SENATOR MURRAY WATT
SHADOW MINISTER FOR NORTHERN AUSTRALIA
SHADOW MINISTER FOR DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT
LABOR SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND
SENATOR NITA GREEN
LABOR SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND
TUESDAY, 15 DECEMBER 2020
SUBJECT/S: Senate Inquiry on the Northern Australia agenda; Northern Australia insurance costs; NAIF; JobKeeper cuts; investment in regional skills and infrastructure.
NITA GREEN, QUEENSLAND LABOR SENATOR: Well, thank you for coming today, it has been really good to see that the Senate inquiry on northern Australia has come all the way to Cairns to hear evidence directly from local stakeholders.
And I'm also pleased that we've been joined by Senator Murray Watt, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia. One of the other really fantastic things that we've been listening to stakeholders about today are some of the things that the Federal Government needs to do to get Cairns recovering, to get us back on track.
I will say, one of the things I've been listening to very keenly is any of the questions that have been asked around insurance. We know that at the moment the Treasurer has the final ACCC report into Northern Australia insurance, and we're still waiting for that report to be handed down. The Assistant Treasurer said that the Government would come out with the solutions that they were planning on delivering for insurance well before the report was released. So we are waiting for both of those things to really understand how Northern Australia insurance is impacting businesses and growth here.
So that is a really important issue for the people that have been giving evidence today. But it's also something that I've been talking about for a long time. And as we go closer towards cyclone season and we get closer to the point where we know that a lot of people are uninsured or underinsured, I'm really calling on the Federal Government again to come out, release the report and to let us know exactly what they're going to do to fix this issue here in Far North Queensland.
And finally, can I just say this? The Federal Government has released a lot of advertising about their 'comeback' and they're talking about 'our comeback' and how they're patting themselves on the back and talking about how we've made it through this COVID crisis. Unfortunately, what we've heard today and what I've been hearing on the ground here in Cairns is that it is going to take a very long time, a very long time, for Cairns to recover from the COVID-19 crisis. I said in February that this crisis would hit Cairns first and worst and we're still there. We're at six percent unemployment rate, and the tourism industry is saying that is going to take three to four years to recover. So I would like to see the Federal Government giving themselves less pats on the back, spending less money on advertising their “comeback” and actually come here to Cairns, listen to what people need and help us recover, because we are certainly not out of the woods yet.
So I'm very pleased that Senator Murray Watt is here to listen and to find out those things that we need to do. But ultimately, the Federal Government needs to listen to people here in Cairns, not leave us behind in this COVID recession. Thank you.
MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR NORTHERN AUSTRALIA: Thanks well it's terrific to be back in Cairns again. I was up here a couple of months ago, and it's really important to come through regularly to see how Cairns and Far North Queensland is progressing in a post-COVID environment.
It was very important to me as the chair of this committee that we get into Cairns before the end of the year, because I think it's well-recognised that there are few regions across the country that have been worse affected by the COVID downturn than Cairns and Far North Queensland. Nita Green has been doing a fabulous job in Canberra, raising these issues with the Labor Caucus and also with the Government, seeking more assistance. But having the Senate inquiry here has also put a real spotlight on what Cairns needs going forward.
Some of the things that we've been hearing today actually back up the feedback that we've had throughout this inquiry in other parts of Northern Australia as well, which is that there was a lot of excitement across the north when the Government released its Northern Australia agenda about five years ago. But it hasn't really met the expectations that people had for it. And we had witnesses earlier today saying that as a result of things not really being delivered in the way that the Government promised, people have lost a bit of enthusiasm for this Northern Australia agenda. And it's important that we revive interest in that agenda and that we revive the Federal Government's interest in delivering it. Because we know that post-COVID, this region more than pretty much any other in the country, needs direct support from the Federal Government.
As Nita said, it's important that we don't just see advertisements saying that everything's back rosy again and that the economy's coming back. If you talk to any business or any worker in Cairns, they'll tell you that we haven't seen a comeback and we're a long way before we see it as well. We've had tourism operators telling us today that the international tourism market has always supplied 70 per cent of the visitor numbers and 80 per cent of the revenue for the tourism industry here in Cairns. And it's going to be quite some time before we have international tourists returning to Cairns in the way they were pre-COVID.
