Senator Alan Eggleston

Speeches

16

I present the interim report of the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee. 

Ordered that the report be printed. 

Senator EGGLESTON: by leave—I move: 

That the Senate take note of the report. 

The Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia has been tasked by the parliament to consider policies for developing parts of Australia that lie north of the Tropic of Capricorn, spanning Queensland, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory. The Alice Springs region, which is just below the Tropic of Capricorn, has also been included within the scope of the inquiry because of the interest expressed from Central Australia in participating in the inquiry. More specifically, the committee is tasked with examining the potential of and the impediments to economic growth, the role of regulation in stimulating investment and social factors affecting this growth in the north. The inquiry will also identify the critical economic and social infrastructure that is needed to support long-term growth and investment for the region. The committee's inquiry is running in tandem with the government's commitment to produce a white paper on Northern Australia within 12 months of the 2013 federal election. 

This inquiry has generated a high level of community interest and created high expectations about the work of the committee. To date, the committee has received 287 submissions and 49 exhibits. The committee has undertaken an extensive program of travel, with more than 20 hearings and inspections, covering a large range of locations across the north of Australia. 

So far, the committee has identified significant opportunities for the development of Northern Australia which include expansion of the resources sector, more intensive agriculture, expanded opportunities for horticulture and aquaculture, and more integrated production and processing of livestock. There are great opportunities for irrigated agriculture across the north of Australia, especially in the Kimberley, not only in the Ord River developments which, in stage 3, will spill over into the Northern Territory, but also in the rich black soils of the Fitzroy Plains and in Northern Queensland. The north of Australia really does have the potential to be a food bowl for the ever-growing middle class populations of Asia to our north. 

The growth of tourism is seen as another area where expansion is possible, both domestic and international. People travel the world to see things which are unique and different and there are many such attractions in Northern Australia and accordingly the potential for expanding the tourist industry in the north is huge. There is a need for increased educational services with provision of opportunities for international students to come to places like James Cook University and other tertiary education in the north. There is a need for research on health and energy and food production in the tropics and the potential for a more northerly focus of Australia's defence forces, building on current assets in North Queensland and the Northern Territory and concurrently expanding the defence presence on the vulnerable north-west coast, where oil and gas and other developments related to the mineral industry are valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars—arguably the most exposed area in Australia to terrorist attack. Significant opportunities to maximise developments by working with the traditional owners of the land and sea are also noted in the report. 

Major impediments to the economic and social development of the north include the absence of economic infrastructure, particularly water, power and transport infrastructure, which in turn impacts upon opportunities for economic development and livability. There is a clear need not only for upgrading but for establishing more east-west road links across the north of Australia, because it is apparent that there exists a community of common interest and similar problems across the north, from the north of WA, to the Northern Territory, to the north of Queensland. The cost of power and water is also a problem which impacts on the cost of doing business and living standards in a range of sectors. People in the north need better access to modern telecommunications, and, without such better access, then the development can only be slower than it would otherwise be. 

Land tenure arrangements, which can affect security of investment and options for development, also need to be reviewed. Often the approvals processes in the north are lengthy, which can add to the time and cost of developments and impede outcomes. Inconsistency of processes and requirements between different jurisdictions across the region also need to be addressed so that there is more uniformity. There are high development costs in the north, largely as a result of remoteness and the need to import most production elements. Other issues are the availability and affordability of insurance in the north of Australia, and the need to mitigate weather risks. The high cost of service delivery to small and dispersed populations is also a problem. 

Notwithstanding these impediments, the committee believes that there is a way to sustainably develop the north. In the latter half of this inquiry, the committee will identify key development projects, strategies and ways by which governments can stimulate economic development and remove impediments to growth. 

In the 1980s an organisation called the North Australia Development Council was set up by the governments of Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland. The NADC, as it was known, held a conference annually in one of these three jurisdictions until the mid-nineties, the last conference being at Exmouth in the north of Western Australia. I attended several of these NADC conferences and, while many great ideas were put forward, little changed. However, the Abbott government has undertaken to implement the recommendations of the final white paper on northern development within 15 years of its presentation. 

In conclusion, I would like to thank all those who have provided submissions to the review so far, provided evidence at public hearings and assisted the committee during its extensive inspection program. Finally, I thank my colleagues on the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia, I commend this report to the Senate, and I seek leave to continue my remarks later. 

Leave granted. 

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