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Northern Australia Agenda Select Committee
15/12/2020

BAWDEN, Mr Lyall (Jack), Mayor, Carpentaria Shire and Chair, North West Queensland Regional Organisation of Councils

IRVINE, Ms Darlene, Executive Officer, Far North Queensland Regional Organisation of Councils

[10:06]

CHAIR: I now welcome representatives of the Far North Queensland Regional Organisation of Councils and Councillor Jack Bawden, from the Carpentaria Shire Council. Thanks for travelling all this way to speak to us today, Mayor. I appreciate you letting us run a bit over time with the previous panel. As you could see, there were still a lot of questions there.

I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. I now invite each of you to make a short opening statement and then we will have some questions.

Mr Bawden : If you think that I am going to be as eloquent as Dr Dale, I'm going to be a big disappointment. I'd like to thank Senator McDonald for the invitation to appear today. All I am going to do is give you a view of a remote area with a small population—my patch, basically. I have no idea what is happening in northern Australia, in Western Australia or the Northern Territory, but I can tell you what is happening in the Gulf and the north west. Our biggest issue is population. We're losing our population. We've got an ageing population and all our young ones are moving south. So developing northern Australia is really important to me, and the only way to achieve this, in my view, is to grow our population, and everything else will follow.

Senator Roberts mentioned taxation. I love the sound of an economic zone. It doesn't have to be a permanent thing. I have no idea how you'd work it out, but it could be a temporary thing until your population reached a certain number so that the council could be self-sufficient and the area is producing. But, to my way of thinking, in this day and age of connectivity, which is a bit of a bugbear where I'm from, there's no reason businesses can't set up in western Queensland and service the east coast, instead of the other way around. Accountants are a prime example. You have the internet and you can do that sort of thing. With a taxation flat rate or whatever in our area that could be a family or something living in our town paying rates, going to school. Population grows everything. Get your population grown and everything follows: housing affordability, medical, education. It all follows, in my view, with population, because population demands it.

We can talk about all the shortfalls, where I am, like Professor Dale touched on, like insurance, the reluctance of financial institutions to lend money. That's all crippling. I don't know how you go about fixing that. Because our postcode of an area comes up with a red flag down south, a bank will say, 'No'. It doesn't matter how good the proposal is, it doesn't matter how secure the proposal is, it just comes up. You have a 21-year-old—no offence to 21-year-olds—somebody who has no idea of where you are or what is going on, and because the data in the computer says no the answer's 'No'. That's unjust and it's wrong. In Normanton you can't get insurance on a boat. We're 70 kay off the coast, yet an insurance company won't insure our boats. It's crazy. I think RACQ will do it. They're about the only ones.

We've got all these little things that are holding us back. We can talk about the federal government and the state government concentrating on roads, communications and all the rest of it but, at the end of the day, that will all come if we can get our population back. As far as I'm concerned, it's pretty cut and dry. I'll shut up now Thank you.

CHAIR: No worries; thanks, Mr Bawden. We'll come back with some questions in a tick. Ms Irvine?

Ms Irvine : Thank you, and apologies from the new chair, Mayor Michael Kerr, at Douglas Shire Council who couldn't be here today. Since we did our submission, back in September 2019, there have been some changes that have occurred. I'll touch on three things that are important to our region, which are roads, telecommunications and water security. In terms of roads, I haven't managed to do this by email yet but I would like to thank the assistant minister for requiring regional road and transport groups to develop investment strategies for the ROSI funding and for future investment as well. It is the first time, I think, in 15 years that TMR have come to the table with their planning or lack thereof, going forward, and have to work with us. It excites me a lot. That's a little bit naughty, but it does.

From the FNQROC perspective, we're very much focused on an evidence base to our advocacy work. We spent a lot of money and a lot of time on our evidence base. For our roads, we're finalising our regional road investment strategy, at the moment, which is looking at our heavy vehicle network, our first and last miles, and our tourism network. In terms of our heavy vehicle network, including structures, there is $761 million in existing deficits in our road network. On top of that, we have the Kuranda Range Road and the Palmerston, which is significantly higher than what was in the Infrastructure Australia audit back in 2015 and it is, I suspect, significantly lower than the reality by about 30 per cent.

In terms of telecommunication, we also undertook an audit of our mobile telecommunication network on the heavy-vehicle routes and tourism routes. Seventy per cent are in a black spot, versus one per cent in urban areas of Australia. It impacts on our economy, our road safety, our survivability in an incident, and tourism growth. I acknowledge that the federal government has released Mobile Black Spot Program round 5, which is focused on the areas that aren't economically viable for telecommunications networks, but the problem is that those areas generally sit with the local governments to develop or to work with the telecommunications service providers on. They don't have the knowledge or the resources to do that. It kind of looks like we're not interested, but we don't have the skills.

