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Thursday, 12 September 2019
Page: 2176

Senator WATT (Queensland) (17:33): I'm sure everyone is pleased that we are adjourning a little bit early this evening, and I'll do my best to give the chamber, particularly Minister Ruston, something worthwhile to listen to over the next 10 minutes or so. I just wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on a number of issues that have arisen over the last couple of months and have been brought to my attention in my capacity as the shadow minister for northern Australia. I was very grateful for the opportunity to be appointed to this role after the election. It builds on my longstanding interest in matters affecting parts of regional Queensland, particularly North Queensland and Central Queensland. But, obviously, this new role has a much broader scope, particularly including the Northern Territory and the northern part of Western Australia.

I think it's appropriate this week to be talking about issues facing the north of our country, because this week has marked one of the greatest events that's held on the parliamentary calendar every year, and that is the Facing North festival. I think that those members who have taken the opportunity to participate in it will have felt richly rewarded. Facing North is an incredibly impressive event sponsored by the Northern Territory government and a range of business organisations. Facing North sees a large delegation of Northern Territory government, business, Indigenous and other community representatives make the trip down here to Canberra to talk up the Northern Territory. I have to say, as someone who's now had reason to spend a lot more time in the Northern Territory, there's an awful lot to be proud of and an awful lot to spruik.

Over the course of this week, I have had a number of meetings and attended forums with representatives from the Northern Territory and I've learnt a lot more about what's needed and what's working and what's not working—and I know I wasn't alone in doing so. There have been a number of other senators and members take part in that as well.

I might just run through some of the groups that I've met with over the last few weeks in this role across northern Australia and the issues that have been brought to my attention that I think we all need to try to take a bit more action on. But, before I get into some of those details, I think it's fair to say that there has been some fairly consistent feedback that I've received from business, government, Indigenous and community organisations based right across the north, and, if I had to sum it up in one way it would be that there remains a lot of excitement about the potential that exists in northern Australia. 'Potential' is a word that you hear over and over again in northern Australia. The only thing that often comes with it is a degree of frustration that potential is something that has been talked about in the north of our country for a very long time, and there is very much a feeling that people are still waiting to see this government and other people really take advantage of that potential and help the north realise it.

Overall, the sentiment that I've been picking up, whether it be in Cairns, Mackay, Townsville, Rockhampton Moranbah, other parts of Queensland, Darwin, Katherine, Yulara, the Northern Territory or Western Australia, is that people do feel frustrated. There was a lot of excitement about the northern Australia white paper that the government released four years ago—two prime ministers ago; that's how long ago it was released—but there is a lot of frustration that it hasn't achieved more after four years. What's really coming through is a feeling that this government has really overpromised and underdelivered when it comes to what's actually been achieved in northern Australia.

When you think about that, that is something that I think can be said about the government more generally. Whether we be talking about infrastructure, about how the economy's going, about jobs, about wages or about a whole range of social policy areas, this government is—let's give them credit—very good at talking the talk, at making the announcements and at the marketing, but the follow through, the delivery and the achievements don't ever really match those expectations. That's certainly the feeling that exists in relation to the government's northern Australia agenda.

That's one of the reasons why Labor, with the support of the crossbench, recently established a new Senate Select Committee to review the effectiveness of the government's northern Australia agenda. It was clear to me that, while there has been a lot of attention on aspects of that northern Australia agenda—in particular, the problems that have existed around the NAIF, the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility—no-one independent of the government has really had a good look at the northern Australia agenda overall to see what's working, what from the government is worth praising from the government, what's not working and what can be improved. People are sick of waiting for this potential that they keep being told about to be delivered and to be realised. As I say, people sort of feel that after four years there would be more to show for the northern Australia agenda that the government has spent so much time and energy marketing. That's the purpose of that Senate inquiry. Submissions close on 20 September—so a bit over a week away—and there's still an opportunity for people to get involved if they wish to do so.

As I say, that's the overarching sentiment that's been coming through: a sense of overpromising, underdelivering and not really meeting expectations. I've had more than one person raise with me the need for what they have called the 'northern Australia white paper 2.0'—that the white paper needs a refresh, that it needs a review, that it needs a really good looking at and that it needs a reinvention. If you look at the government's northern Australia white paper, you'll see, again, to be fair, that there are some very good initiatives in there and some very good suggestions and recommendations. The question is: what has actually been delivered after four years? But also, if you look at that white paper, you'll see that things have moved on and it is already a little bit dated. There are new and emerging industries cropping up right across northern Australia that have huge potential that don't even get a mention in the white paper. As with any big policy document, there's always a time to review it, to refresh it and to make sure that it remains relevant, and I think that time is here now. That is, again, one of the reasons for that white paper 2.0.

As I say, I've spent a lot of time over the last couple of months, particularly over the winter recess, getting out and about, right across northern Australia, to meet stakeholders—to start meeting some of the people who are leading the agenda for northern Australia. I've met with people from government, from business, from Indigenous organisations and from community organisations. I've lost count of the number of times I've been into Darwin since the election. Also, more recently, I've made the trip out to Katherine and a couple of spots along the way, to meet with everyone from the Northern Land Council to the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association, from the Northern Territory Farmers Association to the proponents of the ship lift in Darwin, as well as visiting Indigenous rangers' conferences and meeting with representatives from the tourism industry and from barramundi farms—a whole group of people, ranging across agriculture, mining and other industries.

Again, what you really pick up when you're talking to people is a huge level of excitement about the opportunity that remains in northern Australia. Let's face it: it's next door to the fastest growing region in the world, with enormous economic opportunities just on our doorstep, and some of those places in Darwin, in particular, are just a stone's throw away. There are massive opportunities that still exist there, if only we can have the policies in place to support that kind of development.

In my own home state of Queensland, of course, I've been active as well, getting to Cairns, Mackay, Townsville, Rocky, Moranbah and a number of other places. One important thing that I wanted to note was that I did have the opportunity to undertake a three-day visit to Central Queensland with our new deputy leader, Richard Marles, the member for Corio, because we on the Labor side recognised that there was a clear message sent at the election, from Central Queensland in particular, that people thought that Labor had lost touch with Central Queensland. You've only got to look at the election results there to see that sentiment. That's why it was important to get senior people like our deputy leader back out to Central Queensland as quickly as possible, to really appreciate why people turned against us, to learn the sorts of things they want to see from Labor over this term of government, and, importantly, to hear from them about where they still feel that this government is not meeting their aspirations. I've visited the Caval Ridge coalmine, to see right up close what's happening there; I've met with people from defence maintenance industries in Cairns; and I've met with people from the resources, agriculture and tourism sectors as well.

I won't go into too much more detail. The only other thing I did want to put on record was a fantastic trip through Western Australian and Northern Territory desert communities with a number of colleagues. The state of Indigenous housing in this country remains shameful, along with health issues and employment issues. There is an awful lot more to be done. Hopefully we can do that. (Time expired)

Senate adjourned at 17 : 44