SENATOR MURRAY WATT
SHADOW MINISTER FOR NORTHERN AUSTRALIA
LABOR SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND
ABC NT COUNTRY HOUR
FRIDAY, 29 OCTOBER 2021
SUBJECTS: Sudden resignation of NAIF CEO before Senate Estimates; No Actual Infrastructure Fund still not delivering; more NAIF staff in Sydney than in Northern Australia
MATT BRANN, HOST: Shadow Minister for Northern Australia is Labor’s Murray Watt. This is an interesting one Senator. What’s your assessment of what’s happened here?
MURRAY WATT, LABOR SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND: Well, unfortunately, I don't think we're too much clearer even after the Senate estimates hearing that we had. This was quite a sudden departure from the NAIF CEO. I first found out about it yesterday morning. And I understand that an email was sent to staff of the NAIF by the NAIF chair late on Wednesday afternoon, advising that the CEO would be resigning immediately. And that's obviously a pretty significant piece of news for a very highly paid role in a multi billion dollar government organisation. What we found out last night, though, in Senate estimates was that even senior staff got about five minutes notice that this email was going to go out, no reasons have yet been given for why the CEO has departed. He departed immediately, didn't seem to even get the chance to send an email saying goodbye to staff, didn't get the chance to address stuff on departure. It's all extremely abrupt and the fact that the government hasn't given a reason for the CEO’s departure really just clouds it in even more mystery. I think it's really important that people across Northern Australia, get some explanations from David Littleproud, the Northern Australian Minister, about what's happened here. This is a $5 billion organisation that's been supposed to be investing in projects across Northern Australia. He hasn't done that, despite all of the announcements and promises that it's made. And now we're about to have the second CEO in two years with no explanation why. It's just not good enough for Northern Australia.
BRANN: During your time in politics, have you ever seen anything like this in terms of someone resigning the day before they're due to appear at Senate estimates?
WATT: No, I haven't. And that just adds further mystery to this. Obviously, Senate estimates is a really important part of the parliamentary process for politicians being able to hold ministers and bureaucrats to account for large public spending. I certainly had a lot of questions lined up to ask the NAIF CEO about the his performance, about the performance of the NAIF overall. So to have the CEO of the organisation depart without any reason, within 24 hours of appearing in Senate estimates, just has to make you even more suspicious that there's another story here. So I think it's really important that the minister comes forward and explains to people what is going on with this very troubled $5 billion organisation.
BRANN: Well, in estimates, you raised allegations of bullying. Are you able to elaborate more on what you know this?
WATT: No, I can't because I don't want to breach people's confidentiality. But I certainly have had reports to me privately of allegations of bullying that have occurred within the NAIF involving management. I've asked about that now, three times at Senate estimates over the last 12 months. And unfortunately, when I ask these questions, everyone just clams up. So it's been very difficult to get to the bottom of this. And they are only allegations, I've never been able to prove it. But I have had a number of people now contact me with that information, which is very concerning. But what I do know is that there has been a lot of turnover in the NAIF in terms of their staff over the last 18 months or so. I have had it reported to me that it's as many as 16 people out of 28 employees who have left the NAIF over the last 18 months. Again, I haven't been able to confirm that. But that's what I've been told.
BRANN: In terms of staff, did I hear right? The NAIF has more staff based in Sydney than in Northern Australia?
WATT: Yeah, that was one of the other shocking things that we learned last night, which was that the NAIF which, you know, it's in the name, the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, you would expect that they would have most of their staff based in Northern Australia. But what we learned last night is that there are actually more staff of the NAIF based in Sydney than there are across all of Northern Australia. That's when you throw Darwin, Cairns, Townsville, other parts of Northern Australia in together, there's still more staff in Sydney. And I just don't think that's good enough for an organisation that's supposed to be in touch with the needs of Northern Australia.
BRANN: Mr. Wade was in that chief executive role for about 18 months. What do you think he achieved during that time?
WATT: Well, to be fair to Mr. Wade, I do think that he made some attempts to improve the NAIF's performance in getting money out the door. We haven't really seen that occur yet, but there have been changes to legislation made in the time Mr. Wade's been there which we are told will improve that. That has always been my biggest concern about the NAIF, is that for all of the promises that the government made when it announced this six years ago. And for all of the press releases we see announcing funding being provided to projects, when you dig into it, what we've learned is that of the $5 billion that the NAIF has to invest, six years after was announced it's only actually released a bit over $400 million of that $5 billion. So that's less than 10% of the NAIF's funds have been released to support projects. Six years after this thing was announced. I've been highly critical of the NAIF for that, we've made lots of suggestions to improve it, some of which have been taken up. And I think Mr. Wade has made some changes to try to get that happening. But there's a lot more that needs to be done. That is just not enough money actually hitting the ground creating jobs and building projects like the government promised it would.
BRANN: Thanks for your time.
WATT: No worries Matt, good to talk.