Transcript of Doorstop, Townsville



21 January 2016

Topics: Infrastructure funding for northern Australia and Queensland, employment, Clive Palmer, Arthur Sinodinos cleared by ICAC, infrastructure facility loans, preselections, Back proposal re superannuation, Townsville sports stadium funding

Warren Truss: Pleasure to be in Townsville again today with Ewen Jones, who is a very strong representative of the people of this area, and has certainly brought to the attention of the Federal Government particular issues confronting Townsville at the present time with the laying off of people from the nickel refinery.

My main purpose actually, to come to Townsville today, was for a scheduled meeting of the reference group that is dealing with transport issues as a part of the Northern Australian infrastructure [indistinct]. As [indistinct] be aware that the Federal Government has made a substantial commitment to Northern Australia. We want Northern Australia to achieve its potential, and we are prepared to put money and effort onto the table to make this happen.

The announcements that were made [indistinct] releasing the paper in Townsville last year are now coming into fruition. We made commitments, for instance, for a $600 million roads package to upgrade roads across Northern Australia. The states and other jurisdictions are now making submissions to us in relation to what are their priority projects for funding under this program. We've had meetings in Rockhampton and Kununurra to help choose roads for the $100 million Beef Roads Program, and another meeting in Darwin in a couple of weeks' time is likely to finalise the list of those roads that will be constructed under that initiative.

Our $5 billion infrastructure financing package is in place, and we are talking to various proponents about what that money might be spent on. It's an open package which will engage the private sector and others who are interested in investments in the north, and hopefully make the financing of those projects a little easier. And the facility is open to the private sector, but also for infrastructure and other projects that will help make a difference in enabling Northern Australia to achieve its potential.

One of the issues that was raised with us in relation to Northern Australia is the cost of air travel and the difficulty of transport around such a vast proportion of continent. [Indistinct] plane and the air fares are high [indistinct] shipping other services into the region. And so we've set up this taskforce to look specifically at those issues, and it met in Townsville this morning where it discussed what might be able to be done to bring more air services to this region.

As you are aware, the Commonwealth has now provided arrangements for border processing in Townsville, to enable international air services to commence in the city. Just a week or two ago I was very pleased to announce approval for the new master plan for the Townsville airport, which involves a $50 million expansion of the terminal building. We're also talking about attracting more international flights; looking at ways in which fares can be reduced wherever possible on these long journeys. Sometimes small numbers of passengers say that travel to the North can be more economical and cheaper.

We're also concerned about the decline in maritime transport around Australia. Unfortunately, coastal shipping in Australia has become uncompetitive. The number of vessels that are licenced to operate around Australia has dropped from 30 to 15 since the previous Federal Government introduced its maritime reforms—maritime reforms that were designed by the union but have in fact resulted in losses of scores of jobs, and bringing the whole industry into a stage where it can't be competitive. The number of vessels on the transition list has dropped from 16 to 7, and unless there is substantial reform in our maritime segment it is quite clear that our domestic shipping industry is going to drift away.

Now, we are very concerned about that. The legislation that the Commonwealth had introduced into the Parliament to try and address these issues failed to pass the Senate, and I'm afraid we will continue to lose vessels and continue to lose maritime services unless there is significant reform.

Now, this taskforce is looking at ways in which we can attract more coastal shipping into the region, and also make sure that the vessels are available for exports when required. So this meeting today has helped to progress that work.

I'm conscious of the fact that over recent times, particularly with the downturn in the mining-construction sector, and now the laying off of workers in the nickel industry, that there is real pressure in the workplace. And many people who have been working in skilled professions and trades in mining, construction and also at the refinery have now found their jobs coming to an end. This creates significant implications for the economy of the whole of Northern Queensland, but indeed the mining industry generally.

The Australian Government, through the Northern Australia Package, and through a number of our other initiatives, has been trying to provide new jobs and new opportunities [indistinct]. For instance, there's around $2 billion committed to Bruce Highway upgrades north of the Tropic of Capricorn. Recently I've announced $5 million in new projects under the Stronger Regions program just for Townsville industry. We've announced funding for the new bridge over at Rollingstone. Local government have had their Roads to Recovery funding for local roads triple this financial year, which will enable a lot of useful work to be done in country communities. We're looking at ways in which we can advance projects that we've already committed to on the Bruce Highway, and I note that the Queensland Government is also looking at ways in which they may be able to advance projects. Some of the projects that they've announced are projects that they're expecting the Commonwealth to provide 80 per cent of the funding [indistinct] achieving those objectives.