There's another piece of work we have done on water security. I heard the tail end of you talking to Allan Dale about this. We have a study, which is nearing the end of its term, into the long-term economic benefits of dams in Australia. We have looked at four dams. We looked at Tinaroo, Wellington, Copeton and San Luis. It was at the request of Infrastructure Australia to include an international example. We compared that against the base case of Rockhampton. Oricon did a presentation on that at the Developing Northern Australia Conference two weeks ago. They're still finalising the economics around that, in terms of housing, schooling and that sort of thing. We did that because, firstly, it hadn't been done in Australia before, which we were really surprised about, even though it had been required as part of some funding, and we also did it because previous productivity reviews into the national framework on water identified that there was no evidence to support economic growth as a result of dams. We wanted to get that evidence base rather than it being anecdotal.

My final point is that one of the most frustrating things in this region is the clash between the federal and state governments. To be honest, I have to praise the federal government for investing more in the road network in the last seven years than I've seen in the last 20 years and significantly more than the state government. I'm so very grateful for that because, other than that, we would be struggling. We continually find that, where we get federal government support for initiatives in our region, the state government won't stand behind it. Their focus seems to be on 'This is my opinion on South-East Queensland,' and it seems to be focused on spending money on commuter use. An example is the Cross River Rail. If we had the same investment of $6.7 billion in northern Australia, the return on investment would be significantly higher, long term and growing compared to what I call commuter route investment in Brisbane.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your evidence. Mayor Bawden, there's the point about financers not investing because they don't understand the north. I just had a look at the opening statement you sent us. That seems to be an issue for the commercial banks and some of the government finance bodies, like the NAIF, as well. What can you tell us about the NAIF that could be changed to encourage a bit more investment in northern Australia?

Mr Bawden : The NAIF needs to lower the amount able to be borrowed and bring it back to an affordable level for small business. I talk about population growing in the north. Small business is a critical part of growing the north. We have small businesses in the Gulf that have been there for 30 years. Their owners have run out of puff. They're tired and they're cranky. They've lost all their politeness, but they can't sell, because of lack of finance. If NAIF lowers their lending down to $500,000—I think they were talking about dropping it to a million—that is still out of reach of your average Joe Blow mum and dad show where I come from. We need to get that young keenness back in our areas to promote growth. I don't know whether NAIF could put a ring around $50 million or $100 million or something and say that that's small business and underwrite the banks. All I'm saying is that NAIF is out of reach for the average business, and the lack of interest from financial institutions is crippling the north.

CHAIR: The reason that I focused in on the NAIF is that it is probably a bit easier for a committee like ours to make recommendations about changing a government organisation than to make recommendations around the commercial banks. Do you have any suggestions on what could be done around the commercial banks to encourage them to invest a bit more up here?

Mr Bawden : Loosen their purse strings. I don't know, mate—finance is nowhere near my strong point. A prime example of being held back is the guy in Normanton who is trying to build a roadhouse. Initially, that would have been a million dollar project. He's had to cash his super in. He's only half built it, and he's got the workshop. How he has to go about doing it is a joke. He has just turned 70 and this is where he is at now with no super. His son is keen as mustard, so his son will keep it. That's what the investment is for—to keep the family going. With a bank loan, he could have been up and running 12 months ago, and here he is today still mucking around trying to build this and build that. He has had to change the plan with council about five times.

CHAIR: You both mentioned communications infrastructure. Is it simply a matter of having more investment to eliminate some of the mobile blackspots and to improve internet speeds? Does it really come down to the investment levels needed?

Mr Bawden : My view is that this communications thing is going to finish up as hairy as a dog's back, because everybody is doing their own thing and we're not communicating. We're not very good communicators. There needs to be a uniform or blanket. You guys need to say, 'Righto, this is how we're going to approach it,' and put Telstra back on equal pegging with Optus and all the other companies out there. Let them all use the infrastructure and then let them develop. At the moment, in the Gulf, we've probably got three or four projects. One is in Cloncurry. Croydon's talking. Dr Dale was in Croydon the other day. There is another one in Normanton. There's no way in the world that we're all coordinated. We need to be coordinated.

Ms Irvine : From my perspective, the frustrating thing—and I'm involved in the project that Allan Dale was talking about—is that we're having to fight to find innovative ways to find solutions for these pockets. The frustrating thing is that it's our resources, it's our time and it's our money. That is just a given in urban areas, and they don't have to fight for these telecommunications. Councils such as Cairns or Brisbane don't have to develop up solutions for mobile communications; it happens. It happens because it is a business prospect for Telstra, Vodaphone and Optus. It is not a viable business option up here. We spend time, money and resources on finding innovative solutions for that, when they could be spent on normal council business, or services that we provide to the community under normal council business.