So what that means is that we need the Federal Government having a really clear plan for what it is going to do to get the economy moving again here in Cairns. To get people remaining in work and to get businesses flourishing again. Instead, what we've seen today is there's a whole lot of uncertainty across the Cairns business community and the Cairns economy as a whole. We've been hearing that the Cairns economy faces two cliffs - it faces a cliff in mid to late January when school holidays end and domestic tourist numbers start drying up again, and of course, without the Chinese New Year tourism market that normally comes into play in mid-January and into February as well. And then there's a second cliff facing Cairns and Far North Queensland in March when JobKeeper is due to be wound up, and you're going to have businesses with banks calling on loans to be repaid, after they've been deferred for a long time.
So two cliffs facing the Cairns economy- one in January, one in March. And despite that, we don't have any clear plan from the Federal Government about what comes next. So hopefully this inquiry can put forward some recommendations to the Government. We certainly hope that they will be listening about how we can diversify the Cairns economy, keep building some of those emerging industries as well as its traditional strengths like tourism and agriculture, and get as many people in Cairns back into work as quickly as possible.
JOURNALIST: The interim report into Northern Australia makes some recommendations, nearly all of them being about NAIF (Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility). When that final report is delivered, what kind of recommendations, on top of the interim ones, do you expect to be suggested in regards to NAIF?
WATT: You're right, the interim report of this committee was tabled in Parliament a couple of weeks ago and focussed very much on the failed NAIF - the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, better known as the 'No Actual Infrastructure Fund' - which five years after it was announced, has released less than five cents in the dollar of the $5 billion that it's got to invest in the north. So we thought it was important as a committee to put forward some recommendations to get the NAIF moving quickly. We're hopeful that the Government will respond to those with legislation in the new year.
But once we come to tabling our final report at the end of March, I would expect that there will be a real focus on some of the other things that are really needed to try to capture the opportunities that Northern Australia has. Things like what sort of infrastructure investment do we need? What sort of investment in skills do we need? Because, again, we've been hearing today in Cairns that there is a major infrastructure deficit, particularly in things like communications infrastructure across Far North Queensland. If we want businesses and workers to be able to compete on a level playing field with the rest of the world, they've got to have access to the phone and internet connections that the rest of the world has.
We've been hearing that there are major shortfalls in the sort of skills that are needed by local businesses. And it's crazy that we continue to have high levels of youth unemployment in Far North Queensland when at the same time we've got businesses needing skilled workers. We've actually got to make that investment in training rather than continue the cuts to training that this Federal Government has imposed, so that businesses have the workers they need and so that workers can get jobs.
JOURNALIST: Those kinds of changes to equity investment laws, was that discussed?
WATT: With the NAIF you mean? Yeah, there's been some discussion of the NAIF today, probably not as much as what we've heard in other hearings, because we have now given that interim report and the Government has signalled that it does intend to make some changes to the NAIF. But certainly one of the points that came through again today is that the NAIF has been too focussed on funding large projects that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
We heard from some of the smaller shires in Far North Queensland today that the NAIF also needs to have a focus on smaller projects. There's a lot of smaller projects in Far North Queensland that may not be in the hundreds of millions of dollars but they can still create jobs, and they shouldn't be being discouraged by government financing bodies that were set up to assist businesses in this region.
JOURNALIST: Do you support those proposed changes to connect with investment? For projects under $5 million, I think?
WATT: Federal Labor has been calling on the Government to make changes to the NAIF for about three years, and one of the key changes we've called on them to do is to have more of a focus on smaller projects that can create jobs across Far North Queensland. So I'm certainly encouraged by the changes that the Government has announced. It sounds like they are finally starting to listen. It's a shame it took three years for them to do so. We've obviously got to wait to see the legislation before we can give a firm commitment, but they certainly look encouraging, those changes.
JOURNALIST: And just finally, what were some of the other things aside from NAIF, what else has been on the agenda in there today?
WATT: As I say, I think some of the things that we've been hearing today are quite similar to issues that have been raised in our other hearings in places like Townsville, Darwin, Mackay and Nhulunbuy. And they are that we do need a really clear sense of priorities from the Federal Government about what kind of industries they see having a future in northern Australia, and then what is the Federal Government going to do, to come to the party and make that happen? What are they prepared to invest in infrastructure? What are they going to do to reverse their cuts to training and to TAFE to make sure they are skilled workers here? What are they going to do to make sure that we don't have particular regions that are overly-dependent on one industry? We've seen what happens in a place like Cairns when tourism takes a hit, the whole economy takes a hit. And in some of the mining centres, in other parts of northern Australia, when mining has gone down, they've taken a real hit. What Northern Australia needs is a really clear plan from the Federal Government to make sure that in the good times and the bad, there's still plenty of work for people and people can still prosper in one of the greatest parts of the country to live in.