So we are looking at the way in which we can advance existing programs to help ease the current situation. In addition, as the Minister of Employment announced yesterday, $500,000 to help support workers who are without a job so that they may transition into new employment. And we'll be looking at what other initiatives will be possible in that area.

It's been good today to talk to community leaders about ideas for this community, and what might be able to be done here, and I acknowledge also the statements today by the Mayor of Mackay, and indeed others, that there have literally been thousands of jobs lost in Mackay and Rockhampton and Gladstone as a result of the fact that no new mining projects commenced over recent times. And the very best thing that governments can do to create new jobs in this region is to get out of the way and enable projects like the Adani mine to proceed immediately.

I am very disappointed that the State Government seems to be putting another round of barriers and proposed environmental approvals in the way of that vital project. The number of jobs that would be created through that mine project proceeding overwhelms those that are being lost at the present time. And so if governments want to be constructive, get out of the way; facilitate these new projects that have been on the drawing boards for a long time; let them happen and jobs will be created right across the region. And I think any governments that just talk about patch ups; that are then blocking other projects from proceeding, those governments are not serious about addressing the issues.

So finally, let me say I'm looking forward to working with the local community, not just in Townsville but indeed the whole of Northern Australia to advance projects that can revitalise the North; enable it to achieve its potential; create jobs; build wealth that will provide lasting benefits to the local community.

Question: Mr Truss, firstly welcome to Townsville. As the Acting Prime Minister, is Clive Palmer fit to sit in Parliament after everything that's happened to his nickel refinery?

Warren Truss: Well I think the people of Townsville have reason to be disappointed with some of the actions of Clive Palmer. He hasn't, as far as I'm aware, broken any of the rules which would require him to vacate his position in the Parliament, but he does need to behave as an honourable citizen. Let me say, I think Townsville and its community is much bigger than Clive Palmer. I think Townsville can survive Clive Palmer, and because of the breadth and the strength of its economy it will prosper in the long term. And in spite of this incident, I've got every confidence in the future of this region.

Now, that doesn't mean that Clive Palmer is immune from the law. Of course if he's broken the law he has to take the consequences of that, and through procedures associated with administration, and if it goes further than that, then indeed some of his wrongdoing may well be able to be reversed. The receiver managers, et cetera, can look back over past payments and indeed recover them if he believes they haven't been properly paid. So I think in reality there are processes in place to deal with that issue. If the employees are entitled to their benefits, the Commonwealth has a scheme to pick up benefits and to pay those in the event of a company going into liquidation. That scheme stands ready to act, however it would be far better for the company itself to pay its workers, do its job, and then those sorts of rescue programs are not required.

Question: What can you do? Can you confront Clive Palmer and say stand up and be honourable?

Warren Truss: Well, Clive Palmer is my electoral neighbour, so I do see him occasionally. Clearly Clive Palmer, like all owners of businesses; like all principals, must abide by the law, and he needs to act responsibly and sympathetically to those people who have been working for him.

Question: That's right. Well, it's more than that isn't it? It's- he's trying to walk away from his obligations and everything he stood for to run for Parliament. He's left his workers high and dry.

Warren Truss: Well, if he's broken the law then the full forces of the law will apply. Because he may have substantial resources; he may be a famous man, that doesn't mean that he's immune from the law. They apply to him just like everyone else, and he must honour his obligations in that regard.

Question: [Indistinct] Parliament [indistinct].

Warren Truss: Well, he doesn't come to Parliament all that often, but when he does come to Parliament I'm sure there'll be quite a few people who sit fairly near to him in the chamber who will want to have a quiet word to him, and maybe not a quiet word sometimes.

Question: Just on some other issues. Do you know if ICAC has cleared Arthur Sinodinos of any wrongdoing?

Warren Truss: Well my understanding from the newspaper reports this morning is that that is the case. Let me say I am very pleased about that. Arthur Sinodinos has a great contribution to make as a member of the Parliament, and I think it's an absolute tragedy that this man has lost a year of his life under suspicion and has now been cleared. There's something wrong with the process that destroy a person's career even though they're subsequently found to be innocent. And I think it's really important for ICAC to look at the way in which it undertakes its activities to ensure that innocent people are not blackmailed.

Question: [Inaudible question].

Warren Truss: Sorry?

Question: When will the first loans under the infrastructure facility be paid out?

Warren Truss: Well it's a matter of dealing with the applications one by one, and this is not a scheme which will have a closing date and formal application process. Those who are interested [indistinct] negotiate with the Government, with particularly Treasury and Finance, to put in place the kind of facility that they will want for their project. It will be different obviously in each case. And there are a number of significant projects in the North, and naturally I won't be naming them, where there have been discussions ongoing, and many of them have said that this kind of project- this kind of financial facility may well be pivotal to getting their program off the ground.