CHAIR: Can I clarify something, Mr Bawden. Was the point you were just making that the individual projects that need better communications across north-west Queensland are not big enough in their own right to get the big communications players dealing with them, but if you could coordinate those projects they'd get the scale that you need? Is that what it's about?

Mr Bawden : I believe so, yes. Again, how you go about that is beyond me. We're in danger of finishing up with a second-grade service that we've all gone out and done ourselves, and we shouldn't have to. I know the ratio for the tax break-up, and local governments get three per cent. Like Darlene said, we've got better things to do with three per cent of tax money than play with things like communications.

Senator McDONALD: There was some commentary earlier about bloated local governments. I just want to put on record that I think local governments, particularly in regional and remote areas, are the most important level of government. You're the ones who are at the coalface of these real human issues and investment issues. I note the increasing amount of regulation that's put on local government, which, Ms Irvine, you touched upon. You don't have the resources or the expertise to take on some of these things, which no level of government then addresses. So you are at the coalface.

Mayor, I want to touch on the specific issue of lending. We can talk around different levels of government and lending—and of course that's why the NAIF was introduced, to fill the private investment hole—but you raised the really specific example of a service station. In a remote community—where you have cattle trucks, ore trucks, tourists—there is no more important business than a refuelling and service point, yet that business wasn't able to get funding from the NAIF, because it was too small, or from private banking. So with this idea of risk in northern Australia the chair makes a very good point: it is easier for us as this committee to make recommendations to the federal government, because that's where we come from. But I do think it is the role of this committee to tease out why we couldn't have private capital, the bank's capital, coming into a business like a petrol station in a remote area that services the royalties that the rest of the state lives off. You said that you're not the most eloquent presenter, but I'm not interested in that; I'm interested in the stuff you know. We'll just put a pin in that, because I think we need to come back to why it is that Australian banks aren't lending to Australian businesses that drive the financial success of the nation.

Ms Irvine, could we just go back to roads. You made the point about the ROSI funding and the federal government funding. I understand from the Queensland Audit Office that the Queensland government is $6 billion behind in regional road maintenance spending, and a specific project in your neck of the woods is the road out of Kowanyama. Every two years you spend $11 million on regravelling the road, but nobody will seal it.

Ms Irvine : I can't talk about Kowanyama because I'm not familiar with it, sorry.

Senator McDONALD: But the mayor can.

Ms Irvine : Yes.

Senator McDONALD: That's correct, isn't it: $11 million every two years to regravel and surface that road?

Mr Bawden : Yes, at least every couple of years. The gravel has to be imported; that's why the bill is so high. We did it a couple of years ago—three years ago—at a cost of about $13 million, and then in the last wet it got washed away. It's going to be an ongoing QRA or EMA problem forever and a day. Our view is: it's built to a standard to put seal on it; why not put seal on it? We know that you can't utilise it during the wet—everyone understands that and gets that—but the fact is that, after the wet goes, it will be still there and not washed away.

Senator McDONALD: Can we just talk about the wet. I'm really keen to get on the agenda that, in regions like yours, the roads are cut for three months of the year. That's three months where you cannot get a truck in, to get supplies or fuel in or to get sick people out by road. I just think it's very important that we understand that, as to the northern Australia agenda, particularly in the cape. I think people in other parts of the state don't understand the challenges. You have a state government that is spending money, over and over again, on something that could be solved for the longer term. Then during the dry season it's all bulldusty, which is a problem in itself, isn't it?

Mr Bawden : One of our ratepayers up there, at Koolatah Station, have five months of productivity and then storms, as you know, start to pull them up. So it's not much of a window in a working year.

Senator McDONALD: It makes it hard to supply to contracts if you can only get out, reliably, five months of the year. We've touched on capital, but can we talk about insurance? You said that only RACQ would insure a boat at Normanton. How does that work? I understand that, during the winter months, Karumba goes from 200 people to 5,000, or something like that. So this is a significant tourist asset for Queensland. How do you go with services, and businesses providing services to all those tourists?

Mr Bawden : That's my ageing business! How do you mean, Senator?

Senator McDONALD: I'm just thinking about the businesses who are supporting them. Can they get insurance? Can they get finance to sell the business? Do you have internet access that's fast enough to deal with 5,000 people when it's built for 200?

Mr Bawden : No, you can't. I've never seen this before and I wouldn't have believed it until I actually did see it: one of the shops at Karumba Point, near the tavern, would get you your cappuccino, and then they'd hand you a piece of paper and say: 'Come back later when the signal is better. You owe me $4.50,' or whatever it is for a cup of coffee. That's how bad it is. They don't have ADSL—it's wi-fi—and their EFTPOS machines wouldn't work, so they'd hand you a piece of paper and say: 'You owe me'!

