Interview with Matt Brann, ABC NT Country Hour

Matt Brann
NAIF mandate, critical minerals

MATT BRANN, HOST: The Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, better known as the NAIF. It was set up in 2016 and the aim at the time was to stimulate development in the north by handing out concessional loans to companies with some big plans. Over the years, the NAIF, well, it's been heavily criticised. It's also been seen by some as being useful. And over the years it's been tweaked here and then. Well, the Federal Government has just tabled in parliament what it calls a new investment mandate for the NAIF. To learn more about this, I spoke a moment ago to the Minister for Northern Australia and Minister for Resources Madeleine King.

MADELEINE KING, MINISTER: Well, today we've launched the new investment mandate for the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. And what it's about is about making more funding available for a wider range of projects, because this Labor government knows how important the economic development of the north is. And that's why we have NAIF looking out for lots of different projects, a more expansive view of what's possible for the NAIF to support.

MATT BRANN: And when you say more funding, do you mean more dollars?

MADELEINE KING: Well, last year we already have expanded the amount of money that NAIF can contribute to these projects. It's up to a $7 billion facility. But now we are also widening the types of projects it can look into. So, for instance, we've instructed NAIF to extend its investment into social infrastructure. So, that might include remote and regional housing or other types of infrastructure and communities that benefit those communities on a smaller scale.

MATT BRANN: One of your colleagues famously called the NAIF the No Actual Infrastructure Fund. Lots of dollars committed, but no money actually going out the door. Has that story changed much in the last twelve months?

MADELEINE KING: I'm really happy to report that story has changed enormously. We have got so much funding out the door, we've had to extend the funding of the NAIF. And that's why we have gone up to the $7 billion mark available for the facility, because projects are being funded and they're working, and some of them, the older projects, are now returning money back into the budget as they repay these loans. So, my objective is to ensure that NAIF works harder for the North and for the people of the North. And so I've got teams in the NAIF and they do a really terrific job and they're spread right around the country, in Darwin, in Cairns, in Townsville and in Western Australia. So, they're on the ground looking for these projects and helping people who have that idea for a project and need a bit of assistance pulling the funding strings together, and the NAIF can back them in. So, it's really hands on now, the NAIF, to make sure these projects can happen for communities right across the Top End, from west to east.

MATT BRANN: In the announcement today about the NAIF's new investment mandate, it talks about how the NAIF can help Australia achieve its net zero target. How?

MADELEINE KING: Well the NAIF invests in critical minerals projects. And we know critical minerals are required for all the green energy technologies that we will need. So, part of the investment mandate is making sure that $500 million of the NAIF is focused on enabling the critical mineral strategy, and therefore the net zero emissions strategy of the whole nation. And this is part of, quite frankly, our global contribution to net zero. Because if we are able to invest in these projects and have these minerals and rare earths available to our partners to help us build those clean energy technologies, that's how we meet those targets.

MATT BRANN: And for you, what's the NAIF's greatest achievement?

MADELEINE KING: I think its greatest achievement is now having a wide portfolio of projects across a lot of activities and we're making it better.

MATT BRANN: You're not willing to say one?

MADELEINE KING: But there are too many, I couldn't choose. How can you choose favourites when the NAIF has got so many things going for it? I think the student accommodation up in Queensland has been really important. Something that's not often talked about is how important it is to have student accommodation available for campuses in the north so that people from all sorts of backgrounds can have access to university education in place. And I think that's a really important project that I am really super proud of. I'm super proud of the work NAIF has done into a number of critical minerals projects around the country, also into developing new salt projects, things you don't kind of think about. But we need salt not only for us as humans, but we also need it for chemical processes. So, it's just the diversity of the projects that I'm really proud of. And into the future, this focus or new focus on social infrastructure is really important. And just yesterday, I met with a traditional owner who alerted me to a potential housing project in Cairns, you know, more positive stories from the NAIF will emerge and they will be around this ability to create better housing opportunities as well as other economic development right across the north.

MATT BRANN: And just finally, Minister, I know you do have to go, critical minerals like nickel, lithium doing it really tough at the moment. Is this simply just the boom and bust nature of mining?

MADELEINE KING: Look, you could say that, but I think there's been a huge change in the situation for nickel with the incredible investment combined with an export ban in Indonesia. So, that's a very significant change in the international nickel market. So, it's not the same old, same old, boom and bust for resources. It's a new type of international market structure. And that's why I've met very recently and quickly with the industry leaders as well as the state government and WA, I mean most of these nickel projects are - mind you, there is a nickel refinery also in Tasmania that's been affected. So, it is such a change that we need to make sure we understand it better and we'll be working on some actions we can take forward about nickel in particular. Lithium is a bit different and I have warned, warned in the critical mineral strategy is a thin market that's very new. It's going to have these fluctuations for some time to come. But I might add, international markets and their vagaries is no consolation for the women and men who are facing uncertainty because of mine closures.

MATT BRANN: Thanks for your time this afternoon.

MADELEINE KING: Yeah, no worries. Take it easy.

MATT BRANN: That is the Minister for Northern Australia and Minister for Resources, Madeleine King.