Question: [Indistinct] that you anticipated?

Warren Truss: Well, it's still early stages but I think it's fair to say there's been a lot of interest and some really exciting ideas, and if we can facilitate through this funding arrangement through this facility, just some of those projects [indistinct] huge boost for the North.

Question: On the New South Wales preselections, are the Nationals willing to change the rules so that a Liberal candidate could contest a seat currently held by a Nationals MP, for example, in the seat of Lyne?

Warren Truss: Well, I think all of that is hypothetical. The reality is that there is an agreement between the Parliament of New South Wales as to [indistinct] in the future as it has been for the past.

Question: What do you think of the proposal from Chris Back for young people to be able to dip into their super savings to pay for their government student loans?

Warren Truss: Well, this is a wide-ranging interview, isn't it? I have some reservations about the value of that. It's important for people to be saving through their superannuation for their future retirement. Student loans have a particular trigger mechanism and people only pay [indistinct] when they've earned a certain amount of money. So the rules [indistinct] both schemes are different and we've always resisted the concept that people use their superannuation [indistinct] houses and to do other worthwhile things and I [indistinct] off the top of my head, my initial reaction would be that probably repaying student loans falls into that same category.

Question: I've got one more for you from our colleagues interstate. George Christensen said that it's a crying shame that state and federal governments of all political persuasions haven't done enough to help resource communities like Townsville. What's your response to that?

Warren Truss: Well, I think that there is a need for us to respond to the fact that there's been a mining industry downturn and our Northern Australia package is well equipped to do that. The additional work we've been doing on the Bruce Highway and other capital works in the north have all contributed to that. But as I said previously, the very, very best thing that governments could do to actually overcome these difficulties is to push the go button on more projects. There are people who want to build tourism facilities. There are people who want to open new mines. There are proposals around to build new railway lines and the like. They should do those things. Let's build lasting projects that will provide long term economic boosts for the community so that we can better ride through downturns in the future. Those investments in the future, those are the kinds of things that make our country great, to help build and enable Northern Australia to achieve its potential. So let's get on with those things that deliver permanent benefits while we obviously provide [indistinct] specific circumstances like the laying off of people from the refinery.

Question: So is the Federal Government ready to push the go button on supporting funding for the sports stadium?

Warren Truss: Well, we've just, I think, received now in the last day or so the business case [indistinct] if in fact there is a request for [indistinct] million dollars, it has to go to Infrastructure Australia for an assessment for a long, long while [indistinct] number of proposals [indistinct] again today [indistinct] variations in the proposals [indistinct] whether you just want a stadium or whether you want to add to that new convention centre. I think all those sort of issues need to be dealt with so that assessment can be made. There'll also be a need to find other partners to ensure that the project [indistinct], even with the amount of money that's being asked of the Federal Government and the State Government, is a gamble even for the full value of the project. We need to know how those sorts of things can be filled.

But in good news for you, we'll look at it in a constructive vein and we recognise we've got a champion football team and I guess people would go out to a grass paddock to watch them play at the present time but in this day and age, the modern age, the reality is we do need high quality sports convention facilities, particularly convention facilities are a strong boost to the economy because the bring people to the community and they help make your airport busier, your hotels busier, they help sister tourist attractions and indeed other [indistinct] in the community and [indistinct] broader benefit for the community not just the social opportunities.

Ewen Jones: Can I just make two points in relation to Northern Australia, number one in relation to the $5 billion concessional loan facility. There are at least two projects I know of in our region that employ significantly more than 200 people each who are waiting on the criteria and waiting for legislation to pass so what I would say to the crossbenchers in the Senate, to the Labor Party, is get behind this legislation and let's pass the legislation so these things can go. So, those are the two projects which are simply waiting on the criteria to get that infrastructure, to get that money on a concessional loan basis to go ahead.

When Warren talks about the number of projects up here, you can't go past the Adani project without talking about water and energy. The Adani mine is more than just a coal mine, it is jobs from here at the port all the way out to the mine and all the way to Abbot Point. It will lead, through power generation, the water that is required there to further investment in renewable energy and new industries in our region but without that Adani mine, without that Carmichael mine, none of that happens. The Carmichael mine is essential to the future of Townsville and the future of our growth as a region, not only in coal exports and [indistinct] like power, but renewable energy and water storage and irrigation and agriculture and transport and infrastructure for the foreseeable future. It's such an important project and I want to stress that the most important thing as Warren said is for the Premier to get out of the road and just say let's get this mine started. It has our approval, let's get state government approval and say to the people of Adani and the Carmichael mine people, let's start [indistinct].