Senator McDONALD: It's the ultimate honour system, isn't it! Chair, I'll hand back to Senator Roberts, if you could come back to me, please?

CHAIR: Sure. Senator Roberts.

Senator ROBERTS: Senator McDonald, earlier I said 'bloated central government'—

Senator McDONALD: I'm sorry.

Senator ROBERTS: not 'councils', because I was trying to lead into the argument that councils are getting done over. You've got social cohesion problems, Dr Dale said, right through northern Australia, and family issues. I'd like to focus on council authority and councils' ability to actually do their job. Do you have any comments on that? I really meant what I said. Central government is bloated, and the councils are dependent on central government, so you're really being governed by Canberra.

Mr Bawden : That's a hard one. Who's listening?

Senator ROBERTS: The whole world! It seems to be councils are bedevilled.

Mr Bawden : One of our biggest expenses, from Carpentaria's point of view, apart from depreciation, is compliance. The compliance part of running a council is humungous. EBA laws and all the different bits of legislation that are put in place that suit Brisbane and the cities don't suit remote areas. We're not big enough. We can't afford to have a building certifier on hand all day, every day, 52 weeks of the year.

Senator ROBERTS: You have to bring him or her in?

Mr Bawden : We have to fly them in. So, when you talk about developing northern Australia, the cost of building blows it out. Councils make a point of pretty much donating land. We keep the price to come out square on anything we develop, but, where I'm from, consultants don't fly in in the morning, look at your building and then fly out the afternoon; they fly in the day before and then they fly out the next day. It costs probably $2,500 or $3,000 just to get them there, and then they charge you on top of that. The expense becomes a real drag for anyone trying to build something.

Senator ROBERTS: I was at the Balonne Shire Council in February 2017 and asked them what percentage of their annual revenue comes from the federal government and I was staggered to learn it was 73 per cent—nearly three-quarters. I guess yours is probably as high. The second thing that came with that is the realisation that they rely on grants. Some of the grants were for three years and some were for five years. How the hell can you have a long-term plan if that's the case? It also means the funding comes attached with conditions. Balonne Shire Council is doing a good job, but it's not really Balonne Shire Council that ultimately runs Balonne Shire Council; it's the federal government that runs the Balonnne Shire Council. I'm looking at your map of Carpentaria. How far is it from north to south and east to west? And what are the major towns, just to give people who are listening an idea. And what is the total population?

Mr Bawden : It's probably about 2,000. It hovers around 1,800 or 2,000.

Senator ROBERTS: Two thousand is the total number of people?

Mr Bawden : That's the total for the whole shire. We have 64½ thousand square kilometres of shire.

Senator ROBERTS: How far from north to south?

Mr Bawden : It would be 400 to 450 kays.

Senator ROBERTS: Further than from the Gold Coast to the tip of the north coast.

Mr Bawden : I do a lot of field work and, if I do a service run from near Dunbar, come back and then go west a little bit, I've been to Cairns and back, which is 1,400 kays.

Senator ROBERTS: Fourteen hundred kilometres?

Mr Bawden : A day's work for me is around a thousand kilometres.

Senator ROBERTS: How far is it from east to west, roughly?

Mr Bawden : It depends on where you're going. One part of it is 60 kays. It's very long and skinny, basically. The boundary to Croydon is 60 kays. The boundary to Cloncurry is 200 kays. Across to Burke is probably 250 kays.

Senator ROBERTS: So the distance, travelling from the top of the Sunshine Coast to the south of the Gold Coast, is short compared to what you have to do. You said you have a population of 2½ thousand. Your main town is Normanton, Karumba and Kowanyama?

Mr Bawden : No—Kowanyama is its own.

Senator ROBERTS: What other major towns are there?

Mr Bawden : Kowanyama is our northern neighbour and Burketown is our western neighbour, and Cloncurry is 400 kays south.

Senator ROBERTS: What's the population in Normantown and Karumba?

Mr Bawden : About 2,000.

Senator ROBERTS: Those combined have 2,000. What do they have each?

Mr Bawden : Two hundred and fifty for Karumba. That swells to thousands during the tourist season.

Senator ROBERTS: So you've got a highly variable population?

Mr Bawden : Karumba is a bit of a nightmare, because they stretch our resources to the limit during the season.

