MIX 104.9 Radio Darwin 360 with Katie Woolf

December 04, 2020





SUBJECT/S: Northern Australia Senate inquiry interim report; recommendations to fix Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility.

KATIE WOOLF, HOST: We do know that the Federal Government, it's being reported, must do more to prioritise local jobs as well as fast track funding and invest in small projects to help regional areas in Northern Australia recover post-COVID-19. That is what a new Senate inquiry report has found now, the interim report handed down yesterday by the Senate Select Committee on the Effectiveness of the Australian Government's Northern Australia Agenda outlined a series of recommendations to fast track growth in the region.

And joining us on the line to talk more about this is the Shadow Minister for Northern Australia, Senator Murray Watt, good morning.

MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR NORTHERN AUSTRALA: G’day Katie, good to talk to you again.

WOOLF: Now, Senator, I know this interim report, it was handed down obviously yesterday by the Senate Select Committee. What has it outlined?

WATT: Well, this inquiry was basically established because the feedback that we were receiving was that the Government's Northern Australia agenda just hasn't really delivered on expectations. It was released about five years ago, and the NAIF - the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility - was established five years ago, but unfortunately neither of those things has really come through on what the Government had promised. So what we're hoping, as a result of this Senate inquiry and the report that we've handed down, is that we can prompt some action on the Government's behalf and start actually delivering the kind of promises and jobs that it was held out to do, back five years ago.

WOOLF: Well and look, some people listening might be thinking 'oh, OK well Senator Murray Watt is the Shadow Minister for Northern Australia, of course, he's going to say that'. But I mean, the situation here is this follows on from more than a year of face-to-face hearings here in Darwin, also in Townsville, in Mount Isa, Mackay, Nhulunbuy and plenty of other meetings which had taken place. And it is a bipartisan inquiry, really aimed at working out how this can be done a little bit better.

WATT: That's right. I think that's an important point, that this inquiry and the report that was handed down yesterday is a unanimous report from senators from all parties. We've got Government senators, Opposition senators, One Nation, the Greens, and yet we've all come up with the same recommendations and the same findings, which is that the NAIF has just been far too slow in getting money out the door.

You're right, we did hold a hearing in Darwin and in Nhulunbuy as well. So we've had some direct input from representatives of government, of community, of business and industry groups in the Northern Territory. And the feedback we got from them is exactly what we've been going and getting elsewhere, which is that people are really excited about this Northern Australia agenda. And especially after COVID, we know that the country's struggling and Northern Australia has so much potential to actually bring the country out of recession, but it's not going to do it on its own, it's going to need proper investment by the Federal Government to actually get these programs working.

WOOLF: So what changes can be made? I know that some things have changed already, but what can be changed so that we can make this more effective, so that we can get things happening sooner rather than later?

WATT: Well, I'm really pleased that a couple of weeks ago, the Federal Minister did indicate he does intend to make some changes to the NAIF, and that's to pick up on criticisms that the Opposition has been making for about three years! So it's good, you know, that finally they look like they are prepared to change. And this Senate report we brought down asks for further change.

One of the key things is to try to get the NAIF a bit more interested in some of the smaller projects that are looking for finance, both in the Northern Territory and across the north as a whole. What we've found is that the NAIF so far has been more interested in the large projects that are looking at tens of millions of dollars or hundreds of millions of dollars. And while we do have those sort of projects in the north - and, you know, Charles Darwin Uni is one of them that's managed to get a loan approved for a large project - there's a lot of smaller projects as well, particularly in First Nations communities that are looking for financing, can't get it from commercial banks because they haven't necessarily been running these sort of businesses for a long time, but they'd actually create jobs. And that's what this NAIF is supposed to be doing, is to cut through and provide finance to projects that really do stack up financially, but the commercial banks aren't that interested in, because they might be a bit small or they might be a bit different to things they've done in the past.

WOOLF: So Murray, where to from here? What are the next steps in terms of, you know, trying to make these changes and ensure that this doesn't become something that, you know, just gets lost, I suppose, and forgotten about?

WATT: Yeah and look, I think that's what we're really trying to achieve here is that, one of the things I've said about this Government is they like to make an announcement and they don't necessarily follow through, and the NAIF is a really good example of that. You know, they launched this five years ago, it's got $5 billion to lend and it's only lent about $218 million - so less than five cents in the dollar has actually gone out of the door in the five years that it's been operating.

So what we hope will happen, especially because this is a bipartisan report, is that the Government will pick up these recommendations. And when they make changes through legislation for the NAIF next year, they should pick these recommendations up as well. Let's make sure that this fund actually is delivering what the Government's promised, which is projects and jobs right across the north.

WOOLF: Well, Senator for...Well, Senator and also the Shadow Minister for Northern Australia Murray Watt, always good to catch up with you, mate, we appreciate your time today.

WATT: No problem Katie, good to talk.