2018 Northern Australia Statement

When this government announced its white paper on northern development three years ago, we mapped out a 20-year plan to develop the north, the first white paper by any Commonwealth government to develop Northern Australia. 

The government have made significant progress on implementing our plan, including the construction of roads, dams and other infrastructure, and three-quarters of the white paper's recommendations have been implemented.

During the past year, we have just gone past the 10 per cent time mark on our 20-year plan. While the progress we have made is substantial we must remember that true progress on northern development will take time. What is needed now is persistence to stick with the plan so that we can make a real difference.

This third annual statement tonight is noteworthy for the great momentum being built, the concrete results being delivered and the untapped potential being realised in a region that is already an economic powerhouse, for our nation yet has so much more to offer:

As I speak:

  • extensive road upgrades are connecting industry and producers to markets and making travel safer for northern communities,
  • industry-led research is generating productivity gains in industries that are critical to wealth creation,
  • water resource assessments are reducing the risks for investors to encourage financial commitment to major water storage infrastructure developments, and
  • each northern jurisdiction is benefiting from private sector investment thanks to the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility.

So far more than 74 per cent of the measures in the white paper have been implemented—that is, 38 of the 51 measures have been delivered. But our plan for the north was never intended to be a short-term agenda; we've continued to invest in it this year, the 2018-19 budget a clear indication of our commitment to its continuity.

Building world-class infrastructure

The northern agenda is a nation-building agenda, and it's rightly characterised as an infrastructure-driven agenda. Roads, railways, ports, airports, water and energy supply, telecommunications—they are all fundamental to the proper functioning of any modern economy. Making infrastructure development the linchpin of our plan for the north is therefore a necessary strategic objective.

It is gratifying to see that infrastructure development in the north, fostered by our agenda, is gathering pace. And all who live, work, do business and travel in the north stand to benefit. Nearly half of the 37 projects planned under the $700 million Northern Australia Roads Program and Northern Australian Beef Roads Program are either complete or underway. They are improving safety and access to services; more efficiently connecting communities and businesses to domestic and international markets; and allowing locals to earn money. These road upgrades are creating up to 2,400 direct jobs for the local communities involved, including significant business and employment opportunities for Indigenous people.

The impact of this investment is felt far beyond direct employment. Mayor Tom Gilmore of the Mareeba Shire Council in Far North Queensland says that on the Hann Highway the Northern Australia Roads Program is transforming vital infrastructure.

He says:

It will make an enormous difference to not only the lives of the people who live beside it, but also to the cattle, fruit and vegetable, agricultural and minerals industries.

It is heartening to hear that through these investments, we are driving economic growth in these industries.

In Western Australia works have commenced on the Cape Leveque Road, north of Broome on the Dampier Peninsula. The remaining 90 kilometres are being sealed, creating bigger opportunities for tourism and other industries. Twenty full-time positions on this project have been created for Aboriginal workers and 20 per cent of the subcontracted works are being delivered by Aboriginal businesses.

In the Northern Territory we are well underway with further upgrades to the Buntine Highway, one of the Northern Territory's high-priority cattle routes. This benefits the region's cattle industry with around 15 partial substations relying heavily on the Buntine Highway to get their cattle to markets. In our white paper, we identified the iconic Outback Way as a priority route right across the north.

The first of five new Queensland upgrades is now underway, with further upgrades planned for the Northern Territory and Western Australian roads that make up this inland route. This year we allocated a further $160 million towards the Outback Way, taking our overall commitment to $330 million for this nation-building project. We are on track to seal this third route, east-west, across our nation. These upgrades assist the communities and industries who rely on them for essential services and create potential for more employment and growth in the mining, agricultural and tourism sectors right across the north. We are building further on these roads initiatives.

This year's announcement of the Roads of Strategic Importance program, a decade-long commitment in this year's budget, invests an additional $1.5 billion directly in Northern Australia. The program will upgrade key agricultural and mining corridors to open up local supply chains and provide more reliable and safer transport links for freight, tourism and community road users. Access to domestic and export markets will be easier, enhanced through better connection to intermodal freight facilities. This investment will be a great boost to the northern economy and over the next decade will add to the jobs that have already been created.

