4CA Cairns radio

December 07, 2020





SUBJECT/S: Northern Australia Senate inquiry interim report; recommendations to fix Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility.

MURRAY JONES, HOST: Well look, I've spoken to Senator Murray Watt quite a few times about our concerns about the NAIF - what it's producing on the ground here in tropical North Queensland and of course, all over northern Australia. He is the Shadow Minister for Northern Australia, he joins me this morning, Murray Watt, good morning!


JONES: Actually, I've had a few Murray's call me in the last couple of days. I like talking to Murray's on the radio, it seems like we're at one.

WATT: Murray's should have a monopoly on this program I reckon, but we might have to get a few more of us!

JONES: Most of the blokes tend to be not the best looking ones-

WATT: -there is that.

JONES: At least you change the standard! Look, we have discussed this a few times, and look, you know, there's been a report that's just dropped - we'll come to that in just a sec.

It's all happening too slow is the bottom line. But this Senate inquiry into the NAIF, and I guess the distribution of funds and support to businesses right across the country, well particularly I should say, the northern part of Australia, is just way too slow. But look, before we start on that, can we just talk about the make-up of this inquiry? I guess I'm keen to find that it's a balanced report as well.

WATT: Yeah, I think that's one of the things that stands out about this report that was issued by the Senate inquiry last week. The committee is made up of a mixture of senators - Government, Opposition, One Nation, the Greens. So we've pretty much got all parties in the Senate to form part of this committee, and it's actually a unanimous report so I think that adds some weight to the recommendations that we have all been able to get agreement, regardless of what party we come from.

And I think it's interesting, therefore, that what this Senate inquiry has found is that the NAIF has just been far too slow at getting money out the door. And we've come up with a number of recommendations, again, across all parties about what we think can be done by this Government to finally start delivering on the promises that it's made to northern Australia.

JONES: Now look I've seen the list of nine recommendations. If I can just focus on recommendation number three to start off with; 'the committee recommends that the Australian government consider converting part of the NAIF to a combination of small grants, equity stakes and guarantees supported by rigorous guidelines, including caps on funding and business size, to ensure that small scale projects and First Nation projects are adequately supported'. And particularly since the pandemic, I should imagine that this is actually one of the key things that we need to reconsider?

WATT: For sure. I mean, I think that the Northern Australia agenda in general takes on added importance after COVID-19. You know, even better than I do, how badly affected Cairns and Far North Queensland has been by COVID-19 and the recession that's followed through it. So it's even more important than ever that the Morrison Government actually gets its northern agenda starting to deliver.

What we've seen from this Government just far too often is Scott Morrison loves to get out there and make a big announcement and get the TV cameras rolling. But the minute the TV cameras stop, so does the action, there's never any follow up. And unfortunately, the NAIF is another example of that. So what this recommendation is really based on is the feedback we consistently got across the hearings that we've done so far, which is the NAIF is just too focussed on really big projects - the things that are in the tens of millions of dollars or hundreds of millions of dollars. Now, of course, northern Australia does have projects like that, but it also has a lot of smaller projects, often led by First Nations communities. And they're not looking for tens of millions of dollars or hundreds of millions of dollars. But they find the kind of paperwork, and the approach of the NAIF in general to be just not interested in what they're trying to do. So from our perspective, whether it's a small project or a big project it can still create jobs in Far North Queensland and across northern Australia as a whole. And they're just as deserving of finance. I mean, the whole point for setting up the NAIF was to overcome the problem that a lot of businesses have in the north, which is that commercial banks are pretty risk-averse. They like continuing to lend to things that they've done in the past. But you've got so many new industries emerging in the north and even the traditional industries like agriculture, mining, tourism, sometimes there is a bit more of a risk there because of the location and the remoteness of them. But that's where governments can step in and lend a bit of a hand. So that's why we've made this recommendation to try to get the NAIF and the Government in general starting to think about those smaller projects as well as the bigger ones.

JONES: Now, look, when it comes to funding, but also lead time with respect to a lot of these projects, they take quite a while. It's not as if it's something that you can get happening in a couple of weeks or a couple of months. So I guess, you know, looking at the economic impacts that Australia is facing as a result of COVID-19, these projects should be far further down the track than what they currently are. And as you've just said, there's a lot of them that aren't even identified at this time.

WATT: That's right. And I mean, I think the further north you go in Queensland, the more of a disappointment the NAIF and the Government's northern Australia agenda has been. If you look at Queensland on its own, the Government has actually only released $10 million over five years for two projects. They're both in Townsville. So not a single project north of Townsville in Queensland has actually received a dollar from the NAIF. And it's been running for five years! It's got $5 billion available to lend to projects, I don't see why Far North Queensland should be left out of it. And, as far as I recall, there's only one project that's north of Townsville that's even been approved for funding, and that's up in Weipa. So I think what it comes down to is that if the Government wants to get the headlines for when it goes out and makes an announcement about how much it cares about Cairns, how much it cares about northern Australia, they've actually got to deliver it. They can't just put up an announcement and then run away and forget about it.

JONES: Just moving on to recommendation number seven, just to wrap up - and I know this is possibly a bit of a controversial one - but there certainly has been some discussion in the past about the amount of money that's being paid out to the employees that, you know, are obviously important with respect to actually making this happen. But I do note that recommendation seven says that the committee recommends that 'the NAIF review its policy regarding staff remuneration'.

WATT: Yeah, what that's about is particularly looking at the bonuses that are paid to some of the senior executives in the NAIF. I mean, I think it is just a disgrace that after five years, the NAIF has spent three times as much on its running costs than it has spent on actual projects in Queensland. It’s spent $10 million on projects in Queensland so far, but it's spent over $30 million just on its salaries, its rent, all of its running expenses. And that's just not what this body was set up to do. When it comes to bonuses for NAIF senior executives, at the moment they've got to meet a few different KPIs to get a bonus, but none of them connect with how much money they've got out the door. So we think that there's some space there to review how NAIF executives are paid and to give them a greater incentive to actually get money out the door. It's all very well to have all the press releases lined up about how much you've approved for this project and that project, but if no one actually ever gets the money, it's not actually creating any jobs. So we've really got to have everyone putting their shoulder to the wheel. We're very hopeful that the Government will take these recommendations seriously. They have already announced that they intend to make some changes to the NAIF in the new year and the fact that we've been able to get a cross-party report making all of these recommendations, I'd like to think the Government will take them seriously.

JONES: Let's keep the pressure on. We know that northern Australia needs the support at this crucial time, and especially as we plan for the future as well. Labor Senator for Queensland and Shadow Minister for Northern Australia, Murray Watt, as always, great to talk to you, have a great day.

WATT: Great to talk to you, Muzza!