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Wednesday, 13 November 2013
Page: 160

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (11:25): Can I start my address-in-reply to the Governor-General's speech by expressing my loyalty to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia. Although I am a minimalist republican myself, I have great admiration for Queen Elizabeth and the work that she does. Long may she reign in Great Britain and long may we be part of the Commonwealth of Nations.

I was interested in all aspects of the Governor-General's speech, but I want to concentrate my address-in-reply on two particular parts of it:

Northern Australia is Australia's growth frontier.

If we prepare ourselves well, our cities and industries in the North will be well placed to capitalise on the expected growth from the Asia and Pacific regions.

Unlocking Northern Australia's potential with more investment, more exports and more jobs will not only benefit the region but the entire country.

I emphasise this last point about the entire country. Just prior to that the Governor-General spoke about Asia and the region and said:

As the Asian middle class grows and demographics shift, there will be new demand for Australian education and research, expertise in advanced services, manufacturing and agricultural products.

To make sure this moment is not missed, my government will fast-track free trade agreements with South Korea, Japan, China, Indonesia and India.

I think those are two of the most important parts of the Governor-General's speech, particularly to that part of Australia that I represent, the state of Queensland, and particularly to that part of Australia where I live and have worked all of my parliamentary life, indeed all of my life generally—that is, in the north of our country. Prior to the election the coalition did release what I humbly consider was a very, very good Northern Australia policy paper, which detailed a future coalition government's aims and ambitions and aspirations for the north, and I am pleased to see in the Governor-General's speech reference was made to that.

The potential of northern Australia has long been recognised. As you know, Acting Deputy President Ruston, over 60 per cent of Australia's water falls above the Tropic of Capricorn in an area containing, according to the CSIRO, anywhere between five and 17 million hectares of arable soil. We currently use only about two per cent of the water that falls above the Tropic of Capricorn. The North covers almost three million square kilometres, more than half of the Australian land mass, but accounts for only one million people and less than five per cent of the population. Regrettably, only eight lower house members and four senators represent that area out of a parliament of over 200. Regrettably, particularly on a personal basis, there are no ministers north of the Tropic of Capricorn in that huge area—apart from Senator Scullion, who is there in his capacity as Leader of the Nationals in the Senate. Whilst those of us in the North have little influence on what happens in the more populous parts of Australia, I guarantee on behalf of those of us who are from there that this parliament will do everything possible to make sure northern Australia is never again forgotten, as it has been in the last six years.

Some years ago I was the minister for regional services, and we embarked upon a northern Australia forums process which resulted in some very good work. Regrettably, at the end of the process, I moved from that ministry to another ministry and my successor as minister for regional Australia did not have the same interest in the North—coming from Tasmania, that is probably quite understandable. There is this feeling in the North that the rest of Australia does not really understand us and does not really care. Lip service is paid to the North of Australia, but, when it comes to votes and money, governments of all persuasions naturally enough look to where the most votes, the most people and the most things needing assistance are. I know those of us who do represent the North, regardless of our political allegiances, will be vocal in ensuring that the great policy of the coalition and the future mapped out by the Governor-General in her speech are adopted, because there is such potential and wealth in the north of Australia that will—and I repeat the Governor-General's words—not only benefit the North but will benefit Australia as a whole.

Asia is very much a part of northern Australia. In fact, prior to European settlement, the peoples who then inhabited the north of Australia and the south of South-East Asia made up the one trading bloc. Clearly the climate, attitudes, wealth and natural facilities of northern Australia and the nearby Asian islands and mainland are all one and the same. That is why it is so important that we are able to use the wealth and the opportunities we have in northern Australia to build upon our relationships with Asia.

As the Governor-General mentioned—she did not mention these figures in detail, but she alluded to them—by 2030 there will be 3.3 billion middle-class Asians. Just to put that in perspective, there are 23 million people in the whole of Australia. Those middle-class Asians will want good food—clean and green food—they will want good education and they will want good medical facilities. That is where northern Australia can contribute so much. We already have world-class universities—and I particularly mention James Cook University of Townsville and Cairns, which is a world-leading university in several areas but particularly in marine science. It has a focus that is directed to the North rather than to the bulk of the Australian population in the south. We have medical expertise up there that is unique in the world. Australia is a developed country. We are one of the few developed countries in the tropic zone—that is, the part of the world which contains over 60 per cent of the world's population, between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer—with expertise in tropical health and medicine, in tropical education and in tropical sciences. They are the sorts of things that Australia has to focus on.

I was delighted to see, prior to the election, the coalition promise the contribution of $40 million to the Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine. That is something we promised in the 2010 election, subject to the Queensland government matching it. I am delighted to say that the Newman LNP government in Queensland have already put their $40 million in, and now, after the election, the coalition will also be contributing. The Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine is essential not just to human health but also to plant and animal health, and we are in a position to help the 60 per cent plus of the world's population who live between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer. There are real dangers there. Some of the bugs that proliferate in the tropical north of Australia could destroy Australian crops, animals and, indeed, people. We have all heard of the untreatable strains of tuberculosis coming from PNG into the Torres Strait Islands and into Cairns. These things have to be addressed, and it is essential that we focus on those areas.