Encouraging private investment

Since the last report, private sector engagement with our northern agenda has been steadily translated into actual investment with the help of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility—the NAIF. I have acknowledged that the NAIF's progress did not meet our initial expectations. The NAIF is an innovative way for governments to fund nation building infrastructure by partnering with private investors. It is understandable that it has taken some time and some refinements to make this new approach work.

Last year I commissioned a review by Tony Shepherd to investigate the NAIF's progress and suggest changes that could help unlock its funding. In response we have amended the NAIF's investment mandate to increase its flexibility and to improve its potential to support projects to deliver more jobs and economic opportunities across the north. These changes have expanded the types of infrastructure the NAIF can fund—from airports and energy networks to abattoirs—and increased the amount it can lend to some projects. It is my view that these changes have helped pick up the pace of NAIF funding.

The NAIF's total investment, including conditional approvals, is now nearly $1 billion, with a total new projects value of up to $2.3 billion. I want to thank Khory McCormick, the chair of the NAIF, Sharon Warburton, the previous chair, and their team for the dynamic way they have approached this task and turned things around. Their changed approach is helping to unlock new opportunities across Northern Australia.

Take, for example, the Pilbara, Western Australia's mining powerhouse. Earnings from that region alone, with a population of just 60,000 people, are larger than the individual economies of 119 countries. (i) Yet the Pilbara has more room to create additional wealth if the necessary infrastructure is in place. The NAIF is helping generate private investment for such infrastructure.

The government, through the NAIF, has provided a $19.5 million loan to a subsidiary of Pilbara Minerals Ltd to upgrade a 70-kilometre public road from its Pilgangoora mine, home to one of the world's largest known lithium ore deposits. The loan will help get lithium from the mine to the port more efficiently, boost exports of lithium from the Pilbara, and improve travel times and safety for a wide range of road users in the region. Lithium is, of course, used in batteries for a whole range of consumer products—from portable electric devices to electric vehicles. There is a huge growing demand for such batteries and the NAIF is making sure that Australia is best placed to capture a growing share of this global market.

Our first investment for the NAIF in Queensland will transform the James Cook University campus to be a university of the future. Their landmark Technology Innovation Complex will provide contemporary facilities for a new focus on engineering for the tropics. Public benefits will be around $700 million for the first 30 years.

The NAIF has also provided conditional approval for major upgrades to airport infrastructure in Darwin, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs. This includes investments in cold storage, an export hub, upgrades and solar energy farms with an off-site multiuse battery. This project alone is likely to generate 1,000 jobs through the construction phase, support around 500 indirect jobs, and create 140 new ongoing positions. The projects set the airports up for greater tourist numbers and allow producers to export fresh agriculture and aquaculture products direct to market.

Through investments like these, the NAIF is fulfilling its aim of helping the private sector access the capital it needs to help drive infrastructure and economic development in the north. I am pleased that, following our changes, we are seeing more investment decisions from the NAIF, and it is making a substantial contribution to the development of the north's economy.

Harnessing more of the north's water resources

We have made good progress in driving an agenda to develop new water infrastructure in Northern Australia too. The ability to capture and store more of the region's rainfall, which accounts for around 60 per cent of Australia's total rainfall, is critical to our agenda to develop the north. Currently, just two per cent of this rainfall is being used. (ii) The government's $580 million Northern Water Infrastructure Development Fund has committed $230 million to Northern Australian water projects. Nine of the 15 water infrastructure feasibility studies commissioned out of this funding have already been completed. We have committed just over $176 million to build the Rookwood Weir in cooperation with the Queensland government, $3 million to modernise the Nogoa Mackenzie Water Supply Scheme, and $11.6 million to modernise the Mareeba-Dimbulah Water Supply Scheme in North Queensland.

We now have more confidence in the north's potential for expanding agricultural production. Just recently the CSIRO completed scientific assessments that identified up to 387,000 hectares across key water catchments with the potential for agricultural crops such as sugar cane and cotton. These opportunities are in the Mitchell River catchment in Queensland, the Fitzroy River catchment in Western Australia, the Finniss River catchment in Adelaide, and the Mary River and Wildman River catchments around Darwin in the Northern Territory. The assessments have also identified 710,000 hectares of additional coastal land that could accommodate lined aquaculture ponds. The data from these assessments set a baseline for major advancement in irrigated agriculture, giving investors the information they need to reduce risks and make informed decisions to finance large-scale infrastructure in the north.

