November 01, 2021



SUBJECTS: No Actual CEO for the No Actual Infrastructure Fund; NAIF investing less than 10% of its budget 6 years since it was announced.

KIER SHOREY, HOST: Then Mr. Wade resigned hours before he was due to appear before a Senate Estimates committee. He’d been CEO since January 2020. The opposition spokesperson for Northern Australia is Senator Murray Watt. And he's with me now, Senator, welcome on. What was your reaction when you heard that Mr. Wade had resigned?

MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR NORTHERN AUSTRALIA: Good morning Kier. Well, my reaction was shock. As you say, Chris Wade has not been in this job as the CEO of the NAIF for that long, it's been about 18 months. It's a very highly paid position, paying over $400,000 a year, running an organisation with a $5 billion budget to invest across Northern Australia. So to learn on the day of Senate Estimates, when he's due to appear, that an email had gone out from the NAIF Board Chair to all staff saying that he had resigned immediately, with no notice, no explanation of why, that is pretty strange. And it gives me great concern about how this organisation is traveling.

SHOREY: Well, Amanda Copping was installed as acting CEO, she had to face the Senate Estimates hearing at very short notice. How did that go?

WATT: Well, I actually complimented Ms Copping on her evidence stepping into the Senate Estimates hearing because you know, I'm sure that for most people appearing at an Estimates hearing to face questions about an organisation probably isn't the top of their wish list. And she managed to do it within 24 hours, doing herself great credit. But I think the real problem here is, that as I say, this is a major organization that just hasn't delivered to Northern Australia in the way the government has promised. And now we've got the CEO, leaving with no explanation about why. He didn't have the opportunity to send an email to staff or to speak to staff before he left. And what this really means in the end is that we now have No Actual CEO for the No Actual Infrastructure Fund. This is a deeply troubled organisation that hasn't delivered on its promises. It needs leadership, and now its CEO has left without any reason. So I think we really need to hear from the Minister for Northern Australia, David Littleproud, to explain why this has happened and where this organisation’s going from here.

SHOREY: Are you concerned that there are some systemic infrastructure issues within the infrastructure facility when it comes to the company itself?

WATT: Absolutely. And you and have I talked about this several times now Kier, that the NAIF just has not followed through on what the government promised it would do, when it announced it six years ago. This organisation was announced by the government six years ago, when Tony Abbott was still the Prime Minister. That's how long it's been around. It was given $5 billion to invest in projects across Northern Australia. One of the other things we found out at Senate Estimates last week was that now, six years after it was announced, it has actually released only a bit over $400 million of its $5 billion budget. So I think by now everyone expected that there'd be lots of projects around that you can point to, lots of jobs you can point to. What we've learned is that it's actually spent less than 10% of its budget, six years after it was announced. And on the latest figures that we've received, not a single project in the Cairns region or north of Cairns has received a dollar from this organisation. And that's why people around the north calling it the No Actual Infrastructure Fund. It's just lots of promises, but nothing actually to show for it.

SHOREY: When we got the chance to speak to Mr. Wade, a few weeks ago, he explained how the facility works, Senator, and talked about the fact that it's not until they exhaust the equity funding that they have before they start to draw down from the NAIF. So there's a situation where they're sometimes, with a big project, that until they have exhausted that equity, they're not going to actually dig into that money from the NAIF, even though the NAIF has committed to it and signed on the bottom line. So is, there may be a difference between what their commitment is and what the money is going out the door.

WATT: There's definitely a big difference in that. I mean, all you've got to do is listen to a Minister from this government who loves to get out there and say that they've announced $30 million for this, $500 million for that. But my argument is that this facility is not making a real difference to Northern Australia until it actually releases the funds. I mean I can go out there tomorrow and walk down Sheridan Street and say to people ‘Hello, I'm going to give you $500 million’, but it's meaningless until I actually deliver and that's the problem we've got with the NAIF. We have been arguing for many years that the NAIF needs to focus on smaller projects which may be able to meet these milestones more quickly than large projects. Finally, the government listened to that and made some amendments, with our support, earlier this year. But there has been a deep structural problem with the NAIF, that it just hasn't been able to get the money out the door. They need to be working harder with proponents to actually ensure that those proponents achieve milestones so that the money can be released. It's not as if we need to find new money in the budget. The money is there. It's just not making a difference in Northern Australia in the way that we're all told it would be.

SHOREY: Senator Murray Watt, thank you for your time. Obviously a conversation that will continue.

WATT: Indeed, good to talk Kier.