Senator ROBERTS: What's it like being a mayor? You just mentioned compliance requirements, a small population and onerous regulations, and then we heard Dr Dale talking about the need to have a cohesive, integrated approach. I interpreted that to mean that the state government isn't talking to the federal government as well as it should be and not talking to the council. What we picked up in the Balonne Shire Council, for example, is that they're impacted by the federal government policies in the Murray-Darling Basin and just getting smashed around. I can see Ms Irvine smiling knowingly. They didn't get anywhere with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, even though it was destroying their council area, until they put all the relevant people in a room together, and everyone was stunned to realise that they had 13 different agencies involved. How many do you have? Have you counted them? It must be a nightmare.

Mr Bawden : Health is probably a good one to use. We've got pretty much every available health agency there is. We've got federal and state together. There are three of them now. There's North and West Remote Health, Queensland Health and there's Gidgee Healing, which is federal. They're trying very hard to work together. I have to admit that it's better than it was five years ago, but they still lack coordination. For example, we'll have a dentist or an orthodontist turn up in town from one agency this week and then another agency will bring them in the following week. They don't get them over six months or whatever; they'll all turn up together. We can't complain about the money that's being spent on health in Normanton or Carpentaria, but what we can complain about is the lack of coordination or cohesiveness, or whatever you want to call it.

Senator ROBERTS: So, as the mayor, you'd have to deal with different agencies in different disciplines. Health is one area. What are some of the other areas you have to you interact with? You've got roads.

Mr Bawden : Roads, yes. By default, we've become part of GPS and part of the police service and we inherit day care, funeral services—you name it. In a small town you do everything—you have to. If you want liveability, council has to provide those services.

Senator ROBERTS: Hopefully, people can now understand why you said that compliance is such a huge cost.

Mr Bawden : Yes.

Senator ROBERTS: You talked about Koolatah Station. So they only have a five-month window to get their supplies in and their products out?

Mr Bawden : That's to muster, brand, wean and move their cattle around and ship cattle out.

Senator ROBERTS: So, in addition to the variation in the weather, which is quite large up in the Cape, they've also got variable road conditions and so much in the way of different government departments, state, federal, local, affecting them. It must be a nightmare to try to coordinate all that lot.

Mr Bawden : It's not easy. Our ROCs do a good job. I'm in the North West ROC and I'm also part of Darlene's mob. Darlene and Greg Hoffman—I don't know whether you know him from the north west—do a remarkable job in keeping us all working together. Without the ROCs we would be like lost sheep running around doing our own thing and getting nowhere.

Senator ROBERTS: Ms Irvine, which are the councils that are part of your ROC?

Ms Irvine : Cairns, Cassowary, Cook, Croydon, Carpentaria, Douglas, Hinchinbrook, Hope Vale, Mareeba, Tablelands, Yarrabah, Wujal Wujal and Etheridge.

Senator ROBERTS: There's a lot of diversity in the requirements of the councils—Cassowary, Cairns, right through to Wujal Wujal.

Ms Irvine : Yes. There are three distinct areas. There are the western councils. I meet with them separately. That's Etheridge, Croydon, Carpentaria. We invite Burke to participate in that as well. Then you've got your coastal councils and hinterland councils, which includes Mareeba, Tablelands and Hinchinbrook up to Cook. Cook straddles both that coastal stuff as well as the Indigenous. Then you have Cook, Wujal, Wujal, Hope Vale and Yarrabah, which have their own distinct issues as well.

Senator ROBERTS: Then you've got Cairns with its community, and small Aboriginal communities.

Ms Irvine : Yes. That's Wujal Wujal, Hope Vale and Yarrabah. It is quite surprising that they are interlinked in terms of their needs and the services that are provided. There are two distinct examples of where there's that link. One that we're currently talking about is the kidney transplant unit. We're looking for it to be based in Cairns, because the need is from those Indigenous communities, the higher number of transplants. So there's a real Indigenous story around that kidney transplant unit being in Cairns so that they can stay with the support of their family and their culture and that sort of thing. Even Kuranda Range Road, when you talk about the Indigenous councils, that connects them with their communities. It connects them with their families and country. It also connects them back to education and health, all those sorts of things that are provided by Cairns. So there's still that link between all of them in terms of the priorities on a regional basis of what they want and what they need. Whilst they're distinct, they are also inter-related in terms of what they need and what they can provide.

Senator ROBERTS: So you also have a range of cultures there as well as the physical needs.

Ms Irvine : Yes.

Senator ROBERTS: It's difficult to coordinate.

Ms Irvine : It's like herding cats.

Senator ROBERTS: Then there are different people hanging onto turf—federal, state, local? Mayor Bawden is nodding.

Ms Irvine : They can be parochial. It's about understanding—it's a big learning curve for local governments. There's a difference between—local governments can be parochial to their areas, because that's what important to them. That's what they're passionate about. The state government is looking from a state-wide perspective, and they're looking at what's important to them. From the federal government, understandably, there's the whole of Australia that you have to consider, and you can't understand everything that happens in all of Australia. It's a change in culture.