Fostering globally competitive industries

Another piece of encouraging progress over the past year is that more businesses and industries in northern Australia are getting support from Australia's world-class researchers to flourish and stay globally competitive. The government's investment in research and development in the north is fostering world-leading innovation such as smart supply chains and generating new ideas to capitalise on the region's strengths and address its challenges.

The work of the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia is an excellent example of the positive difference our investment is making in the north. With funding of $75 million over 10 years, the CRC is supporting industry-led research collaborations in food and agriculture, health service delivery and traditional-owner-led business developments. Last October, I announced seven collaborative research projects in northern Australia totalling $13.9 million that leveraged partnering contributions of $37 million.

Since then, the CRC for Developing Northern Australia has announced funding of almost $3.6 million towards 12 new industry-led projects with a combined project value of over $12 million. Just last month, the CRC announced its latest funding—a $500,000 grant to trial new methods to double the north's mango production and increase business profit margins. The three-year project is a collaboration between two large commercial mango growers—Manbulloo Ltd and BJM Enterprises—and the Australian Mango Industry Association, and the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. Grower Marie Piccone from Manbulloo, Australia's leading producer of Kensington Pride mangoes—they're coming back into season—says the CRC research and innovation has helped improve her company's performance. They're supplying Australian customers and exporting direct to the global industry. By streamlining the supply chain with automation in harvesting and packing, they're reducing their company's costs.

Growing demand for high-quality produce like mangoes from the north has led to new export opportunities. This research collaboration will ensure more Australian mangoes reach growing overseas markets, helping the mango industry to grow and create more jobs. Northern Australia is already a region of excellence in research on tropical health, medicine and environments. The government's investment in the north's R&D through the northern agenda means the region's research base is growing from strength to strength.

Greater collaboration

A promising outcome of our efforts in the north is that we are seeing greater collaboration and engagement with the agenda at all levels—government, industry and local communities. Since the inaugural Ministerial Forum on Northern Development a year ago, Australian government ministers responsible for northern development and our counterparts from the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland have been working together to advance the agenda.

In April we met for the second forum in Kununurra, where we agreed to continue to fund vital roads and water infrastructure, promote investment opportunities and create new jobs. We also agreed in principle to recommendations by the Indigenous Reference Group, comprising a group of leading Indigenous business representatives, and undertook to work closely to improve economic outcomes for Indigenous Australians in the north.

A stronger economy in the north cannot be achieved without the economic participation of Indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians make up about 15 per cent of the population in northern Australia and in the Northern Territory this figure is even higher, at over 25 per cent. I am pleased to be working with Indigenous business leaders on strategies to help get more people into jobs, get the right support for Indigenous entrepreneurs and help our traditional owners realise the economic potential of their land, sea and cultural assets. I thank Indigenous Affairs Minister Senator Nigel Scullion and the Indigenous Reference Group for their work in progressing this essential aspect of developing the north.


The review of the first three years of the government's northern Australia agenda shows progress being made but there is a lot more work to do. These annual statements to parliament themselves create pressure and energy to help maintain the momentum on the northern. We must maintain this pressure to ensure that the next 17 years of our northern Australia agenda continues to make progress. That is a task for all Australians that support the development of our country. Tonight 160-odd guests will join me here in parliament to continue to sell the message about the enormous opportunities that exist in northern Australia. Our plan is a plan for all of these Australians—indeed, all Australians—and we need to work together to see this plan to its conclusion.

1 Pilbara Development Commission (2018) Pilbara Economic Snapshot, Edition 1, August 2018 http://www.pdc.wa.gov.au/application/files/9615/3535/6982/Pilbara_Economic_Snapshot_August_2018.pdf

2 The White Paper on Developing Northern Australia: Our North, Our Future, page 40 https://www.industry.gov.au/sites/g/files/net3906/f/June%202018/document/pdf/nawp-fullreport.pdf and 2016 Annual Statement https://www.minister.industry.gov.au/ministers/canavan/speeches/northern-australia-annual-statement

Additional information

Visit http://northernaustralia.gov.au for the 2018 Developing Northern Australia Implementation Report and the Our North | Our Future video.

I table this statement and seek leave to have this statement incorporated in Hansard.

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