australian, no matter where you live, no matter who you are, you can get free medical care. And what we're going to see from July 1st onwards is that that is going to go for a whole range of surgeries, and people are going to be worse off. This is not the time to be making it more expensive for Australians to be getting health care. It is a right, to be an Australian citizen, that you get free medical care for all kinds of things. And this Government is about to take that right away, it's very concerning. 

JONES: Look, you know, there's no doubt that Medicare and also NDIS as it's rolled out as well are, I guess, some of the hallmarks of our egalitarian society and what we manage to achieve here in Australia. But you've got to accept, though, that they need to be financially managed and both of them do have, you know, the potential long term to blow out. There's got to be some cost cutting along the way?

Well, I do think that this is one of those ones that has to be put out of the range of the bean counters. It is a right to be an Australian that you get universal health care. That you can turn up to the doctor, no matter who you are, see a doctor, be looked at and treated for free. And we've seen over the years that is becoming harder and harder to do. You know, bulk-billing is being wound down and now a whole range of hospital care that people have traditionally been able to get for free, they're going to actually have to pay for. And, you know, if you're a rich person, then that's fine - you'll still be able to pay for it, you still got private health. But, you know, the bulk of the population isn't in that position. 

So we're very worried and we're calling on the Government to abandon these cuts to Medicare because, as I say, now is not the time for Australians to be having to put their hands in their pockets to pay more for their health care. We've got a lot of people out there who are struggling, especially in places like Cairns. Their wages aren't going up. The Budget that recently came down showed that people's wages aren't going to be keeping up with inflation over the next four years. And yet, at the same time, the Government's going to be making people pay more for their health care. I just think it's wrong and the Government should abandon it. 

Well, you know, certainly some interesting points. You know, when it comes to both NAIF and Medicare, there are some real concerns there. And I certainly accept, you know, the bulk of what you're saying, that at the end of the day, they're important things that, you know, everyday Australians not just deserve, but I guess is part of being an Australian. 

Great to talk to you this morning. We'll keep an eye on both those issues. Senator Murray Watt, Senator for Queensland, great to talk to you this morning. 

Good on you Murray, lovely to talk to you again.