Senator ROBERTS: So it comes back to what Dr Dale was saying: social cohesion is probably the first thing that needs to be sorted out. I don't want to use those words, but that needs to be understood and solutions addressed to that right across the north.

Ms Irvine : I don't think you can look at one thing in isolation. Everything plays a part in the collective view.

Senator ROBERTS: It's a big issue, though.

CHAIR: Can I put one of the things that Dr Dale raised this morning to you? I don't think I'm misquoting him here. He was basically saying that one of the gaps in the northern Australia agenda is a really clear sense of direction from the federal government about what it sees as the priority industries for each region and the support that all levels of government can provide to deliver on those opportunities. Do you think that is a valid concern? Do you get a sense that there is a clear direction, or do you think that there's something missing there?

Ms Irvine : I don't think there's an agreed clear direction from both the state and federal governments to allow us to go forward. The federal government has been supportive of the issues we've gone forward with, and the state government hasn't. We don't have a clear direction. I think the biggest problem is not having a clear direction from the states in terms of their priorities and where they see us going forward, that we can then work with them and the federal government to drive those to make those happen and enable those to happen. It takes all three levels. At the moment we don't know what the state government's vision is for our region. We continue to be hampered in terms of the infrastructure for economic growth. It would be good to know what the state's vision is for water security and agricultural growth in our region. We'd need that.

CHAIR: How big an issue is workforce shortage? Mayor, you've talked a lot about population decline and ageing. Having the workforce that you need for the industries is obviously part of the picture there. Do you think that there is more action needed on that front, as well?

Mayor Bawden : Yes, I do. At the moment you can't even find a truck driver. I'm not putting them down or anything, but machinery operators and truck drivers are usually in demand, but there's usually plenty to go around. This last year, this last season has been a real struggle for the contractors trying to find workers. I've noticed, driving around Cairns and the tablelands, wherever you drive there's 'help wanted' or 'staff wanted'. There are signs up everywhere. I don't want to bite the hand that feeds us, but one of the biggest setbacks for us, where I come from, is that JobSeeker or JobKeeper or whatever it is. It's become a real pain. People won't work. People don't want to work. They resign and say, 'Why should I come in and work for you and be yelled at'—depending on how they get on with their boss—'when I can sit home and get better money.' It's become a real nightmare.

CHAIR: What are you seeing in terms of training opportunities for people across your regions, whether it be for those sorts of roles or other roles that require particular qualifications?

Mayor Bawden : There's a big opening for all that sort of stuff, like machinery operators, all the different trades. If it was made more attractive for employers to put apprentices on you would get a bigger uptake. It's been a fair while since I've been involved in the trade industry, but I know that when I was a practising auto electrician the hassle and the problems that you'd have employing an apprentice just made it not worthwhile. So I didn't do it. I had one go and gave it away. Red tape, compliance—workplace health and safety is crippling our country, not just us. It's become a nightmare. Wherever you turn, the cost—just on roadworks, the cost of signage, the cost of traffic controls. Where I come from, we don't have those guys parked down the street in a depot somewhere. We've got to get them in. They come from Cairns or Townsville, and that adds huge money to your funding for roads. If there were a commonsense approach—obviously you've got to have road safety and you've got to have everything in place, but the overkill side of it is too much.

It doesn't matter whether you're a private company or local government or who you are; everybody gets banged. My son works down here on boats. He can't run one wire. He can't walk on the boat. He has to put a JSA in—or whatever you call them—to go and reprogram a computer on a boat, and he has to have a hard hat and safety boots. All that takes time and costs money. When you're paying somebody to go and do that sort of stuff, it becomes a real expense.

CHAIR: There is another thing I'd be interested to know. Obviously, your regions both have pretty high Indigenous populations. We haven't talked at all about Indigenous economic development—what you're seeing that's working and what you're seeing that's not working. Can you give us any ideas there?

Ms Irvine : From a regional perspective—I'll give a regional perspective and you can do the local one—what we see at the crux of all of this, in terms of Indigenous employment and their future, is social housing in the first instance. There is significant overcrowding in our Indigenous communities, and a lot of Indigenous people won't report the numbers of people staying in their houses, because they have a fear that it'll impact on the rent that they need to pay. COVID really highlighted the numbers sitting in there. You could have anything from 12 to 20 people in there. That impacts on any of the kids who are in there. It impacts their education. It stifles their education. It impacts health. It impacts people's ability to work, get a good night's rest, eat well, sleep well and do everything else. That is the core and the crux of what will help our Indigenous communities going forward.

