November 03, 2021


SUBJECTS: No Actual CEO at the No Actual Infrastructure Fund; NAIF not delivering to Northern Australia; Government’s unused $4.7 billion disaster fund.
KATIE WOOLF, HOST: Joining us now on the line is Murray Watt. He is The Shadow Minister for Northern Australia. Senator Murray Watt, good morning to you.
MURRAY WATT, LABOR SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND: G’day Katie, good to talk to you again.
WOOLF: Now mate, I know that there's been some, you know, I guess you'd have to say that there's been some discussion and issues around the NAIF, the North Australia Infrastructure Facility for quite some time. But things sort of hit a bit of a bizarre note, I think, last week with the resignation of the NAIF CEO. Has there been any insight at this point as to why he's resigned, or what's happened?
WATT: No, it's still a bit of a mystery, Katie. What happened last week was that 24 hours before the NAIF was preparing to give evidence at Senate Estimates in Canberra, we all found out that the NAIF CEO had resigned immediately. And still no reason has been given for why this CEO of a very important, well funded government organisation has resigned, let alone why he had to resign immediately. Basically, staff found out about this via an email from the board chair Tracy Hayes, which they received late Wednesday afternoon, and no reason was given as to why the CEO left. He didn't actually get a chance to speak to staff, or email staff himself. So it's all a bit of a mystery. And I think unfortunately, it's just another blow to what's been a really troubled organisation.
WOOLF: And so how then indeed, you know, did the Senate Estimates committee hearing then go, without having the CEO in there? I know that somebody else had stepped in but was there much information gleaned?
WATT: Well it did make things a little bit tricky. I commended the Acting CEO who fronted up to do what she could to answer all of our questions at very short notice. But it did mean that we had to spend a lot of the hearing actually just trying to understand why there's been this leadership change. I think you and I have talked before Katie, about the problems that we've seen with the NAIF. You know, this is a $5 billion organisation that was announced six years ago. And one thing we did find out the other night was that it's still actually only released a bit over $400 million of its $5 billion budget. So after, six years after it was announced, it's actually released less than 10% of its budget to invest in projects and create jobs across the North. So that's the biggest problem, I think, with having this CEO resign so suddenly, without any explanation, is that this is an organisation that's been in deep trouble for a while, there's a reason people call it the No Actual Infrastructure Fund. And that's because it just isn't really producing the results that the government promised. And now, unfortunately, it has no actual CEO either.
WOOLF: Murray, do you think he was pushed?
WATT: Look, I really don't know. I've heard all sorts of rumours about what might have happened, but it's probably not appropriate to go into what they might be, because they may or may not be true. But you know, one of the things that we have been hearing is that there has been sort of increased politicisation of the NAIF. We're obviously getting closer to an election in probably in the early New Year. Let's face it, the National Party, who oversees this fund, has a pretty poor record when it comes to rorting public funds and trying to use them for their political ends. There are some very political people now involved with the NAIF. So I am concerned about those kinds of reports. And, you know, I think it's really up to the Minister, David Littleproud, to front up and explain why a CEO who's been paid over $400,000 a year to run this organisation has suddenly departed. I think we deserve to know why and we deserve to know what he and his government are going to do to get them back on track.
WOOLF: I mean, when you say there's, there's been some political appointments, obviously, we know that Tracy Hayes is now the chair of the NAIF. A very highly respected Territorian, but she did indeed run against the Chief Minister, Michael Gunner, here in the Northern Territory for the seat of Fannie Bay by at the last election. Is that what you mean?
WATT: Yeah, look, I think, you know, everything I've ever seen and heard about Tracy Hayes is that she's a capable person. But there's also no doubt about where she lines up politically. And what we found out at one of the previous Estimates hearings was that the new Minister for Northern Australia didn't even bother appointing a recruitment consultant to try to find a new chair of the NAIF. That position in itself was paid about $150,000 a year, so not a bad income and a pretty important position. And he didn't really even get his department to do some proper consultation about who the chair would be. So I think, you know, clearly, this is a political appointment. I don't debate whether Ms Hayes has ability or not, but also its clearly a political appointment. There are people with very strong ties to the CLP and the National Party involved with the NAIF as well and I think we just need to make sure that public money is being spent properly. And we don't see a continuation of this government, the Morrison Government, using taxpayers money as if it’s Liberal and National Party money.
WOOLF: I mean, it is a very big call, obviously, she is highly respected here in the Northern Territory and and you know, has a great deal of experience in Northern Australia. So it is a big call I suppose to say that she's only been appointed due to that political alliance.
WATT: What I'm saying is that she is a capable individual who has strong political ties, and that we need to make sure that the NAIF doesn't go down the same track of what we've seen from other government funding bodies under this government, which is that they misuse taxpayers funds. These are important funds, that taxpayers, you know, work hard to produce for the government, and we need to make sure that the projects that are being funded are the best ones. And, again, I think it would just help everyone, if we could get an explanation from the Minister about why the CEO has departed, and whether these reports of politicisation of the NAIF are true.
WOOLF: Well, it is certainly, you know, certainly very interesting. And I do, I do agree that, you know, we want the NAIF to be as – well - as effective as possible, we want to make sure that there is as much flowing out into the Northern Territory, and indeed all of Northern Australia as possible. And that, that the NAIF is working to ensure that we've, you know, we've got plenty of different projects rolling out in Northern Australia.
WATT: For sure, that's what this fund was invented for. When the government created it six years ago, they made all sorts of promises about the jobs that would be created and the projects that would be funded. And unfortunately, we just haven't seen an outcome from it. It's time the minister really took some action to get this body working properly.
WOOLF: I do want to ask you, I know that there's also been some new revelations about the Emergency Response Fund, which is quite timely, given the start of the cyclone season. Has there been questioning through the Senate and where has this information being gleaned? And what does it found?
WATT: Yeah, that was one of the other things that came out in Senate Estimates last week, Katie. There's a pattern here where we've got all sorts of funds being announced by the government and press releases and press conferences and ribbons being cut, but nothing actually then happening. We know that this season, we're facing La Nina conditions, which means an increased chance of cyclones and floods, particularly in Northern Australia. And unfortunately, what we found out is that this $4 billion fund that the government created over two years ago, called the Emergency Response Fund, that was set up in order to fund disaster recovery and mitigation and prevention activities. And yet again, we find that there's a government fund that hasn't spent a single cent. So this thing's been going for over two years. Over that period of time, it could have invested in cyclone shelters, in flood levees and all sorts of disaster prevention measures but it hasn't actually released a cent. So again, this is just this pattern that we see from the Morrison Government where they make big announcements, but they never actually deliver. And I'm just concerned that you know, we're about to enter another disaster season, we’re expecting serious conditions. And we've missed another opportunity to have projects built that could have been keeping people in the Northern Territory safe.
WOOLF: Well, Senator Murray Watt, that certainly sounds like one which we'll have to keep a very close eye on and ask a few more questions about and really good to talk to you this morning. I appreciate your time as always.
WATT: Good on you Katie, good to talk.