June 07, 2021



SUBJECTS: NAIF funds promised but not delivered in Northern Australia; road funding promised but not delivered in Far North Qld; Senate Estimates.

KIER SHOREY, HOST: The Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility came under the spotlight at Senate Estimates last week, and new data reveals it's in the slow lane. About only six per cent of funding spent since the scheme was announced. Senator Murray Watt from Labor is the Shadow Minister for Northern Australia. He's with me now, Senator, welcome on.

MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR NORTHERN AUSTRALIA: Good morning Kier, good to be with you again. 

SHOREY: So how long ago was the scheme announced? 

WATT: It was actually announced six years ago. It's, in fact, long enough ago that it's two prime ministers ago. It was back when Tony Abbott was the Prime Minister and it continued under Malcolm Turnbull and now Scott Morrison as well. 
And despite the fact that this thing was announced six years ago and had a $5 billion budget, what we learnt last week at Senate Estimates is that it's only spent $342 million of its $5 billion budget. That's about six per cent of the money that it had available to invest in projects in North Queensland and right across northern Australia, and we really should have seen a lot more come of it by now. 

SHOREY: And so at Senate Estimates, was it the NAIF CEO that was there? 

WATT: Yeah, the NAIF CEO, along with officials from the department that oversees it, was answering our questions. And it has been a regular topic that we've raised through Senate Estimates to try to pin down how much money has actually flowed out of the NAIF, because we always hear from the Government about the things that have been committed from the NAIF. But they're a lot little quieter about how much money has actually hit the ground. Because it's not until the money hits the ground that we start seeing the jobs and the projects which the Government promised to deliver six years ago. 

SHOREY: And Senator, I mean, it is important to say that there are things that are in the pipeline, right? 

WATT: Absolutely, and to be fair, the NAIF has announced a range of investments, that it intends to make. But my argument has always been that it's all very well to go out and make announcements and put out press releases, but it's not until we actually see that money hit the ground that we start really seeing the projects happen and most importantly, see the jobs happen. 

SHOREY: Did the CEO of NAIF explain why it is taking that length of time between the announcement and actually money coming out? 

WATT: Well, there's a couple of different explanations that have been given. One of them is that there are a range of impediments, in the legislation that governs the NAIF, that slow down the approval of projects and money getting out the door. And we have actually cooperated with the Government recently to make changes to that legislation. So we're certainly hopeful that money can get out more quickly as a result of that. And really, there are no more excuses from the Government because they've got the legislation that they say they need. 

The other argument that is always put, about why the money is slow getting out the door, is that it's really up to the project proponents how quickly they want that money released. But what we've been saying is, well, that's fine, but what more can the NAIF be doing, working with project proponents, so that the money does get out? 

As I say, it's one thing to announce that you're going to give $100 million or whatever it might be to a project, but what more can the NAIF be doing with the people behind the project to make sure that it starts happening? It's not in anyone's interests to just have money announced and then stay sitting in a government bank account when it could be out there, going to project proponents, actually creating the jobs. 

SHOREY: But you're also saying, Senator, that the proponents themselves are part of this issue?

WATT: Yeah, for sure, I've always accepted that you can't give money to someone if they don't want it. But what my argument is, is that there's many proponents who hit roadblocks of some kind, that could do with some help from the Federal Government to get the projects actually happening. And that way they can get their hands on the money that's been approved and they can start employing people, which is what this thing is always supposed to have been about. 

SHOREY: And you said you voted for amendments to try and speed up the approval process. Are there other amendments, other changes, you'd like to see finally? 

WATT: Look, I think there have been some pretty significant amendments made to the legislation to the NAIF just in the last month or two, at the request of the government and with the support of Labor. I think what, our view is, that let's see how those changes go. The Government has, as I say, said that they are all the changes that are needed in order to get money flowing properly. I'm prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. And if that's what they say they need, then let's hope, let's wait and see if that works.

If it doesn't, then of course we'd be more than willing to look at further changes. But really, I mean, this Government has had six years to get this thing working properly. They've got the legislation they need. And there's just been too many examples of announcements being made by the Government that don't get delivered. 

We've seen it with some of the road upgrades around Cairns as well, where we see hundreds of millions of dollars promised - usually in the run up to an election - and we get the fine print afterwards that shows that it's not going to happen for five years. That happened again in Senate Estimates as well, about the Cairns West Arterial Road. The big commitment was made before the Budget to get everyone excited. It took Senate Estimates and some questions from Nita Green, your local Senator, to expose the fact that most of the money won't be happening for five years. Unfortunately, that's a lot of time for people to be sitting in traffic, remembering announcements that were made that never actually came through for several years. 

SHOREY: All right, Senator, thank you for your time this morning. 

WATT: Good to talk to you, Kier.