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Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility launch

Cairns

11 August 2016

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Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen welcome to the launch of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. In particular, I would like to recognise my colleague Warren Entsch who has played such a big part in delivering our agenda for the north, including in his role as Chair of the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia.

It is great to be here on what is an exciting day for the north and an exciting day for Cairns. Cairns is a wonderful place and, of course, today its most well known industry is tourism, but it has a richer history.

It’s a natural port and that gave it its start. The gold, agricultural and forestry resources of the region spurred Cairns’ development.

The exciting thing today is that the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) will help develop another new industry in the north. When we first began considering where we should house the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, we had to consider where the existing expertise in infrastructure finance was.

The infrastructure finance community is a small one in this country, and it is necessarily concentrated in our major cities, and mostly in Sydney.

Yet, the lack of infrastructure finance expertise in the north, is not a limitation, it is an opportunity. An opportunity for us to bring a new industry to the north. To help develop a whole new set of skills and services that are offered in the north, and that will attract many others to the north too.

The Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility that we are launching today will spread $5 billion right across northern Australia. However, that is not the end of the story. In my view, having this facility here will not simply spread investment it will attract investment too.

We hope that the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility will create a pipeline of projects, but it will also be a magnet attracting skills and expertise here to Cairns and the region to be close to the $5 billion bank that has the power to do so much to develop the north.

Our Northern Australia policy is a regional development policy. All of Northern Australia is in what is loosely termed the “regions” of Australia. All of our major capital cities lie south of the tropic of Capricorn.

It is appropriate that the federal government place its own offices, facilities and staff in ways that further the development of our regions.

That is why we have moved the Office of Northern Australia to Darwin, the Northern Australian Cooperative Research Centre to Townsville, and today the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility to Cairns. Together these actions are moving the gravity of northern development policy to the north where they belong, and they will help encourage others to make that move too.

I want to make an important point about what the loans from this facility and these investments can achieve. It is not about spending money. Spending $5 billion on the north will not revolutionise the north. The only way that we can make a real difference through this facility is to choose loans that work, that pay off and that of course repay the money lent.

I have told the board that I will celebrate when we make some investments and get “money out the door”, but I will celebrate even more when the “money comes back in the door”.

This is not just because Scott Morrison wants his money back, which he does. It is also because the best measure of success for our investments is if they are being used and are making money.

The Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, indeed our entire, Northern Development agenda is not a welfare program. We are making an investment that delivers a return to our region and to the nation. If that return is delivered in these investments, that means that the projects will be making money, that the loans we make from this facility are repaid, and that Scott Morrison will be happy.

And if Scott Morrison is happy, we may be able to build on the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. The legislation we passed just before the election established the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility with a mandate to invest $5 billion in loans over the next 5 years. I hope that this is just the beginning. I hope that we can make such a success of this that we can extend that time frame and request more funding if needed.

I want to thank Sharon (Warburton) for the leadership she has shown in getting the board going. We are lucky to have someone of her calibre to head up the board, someone who grew up in the north too.

We are very fortunate to have such an experienced board with a strong understanding of northern Australia and a passion to help the region develop.

Already we are seeing a large number of potential projects being identified. To date over 85 potential project proponents with an estimated total capital cost of almost $60 billion have expressed interest in the NAIF.

Funding decisions in relation to individual projects are a matter for the NAIF board. But examples of some of the types of projects that have commenced engagement with the NAIF include:

  • telecommunications infrastructure: connecting remote communities and regional centres
  • a variety of new and innovative renewable power generation facilities
  • port expansions to accommodate forecast growth in trade, development of new industries and address current capacity constraints
  • airport expansions and upgrades to build capacity
  • other infrastructure that can help support new tourism ventures.

Establishing this facility today marks another completion of the commitments we made on launching the white paper for northern development in June last year. I know that many are keen to see our northern agenda translated into action, and that there has been a lot of talk about northern development. Talk is important and we had to build the case for northern development to get the commitments we have from the Federal Government.

But the time for talk is over, and the time for action is here. July 1 marked the start date from which the more than $6 billion in funds we have put aside to develop the north will start to flow.

During the election we announced more than $350 million in road funding including funding for the Hann Highway, the Flinders Highway and sealing the Outback Way to create a third sealed link between the eastern and western coasts of Australia.

We also announced more than $145 million of projects under the Water Infrastructure Development Fund for the north. Already funding is available to progress the Nullinga Dam near Cairns, and we have committed funding to build the Rookwood weir on the Fitzroy river.

More commitments will be made soon. We are close to concluding the first round of funding for beef roads. More than 60 projects have been assessed by the CSIRO and following feedback from States and Territories we will soon make further announcements on these.

The government has also just received a report from John Wharton, the Mayor of Richmond Shire, on the development of the Cooperative Research Centre for the North. That CRC will focus on food, agriculture and tropical health and a number of private partners have been already identified that will help match the governments contribution of $75 million.

We remain focused on ensuring that our first Australians are part of our northern development agenda too. More than 20 per cent of Australians that live in the north are indigenous, so no strategy to develop the north can afford to leave them behind. That is why reforming native title to provide indigenous people with more flexibility and opportunity is one of the highest priorities of our northern agenda.

The Government has also secured an additional $2 billion investment in the north from Singapore to upgrade joint defence training facilities in Townsville and Shoalwater Bay. This is in addition to the Defence White Paper commitments of more than $5 billion over the next decade to increase Defence presence and provide facilities in the north, including in Townsville, Cairns, Darwin, Katherine and Alice Springs.

I started by mentioning the economic history of Cairns. My favourite story of Cairns’ economic development involves the construction of the Captain Cook statue that sits proudly on the Cook highway. Those that have seen it, and how could you miss it, might notice it looks perhaps a little big for its purpose. That’s because it was never planned to be that big.

When the plans were presented to the Council, the imperial and metric systems were mixed up and it was approved. Building commenced and needless to say, once it was unveiled in 1972, it was a lot bigger than expected.

I don’t think we have made that mistake here. I think we have in the NAIF a fit for purpose nimble team that is going to do great things for Northern Australia. Still, like the Captain Cook statue we hope that the $5 billion we are investing here does grow into something more, something impressive, something you can’t miss. So I wish Sharon and her team all the best in building that legacy and I hope that future visitors to Cairns won’t just have a Captain Cook statue to marvel at, but also all the great infrastructure that the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility has built for this region.

ENDS