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SPEECH - It's beyond time for the NAIF to start spending - and Northern Territory input is essential - Luke Gosling OAM MP | Federal Member for Solomon

SPEECH – It’s beyond time for the NAIF to start spending – and Northern Territory input is essential

CANBERRA – 25 March 2021

It is a particular pleasure to speak on this proposed Amendment Bill as it seems the Government has finally started to listening to the good ideas that we on this side of the House have been proposing.

In fact, the proposed Bill incorporates changes that we have been calling for the Government to make for years.

Deputy Speaker, it’s impossible for any informed observer of this process to escape the conclusion that the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility has been a colossal failure.

Let’s not forget that the NAIF has a budget of $5 billion.

As of October 30 last year, how much of the $5 billion do you think has been released?

Only a mere $218.4 million, that’s how much. $218.4 million since the initiation of the NAIF way back in 2016.

That’s less than 5 per cent of the fund spent over five years.

That is an appalling figure.

When you think about the vast untapped potential of Northern Australia, and the many projects that just need a hand to flourish and succeed, a tiny spend of $218.4 million is an appalling figure.

When you think about the great fanfare that attended the launch of the NAIF back in 2016, $218.4 million is an appalling figure.  

In fact, the NAIF has in fact now earned the nickname of “No Actual Infrastructure Fund”.

These challenges and problems are not new.

I’ve spoken about the NAIF many times in this place.

I’m sure you can understand that I have a great interest in the operations of a fund, dedicated as it is to facilitating public investments in infrastructure in the very region I have the honour of representing.

I remember making a contribution here in 2017, in fact:

“… the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility has had some difficulties in actually helping businesses—small businesses, medium businesses, even big businesses—thus far.

“We’re not happy with the $5 billion NAIF—it is yet another blatant exercise in pork-barrelling.”

That was my judgement after one year of observing the operation of the NAIF. I’ve seen nothing since to change that judgement.

But despite the Government’s stinginess with funding the exact projects that the NAIF was designed to support, the Government is proposing changes here which will bring some meaningful changes.

And that is a good thing.

If properly applied to the operations of the NAIF, these changes will improve immensely its ability to actually deliver funding to important projects.

Firstly, the purpose of financial assistance has been broadened.

Rather than focusing exclusively on construction of economic infrastructure – which excludes many different projects – the NAIF will be able to fund projects which promote the development of economic infrastructure in Northern Australia.

This may include buying equipment, leasing, training staff, and the expansion of existing business operations.

A further broadening is in relation to NAIF-eligible projects.

The Act, in its current form, requires that a project must create economic growth and stimulate population growth in Northern Australia.

The Bill before us will change that requirement to an either-or proposition, rather than requiring both objectives to be met by each project. 

Secondly, the NAIF will now be able to provide funds directly to the proponents of eligible projects.

Under the Act as it currently stands, funding can only flow to projects through state or territory governments.

I do not for a minute believe that the underperformance of the NAIF has been a consequence of the interference state and territory governments.

In fact, environmental groups have expressed concerns that the removal of state and territory governments from the process will make it more likely that projects with more serious environmental impacts are funded.

However, I will note that the governments in question – that of Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia – have all indicated that they’re comfortable with this change.

I believe amendments will be moved in the Senate to encourage NAIF investment in projects which are likely to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.  

Speaker, it’s been reported that Barry Coulter will be stepping down in June from the NAIF board. Barry is, of course, a former Deputy Chief Minister of the Northern Territory. He was quoted in the NT News this morning reflecting positively on his time on the board.

He expressed his pride at seven projects he had delivered for the Northern Territory:

  • The Humpty Doo Barramundi Farm,
  • the East Arm ship-lift project,
  • the Northern Territory Airport expansion project,
  • the development of the Charles Darwin University precinct,
  • the Merricks Capital Hudson Creek Power Station
  • and the Batchelor Solar Farm.

It’s quite a list, Speaker. But of these projects, as far as we can tell, only a few have actually been funded.

Bearing in mind that the figures we have available aren’t necessarily current, the three funded projects are:

  • the Barramundi farm at Humpty Doo,
  • the Airport expansion project,
  • and the Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia project.

Across the broader region of Northern Australia, only 10 projects have actually begun or completed construction.

The CDU expansion and the ship-lift facility are absolutely essential. We have committed on our side to get those projects done, once we are back in government. But until then, the NAIF should provide funding for these important projects.

With the departure of Barry Coulter, a new spot will open up on the NAIF board. Let me be clear to the Government: that spot must be filled by a Territorian.

The replacement of Barry by anyone other than a resident of the Territory will completely devalue and debase the NAIF.

The NAIF as an institution already requires rejuvenation and improvement. Without the representation of the Northern Territory, the improvement of the NAIF will be impossible.

Representation is important.

One thing this proposed Bill fails to do is consider how the NAIF could be meaningfully improved by expanding the representativeness of its board.

The NAIF board requires First Nation representation. The NAIF will be funding First Nations projects, and so they need a First Nations voice shaping their agenda.

I also believe that the Indian Ocean Territories must be included in our definition of Northern Australia.

Speaker, this bill is far from perfect. But it is an opportunity to meaningfully improve the NAIF, and make it actually deliver for Northern Australia.

I commend the Government for listening us and proposing to incorporate our changes.