It is essential that our defence forces are put where they need to be. I have often said that, unless we are expecting an attack from the penguins in Antarctica or the New Zealanders, the reason we have the major part of our naval fleet in Sydney Harbour escapes me. It should be up where it is needed, either for defence purposes or—more reasonably, one would think—for humanitarian purposes. Our ships are often used to help our friends in Asia and the Pacific with natural calamities, and why we would then have to steam two days from Sydney to get up into the North when those capital ships should be based in Townsville, Cairns, Darwin, Broome or Port Hedland again escapes me. HMAS Cairns is the second biggest naval base on the east coast of Australia. It should be upgraded and more of our ships should be put there. I am delighted that in our northern Australian policy we indicated that, subject to strategic considerations, we would be seriously looking at moving our Defence forces further north, where they are more likely to be needed than living in the luxury of southern capitals adjacent to some of the best entertainment areas of Australia. So that is something that needs to be pursued and it is certainly something I will be pursuing in my next six years in this chamber.

Zone tax was mentioned in our northern Australian development paper, and that is something that must be addressed. We do have a zone tax system and, for those politicians who say it is unconstitutional, we have had this zone tax system since the early 1950s and it has not been found to be unconstitutional yet. It was introduced in the 1950s to give some compensation to those people who lived remote from the capital cities, and not just from the economic aspects there. Madam Acting Deputy President, do you realise that, if you live in, say, Cloncurry in north-west Queensland and you want to see an orthopaedic surgeon, you have to jump in a plane, spend $3,000 and be away from your family for a week? If you happen to live in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane, you get on a tram or a train at the bottom of the street and you are at the hospital and the orthopaedic surgeon within a couple of minutes. Similarly, if you want to go to a major sporting or cultural event or to the best schools in Australia, you just catch a taxi at the front of your house and you are there in 10 minutes. People in the south have to understand that living in the areas that produce most of Australia's wealth is a cost. It is costly. Sure, those living there might get a bit extra in pay, but people in the south do not understand all of the additional costs—health, education and merely living, with the cost of petrol and food—that happen. That is why years ago our forefathers in the parliament brought in a zone tax system which, if it had kept pace with inflation, would today be worth in the vicinity of $15,000 to $20,000. What is it these days? It is in the order of $300. When it was introduced, I repeat, it was worth about $20,000 in today's currency.

Northern Australia has a number of industries besides the mineral industries. I repeat that about 60 per cent of Australia's export earnings come from northern Australia. In addition to mining and metals processing, we have some very good agricultural industries. The northern beef cattle industry sustained a lot of the North, and in one of the most criminally stupid decisions of any government at any time the previous government banned the live cattle trade from northern Australia, thereby destroying what had been a very significant Australian industry. Do I see any of those who clamoured about animal welfare in those days up there now trying to help feed cattle that are dropping before their owners' eyes because they cannot get feed or water? Where are all these animal liberationists now? The animal welfare issues alone—forget about the human welfare issue and all the families that will be without a home, an income or an education because of this criminally stupid decision—are right up there.

If there is one thing this government does, it will be to provide compensation for those that the previous government decision destroyed. Farmers everywhere will take their chances with drought, bushfires and floods, which have happened in the North. Farmers up there do not expect anything more in relation to those natural calamities that will occur, but they cannot be expected to deal with, and cannot ever deal with, capricious decisions of governments, made without consultation or any warning, overnight. Cattle were on the back of trucks ready to go to the ports for export to Indonesia. The previous government criminally decided to stop that trade there, and as a result of that most of the pastoral properties in northern Queensland—indeed, northern Australia generally—are in dire financial straits and something needs to be done by this government to make up for the criminal stupidity of the previous government in relation to live cattle.

The wealth of Australia is in the North, but to get the wealth out you need good transport infrastructure, and you need good health and education infrastructure as well for the families of those who go to gain and export that wealth that makes Australia the great place it is. So I am delighted to see, for example, that the current government has given $33 million to the Outback Way, a visionary road that will run from Laverton in Western Australia to Winton in Queensland, or effectively from Cairns to Perth. That $33 million is great—and I am delighted to see that, and it continues long-term support by the coalition for that road—but there are many other roads up there that need to be fixed. I know you need six-lane highways in Sydney and eight-lane highways in Melbourne, but you do need—and you will not get votes for this, because there are only eight members of the lower house there—a decent, workable road network and rail network across the north of Australia.

There are many other issues in the North, and the commitment to getting those free trade agreements going, particularly with Japan and Korea, as I mentioned, is great for Australia and particularly good for northern Australia. I could—and will—spend a lot of time over the next six years talking about these things. I am delighted that the Governor-General in her speech did highlight that important connection with Asia and the importance of northern Australia. I congratulate the government on the commitment. I and, I am sure, everyone in this chamber will be there making sure that those commitments are actually honoured, as we expect of a coalition government.