Mr Bawden : Yes, housing's always an issue—Indigenous and otherwise—where I come from and pretty much all through the west. There's actually an Indigenous project or whatever in Normanton, going across the road from the supposed roadhouse at the moment. All the plans are underway, and I just hope that they're getting the funding and the help that they need. I'm not sure where they've gone for it, but that will benefit the whole shire. They're setting up a roadhouse type facility—not so much a mechanic, but they're setting up a supermarket, which, if it's run properly in the way they say they're going to do it, should increase people's buying power and give us decent food at a decent price.

One of the things I always keep coming back to is that if you make it worthwhile for someone to work then they will. Our unemployment rate is over 30 per cent. Again, I can blame JobSeeker for that, or JobKeeper, but the fact is that, when you have a family that's sitting there with Mum and Dad on the dole and Nanna and Pop getting assistance to raise the kids, it becomes a not-very-productive circle, and that's where you get uncreating and all the rest of it. If you made it so that, for the ones who can work, it is worth their while to work, without taking their benefits off them—let them keep their free medical and all the rest of it, except for, say, their basic wage—so that the more they work the more they earn, you would find that people would work.

CHAIR: That's a good idea, isn't it?

Ms Irvine : Yes. Hope Vale did an awesome job in building up the capability within their town. They had works crews, and they had the trades to build the houses and that sort of thing. The problem with that is that, when funding for those programs is stopped, they then have to let them go, so they leave those communities and don't then on-skill, train up and take on those apprentices. So they need that assistance. They need those ongoing programs so that they can get these up and running and supported, and that just grows. Hope Vale is a great example of what they've been able to achieve, but they've lost a lot of that because they lost road funding and they lost that housing program as well.

CHAIR: Thanks.

Senator McDONALD: I won't take too long. I know we've got some time pressures. Mayor, earlier you touched on electricity security. Your electricity supply for the Carpentaria shire comes from where?

Mr Bawden : It used to be Collinsville. It probably still is.

Senator McDONALD: If you have a storm in Townsville, what happens to your electricity?

Mr Bawden : It depends on whether it's on the Hervey Range or not. Sometimes we go three or four days without power.

Senator McDONALD: How often would that happen?

Mr Bawden : Not often. That's probably happened three times in the last 10 years. But the damaging thing for us is the brownouts, where you get half power. That costs a lot of money. With a blackout, everything switches off and resets or whatever. With a brownout, all the freezers and aircons and things struggle, and they burn out. That's probably the big damage.

Senator McDONALD: How often would that happen?

Mr Bawden : In every wet—every year.

Senator McDONALD: So every year there'd be some burning out of motors and gear and whatnot?

Mr Bawden : Yes.

Senator McDONALD: Does that limit the sorts of businesses that can operate in town? Are people using their own generators as well? What are they doing?

Mr Bawden : Most businesses up there are pretty self-sufficient and have their own power plants for these emergencies.

Senator McDONALD: It's another example of North Queensland and north Australia really being left to remain resilient and reliant on their own resources, isn't it?

Mr Bawden : Due to necessity.

Senator McDONALD: Due to necessity—that's exactly right. I would like to go back to your comments on JobSeeker. We had debate on that in the Senate last week, and there was a strong view from senators who live in the big cities about keeping JobSeeker. They don't understand how desperate workforce shortages are in regional Australia. I would just like you to give those of us here a bit more thought on this. Perhaps we need a regionally based JobSeeker, so it stays in places where there are fewer jobs but, in places where there are lots of jobs, JobSeeker should be phased out faster.

Mr Bawden : My knowledge of that is probably pretty limited.

Senator McDONALD: I've put you on the spot. I'm not expecting you to provide a big response. It just goes to your point about there being jobs that aren't being filled because JobSeeker is filling that income stream for people.

Mr Bawden : Yes. I myself, if I could pull $1,400 a week, wouldn't go to work either.

CHAIR: It's not that much. It's not even close to that much.

Mr Bawden : When you start adding up dependants and families, it is. I hate to tell you, but it is.

Ms Irvine : There is a cafe up in Cook shire, in Cooktown, that hasn't been able to reopen, because of JobSeeker. They haven't been able to get the staff. The staff were casual previously, and they refuse to come back, because they don't need the money. With the domestic market opening up, there are lots of hospitality businesses that haven't been able to get staff back into work. Because we've lost the international market, we don't have the fruit pickers. Nobody's interested in doing that. It's hard yakka. Why would you if you're receiving JobSeeker?

Senator McDONALD: Thank you for getting that on the record. Ms Irvine, we talked earlier today about the lack of access to insurance. Is this something that the councils—the ROC—are talking about? Is insurance something that's on your agenda?

