November 04, 2021


SUBJECTS: No Actual CEO at the No Actual Infrastructure Fund; Morrison Government not delivering to Northern Australia
KELLY GUDGEON, HOST: The Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility is a federal government loan facility. Its aim is to stimulate development in Northern Australia. Receiving funds through the NAIF allows many big projects the ability to source additional investment, reducing the risk to investors and getting those projects the greenlight and there are a number of projects here in the Pilbara that are being funded through NAIF. The NAIF has a total pool of $5 billion. But Labor Senator and Shadow Minister for Northern Australia Murray Watt says in the six years the NAIF has existed, only 10% of that fund has been distributed around $50 million. He says instead, the fund has been earning money on the interest. He says there are now only more questions about the management of the NAIF after the shock resignation of CEO Chris Wade, only hours before he was due to appear before a Senate estimates committee hearing last week. I caught up with Senator Watt earlier and started by asking him about Chris Wade's resignation, and what impact there would be here in the Pilbara.
MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR NORTHERN AUSTRALIA: This was a really mysterious situation that arose 24 hours before Senate Estimates last week, when news broke that the CEO of the NAIF had resigned immediately. No reason was given. The chair of the NAIF hasn't provided any reasons for the CEOs departure, he resigned immediately, didn't get the chance to address staff or send an email out to staff himself. So it's always mysterious I think when something like that happens, especially so close to a very public event like Senate Estimates, where we have an opportunity to ask CEOs of organisations within government, what the hell is going on within their group. So we don't really have any further information about why this has happened. But my fear, more than anything else, is that it really is going to leave regions like the Pilbara in the lurch. I've been very critical of the NAIF and the Federal Government for some time now about the fact that the NAIF has done a really good job of announcing funding for various projects, including in the Pilbara. But what it hasn't been so good at is actually getting money out the door to those projects. And I think it's all very well, we see very often from the Morrison Government that they like to get out there and announce funding for things, what they're not as good at is actually getting the money out on the ground and delivering on their announcements. So this organisation was actually announced by this government six years ago, Tony Abbott was still the Prime Minister, that's how long ago it was announced. And it was given $5 billion to invest in projects right across Northern Australia and create jobs. But what we've learned from Senate Estimates is that six years after it was announced, it’s actually only released a bit over $400 million of the $5 billion that it's got to invest. So it's actually released less than 10% of the funds that it’s got available. So I just don't think that's doing the right thing by the Pilbara, or Northern Australia in general. We know that those regions do often struggle to get investment, especially in, sort of, early stage projects. And they need investment. They need jobs, they need social infrastructure, they need hard infrastructure, and they're just not getting it from the Federal Government through the NAIF.
GUDGEON: And we're talking about some big projects here. We're talking about the Mardie Salt and Potash project, we're talking about the mineral sands project which is in the Gascoyne, we're talking about, you know, like the Australian Aboriginal Mining Corporation project, which is in the Pilbara as well. I mean, these are not small projects. 
WATT: They're very important projects in terms of the jobs that they can create. And in many cases, they're about trying to broaden the economic base of communities as well. The NAIF has got a really important role to play in investing in projects that can employ First Nations people and getting people into employment - long term, sustainable employment. And that's why it's so important that these projects happen. And they actually get the money that the government has committed. But if you run through the different projects in the Pilbara, and you look at how much has been announced, versus how much has actually been delivered, often there's a very big difference. So I think people are sort of feeling a bit misled, that the NAIF hasn't really delivered on what it was promised to be. And that really goes for the government's Northern Australia agenda as a whole. There's been lots of talk, there's been lots of press releases, lots of announcements, but not as much actually hitting the ground.
GUDGEON: Have any of the projects Australia wide that have been funded through the NAIF been delivered? 
WATT: There have been a couple of small projects, especially around the Townsville region and a couple in the Northern Territory as well. But as I say, if you look at the totality of it, there's been I think something like $2.8 billion worth of announcements made, but only about $400 million has actually been released by the NAIF. So the projects that have actually been completed with NAIF funding tend to be smaller projects. But you would expect that by now, six years after it was announced, it would have some projects completed. The problem is that there just haven't been anywhere near enough, compared to the promises that have been made.
GUDGEON: So what is the impact then for these projects in the Pilbara and Gascoyne? You say that, you know, only 10% of the money has been released, does it put these projects in jeopardy at all?
WATT: I think that if we're not seeing milestones being hit in these projects, that means that the NAIF can be paying money to them, then that does mean that they're not moving along fast enough. And one of the things that we've called on the government to do is to get the NAIF to be working really proactively with proponents of projects to make sure that they are hitting milestones, and therefore that money can be released. What you always hear from the NAIF and the government, about what I'm saying, is that they can't give a project money if they aren't sort of hitting their milestones and turning sods and building various stages and that's fine. But what's the NAIF doing to actually encourage and work with these projects to get them happening, so that the money can be released? I mean, we're not asking the government to give more money to projects. What we're actually just asking them to do is to deliver on what they promised.
GUDGEON: The resignation of Chris Wade, very suddenly before the Senate Estimates committee hearing. Since then, have we found out anything about why he's resigned? And during that Senate Estimates committee hearing was there any information given about why NAIF has not delivered on that funding? 
WATT: Look, I think it's still shrouded in mystery, the reasons for the CEO’s departure. I have had some reports that the organization is becoming more politicised in the run up to the next federal election. And we know that this government has a pretty poor record when it comes to using government funding, basically as slush funds to deliver election promises. It's possible that it's something to do with that. But really everyone is just speculating. And that's why it's important, I think, that the Minister does go public and explain why it is that why a highly paid CEO of a major government organisation, that Northern Australia is relying on, why that person has left and what changes are going to be made if there were problems there. So I think that, well, while you have a lack of leadership in a government organisation, like we do now with the NAIF, that has to put some of the projects that it's funded in jeopardy, or at least not have them ticking along in the way that they should. For a long time now, we've been calling the NAIF the No Actual Infrastructure Fund, because for all of the promises, it hasn't delivered very much, and unfortunately, we now have a situation where there's No Actual CEO at the No Actual Infrastructure Fund. That is a really terrible way for promises that were made to Northern Australia to end up.
GUDGEON: Senator Murray Watt, thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it. 
WATT: No worries Kelly.