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Interview on ABC Capricornia Breakfast program

10 January 2017

Interviewer: 
Chrissy Arthur

Subject: Australia-Singapore Comprehensive Strategic Partnership; defence training expansion at Shoalwater Bay; entitlements reform

E&OE

CHRISSY ARTHUR:

The Minister for Northern Australia is Senator Matthew Canavan, and he is with me in the studio this morning. Hello Senator, thanks for coming in.

MINISTER CANAVAN:

Morning Chrissy.

CHRISSY ARTHUR:

You've been elected to represent Queenslanders; will you be fighting this, will you be representing these graziers and small business owners?

MINISTER CANAVAN:

Well what we've got to do, Chrissy, is take the views that I heard yesterday into account in any decision we make. What I said yesterday, it's very important, some of the comments made there were relevant here, is that the Government has not made a decision on what areas it will expand Shoalwater Bay into or whether there'll be any compulsory acquisitions. That's why we are doing an economic and social impact assessment right now; we commissioned KPMG to do that. That's why Defence have held more than 180 meetings with different individuals affected both here and in the Townsville area, and why we attend meetings like yesterday, which is very useful for me to get that information.

But we have not made any final decision on those acquisitions, so it's best and proper to have all that information first. Yesterday's meeting helps that. There were very good points made, but we've also of course got to make sure that we have a strong defence force, that we have the training facilities available for our defence forces and to establish those good relationships we have with the United States and Singapore.

CHRISSY ARTHUR:

Does that sit comfortably though, with you, the possibility, the prospect that some families who have been on their land for 120, 140 years, that that land may be compulsorily acquired for in effect foreign military training?

MINISTER CANAVAN:

Well first of all it's not for foreign military training; it'll be infrastructure the Australian Government owns that we use - that the Australian Army and Defence Forces will use. The advice we've got from Defence - I met them again yesterday before the meeting to speak to them - has consistently been that they would like to expand Shoalwater Bay for their use. They need to upgrade it, need to maintain its world class status. So I understand that. But it doesn't sit comfortably with me at all, Chrissy, of course no one wants to go down that path, and hopefully, hopefully we can come up with a solution which doesn't require compulsory acquisitions. But I can't in all honesty take anything off the table before we get all of that advice from an impact assessment. We need to go through that process first. We've already acquired two properties in the region voluntarily. By my estimates it's around a fifth to a quarter now of the land required in the initial proposal. So there are willing sellers in the region, and that's obviously what we prioritise, but that's why we're having these meetings to establish what can be - can and can't be bought, and what the area we should go forward with once we have all the information.

CHRISSY ARTHUR:

One politician was reported as saying - this one state MP - gross foolishness is this acquisition and expansion plan. Is it the wrong area? Because you've heard, and I think we're hoping to talk with Mayor Bill Ludwig in a moment, but lots of people are saying it's the wrong area, it's prime agricultural grazing country. Do you need to look elsewhere?

MINISTER CANAVAN:

Well, that's what we have been doing and are doing. This is the initial advice we've got from Defence, these likely areas. They're obviously the experts in these areas and will have their own views, but it will ultimately be the decision of Government. Up in the Townsville area, a different area has been put forward, the Pentland area, so just before Christmas, I pushed hard for that to be looked at, and Defence are going to look at that option. If there are alternatives in this area I'm happy to consider those as well of course. I've committed to go back up with some of the graziers like Rick Bowman and Alf Collins and go around with them and see if we can work out a solution.

One of the very good points made yesterday was can we better use the Shoalwater Bay facilities itself; if you like, can we better sweat the asset we currently have to get more out of it, to get more training effectiveness out of their land that they have. There were some claims that the land hasn't been managed as well as it could have been. Colonel Kevin Packham, who was there yesterday representing Defence, has committed to look at that and go back and ask his people, and we will do that as part of this process.

CHRISSY ARTHUR:

Okay. What about the process? Because you heard there from one particular grazier who talked about - he felt like he'd been bullied. Tell me about the process from your point of view. Is that a fair estimate, or what do you say to comments like that?

MINISTER CANAVAN:

Well look, I'll take any of that feedback on board and take it back to Defence of course. I myself have not been involved in all of the meetings or consultations, but suffice to say that we have not made a final decision and that Defence - I think this is their fourth trip, perhaps, in the last few months up to this region. We're about to have a permanent liaison officer based in Queensland to continue these processes, and we're always open, as Kevin was yesterday, Colonel Kevin Packham was yesterday to come up to these kinds of meetings, and I'll of course be back up there with Michelle Landry, the local member as well.

CHRISSY ARTHUR:

And let's talk about the time frame in terms of all of this discussion. I spoke to one Marlborough businesswoman who just talked about how the mood over Christmas had been really difficult and dreadful in that community. I mean, the longer these sorts of things go on, how do you think people will cope with the uncertainty of the situation?

MINISTER CANAVAN:

Absolutely Chrissy, I think that's a very good point, I made that point to the Minister before Christmas. I've been to Charters Towers a couple of times to talk to people up there as well, and people do want this to be concluded, so our current hope is that this economic and social impact assessment - which we should do before we make any compulsory acquisitions - should be completed by mid this year, and later this year the Government will make a decision. That's our time frame at the moment and I hope we can stick to that, because I agree with you, we need to settle this as soon as we can.

CHRISSY ARTHUR:

How will you feel if this land is compulsorily acquired?

MINISTER CANAVAN:

It will be a very difficult decision. Governments, you know, when you're in these kind of roles, you can't shy away from the tough decisions, though. I mean, your station yesterday led the morning news bulletins with reports from Indonesia about the President Joko Widodo fighting Islamic fundamentalists there in Jakarta. I'm very concerned about those reports. We live in a fractious world, we live in a difficult environment. We need to do what we can to make sure our defence forces can defend this nation and protect all our rights. Now one of those rights is property rights, and under our constitution, if the Government is to acquire any land, we will do so on just terms, we will not leave people behind.

The other very good point made there yesterday, which you raised, is the Marlborough businesses. They don't necessarily get any compensation under the Constitution, I'm very mindful of that, and any decision we make needs to consider the impact on them.

CHRISSY ARTHUR:

Can that be changed? Is there any scope to compensate? Because something like 70,000 head of cattle are being estimated, if this land is acquired, and the flow-on impact of that. What will your Government do to support those communities that may be adversely affected?

MINISTER CANAVAN:

Well given we haven't made a decision yet, I can't foreshadow that, but suffice to say that that's a very key consideration for me, I agree. There is no formal requirement under the Land Acquisition Act to compensate for indirect impact, but that's something we must, I believe, address.

CHRISSY ARTHUR:

Just finally I wanted to talk to you on another issue that's been in the headlines - politicians' entitlements and rules. Your Cabinet colleague Sussan Ley has stood aside as the investigation continues into her travel expenses, Nick Xenophon this morning saying there were all sorts of problems. He says these scandals will continue unless fundamental changes are made. Do you agree that the rules for politicians' entitlements need to be tightened?

MINISTER CANAVAN:

They do. We had a review report last year which recommended some major changes to how we manage the work expenses system. There's currently 12 acts of Parliament and three Remuneration Tribunal rulings that cover it. It does need to be streamlined; it does need to be strengthened. I'm sure that the Government will soon act on those recommendations in that report.

CHRISSY ARTHUR:

Thank you for coming in.

MINISTER CANAVAN:

No worries Chrissy, thank you.

CHRISSY ARTHUR:

Senator Matthew Canavan, Northern Australia Minister there talking to us about a couple of those issues.