Ms Irvine : It's not on our agenda, and the reason it's not on our agenda is that we don't have the knowledge or expertise to come up with a solution. When there's an issue, we like to have an understanding of what the solution could be. I've been in my job for 20 years. I can't remember when insurance wasn't an issue up here. Everybody says that they're going to work on fixing it, and they haven't been able to to date. So it's one of those things where, from my perspective and from a ROC perspective, I'd rather invest our time and energy in those things that we can change.

Senator McDONALD: There's nothing like paying the premium yourself to keep it top of mind, is there? As a final question, do you think you've been given enough opportunity to participate in discussions about development for northern Australia, at both a federal government agenda level and a state government agenda level? Is it an agenda item that comes up when you see government?

Mr Bawden : There's very little promotion, I hate to say. The only time you hear of development of northern Australia is when the conference is being held. It's not out there. When you gave me this invitation I had to actually think, 'What's this going to entail?' I didn't go to the last conference, so I wasn't aware of anything that had happened down there, and I probably haven't been talking development of northern Australia since the one here in Cairns.

Senator ROBERTS: Two or three years ago.

Mr Bawden : So, in a word, no, we don't hear federally and we don't hear from the state. That's my view.

Ms Irvine : There was a lot of excitement in 2015 or 2014 with the developing northern Australia white paper and having the focus there, and with the audit. It made us think: 'Maybe something will change now that you can see in black and white, because there's evidence to show it, that these are the gaps.' Over the last five or six years, with the exception of roads, we haven't seen a lot of targeted investment to fill those gaps for northern Australia. So then you lose that enthusiasm. You go: 'Okay, here's another thing that was spruiked about.' It's lost its enthusiasm because we're hearing a lot of words but we're not seeing a lot of action.

Senator McDONALD: For that reason I have to thank the chair for getting this inquiry up. As somebody who lives in the north, I was really excited about the opportunity to shine a light on the fact that this is whole of government. It's getting local government involved, the state government, the coordination of regulations and legislation around environment, around approvals, around roads and schools spending, around electricity supply and connectivity. There is such a huge list, and, as Professor Dale said, there's no silver bullet; there's a lot of work to be done. There was a very interesting speaker at the last conference who made an interesting reference to the north being the El Dorado of Australia.

CHAIR: A great speech!

Senator McDONALD: I thought it was a point well made. Northern Australia has so much potential. We've talked about it for years. We started to develop northern Australia most recently in the eighties. We can see the tourism assets and some of the ports that were developed. The world didn't end. There wasn't an environmental catastrophe. People came here and lived and made some money. Yet we've stood still since that last wave of development. I'm really excited about this inquiry and some of the practical recommendations that we'll be able to make.

Senator ROBERTS: I ask you both, following on from what Senator McDonald just said: is the northern agenda just political spin—in other words, is there no conviction behind it—or are the problems similar to what Dr Dale discussed: it's just so complex that it's a morass; there are so many different issues; it's difficult to coordinate because there's lack of cohesion; it just becomes too damn hard? Is it lack of will or is it just too difficult?

Mr Bawden : I think probably it's too hard. There are probably too many issues. As far as lack of interest goes, I think if you revive it, or whatever, then start driving it and just concentrate on small steps at a time.

Senator ROBERTS: I'm getting the impression—you nodded when I used the word before—that it's not structured, it's not systemic and it's not diffused throughout. It's not something that's on everyone's mind. It's not driving anything at the moment. Is that what you would say?

Ms Irvine : I don't think it's driving. From a local government's perspective, it doesn't drive what local government does in terms of its strategic plan. It drives when they're applying for funding. It might drive what's written in their funding application, and the same goes for the state government. Jack's right: it's hard. I don't think it's too hard. It's hard. But, as you said, you take off a piece at a time and make a difference. But those pieces need to be big chunks. One point five billion dollars in roads seems like a lot of money to capital cities, but that's over 10 years, and it doesn't do much at all. When you see things like $7 billion spent on one piece of infrastructure over three or four years, it's not a lot.

Mr Bawden : When you see $13 million spent every two years, possibly just to repair something, you're not getting any capital improvement. You're just getting maintenance.

Ms Irvine : Yes, and I think that is costing the federal government. The majority of that will come from the federal government, and I think it's wrong.

Senator ROBERTS: So it could be a lack of appreciation for how different it is up here. For example, the southern Murray-Darling Basin is completely different from the northern Murray-Darling Basin in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. They can't be managed in the same way. So northern Australia has unique challenges and issues and unique benefits and opportunities, but the people who are managing it—I'm looking at Brisbane and Canberra—don't understand what's going on up there. I love your honesty—both of you. Thank you very much.

CHAIR: Thank you both for coming along. It's really useful to have some local voices chipping into the inquiry as well, so thanks for your time today.

Proceedings suspended from 11:12 to 11:25