Opening Address: Beef Roads Roundtable



02 October 2015

Leichhardt Hotel, Rockhampton

Thank you very much Troy for that introduction and thank you also to David for being co-chairs of this event. Can I extend a special welcome to my parliamentary colleagues and Michelle Landry who's our hostess today. Welcome also to Ken O'Dowd and Natasha Griggs who has come all the way from Darwin to be here—a particular welcome to you Natasha—and also Senator Matt Canavan. Senator Ian Macdonald who is the chairman of the Northern Australia Implementation Group is unable to be here today, but I acknowledge he has a representative from the staff who is here. Can I particularly welcome the mayors and councillors from across the north, who are also a part of this event today and ladies and gentlemen.

I'd like to welcome to you to this event and this information and discussion session about one element of the Government's Northern Australia Paper ‘Our North, Our Future’. In other words this is not just about the future of Northern Australia, it's also about the future of our country. If the north is strong then so is our nation and therefore the investment that we're proposing to make through this initiative in Northern Australia will benefit the country as a whole -so it's about our future as a nation, not just the future of the people who live in Northern Australia. It's particularly good to have representatives here from across the continent. There will be, as you've already heard, another roundtable in Kununurra later this year and then a third and final meeting in Darwin where we will present the outcomes derived from these discussions.

This particular element of the program- the Australian Beef Roads program—has some tieback to the famous beef roads program of a generation ago which made a huge difference to the road networks across the north. This one we also believe will make a difference. Of course $100 million by itself is not enough to solve all the problems but we hope it can make a strategic contribution and result in there being a smoother supply chain to the beef cattle industry.

We also acknowledge this is only part of the Government's initiative in relation to the road network of the north. You've already heard mention of the $600 million commitment to northern roads which we hope the states and territories will support as well. We've also got significant programs in the National Highway Network right across the north—$8.5 billion on the Bruce Highway for instance. There is also substantial expenditure on the Barkly and on the roads of Western Australia. They're all a part of the National Highway Network and are key elements of our vision for the north.

Then there are local programs like the Black Spots Program, our Heavy Vehicle Safety Program, and the tripling of funding to local government under the Roads to Recovery Program, which will help deal with some of these last mile issues that are so critical to being able to get produce to market.

So given that Rockhampton is the beef capital of Australia it's appropriate we should kick off our talks about the Beef Roads Program here. Despite recent droughts there are more than 2.5 million cattle within a 250 kilometre radius of this city and two working abattoirs, demonstrating just how important the cattle industry is to this region as it is to so much of the north.

Beyond this region, the northern beef cattle herd is currently around 17 million head. Australia itself is the seventh largest global beef producer and the third largest global exporter of beef products. We're also the world's leading supplier of high quality live cattle to countries around the world. The livestock export industry supports the livelihoods of thousands of farming families across rural and regional Australia and it is the dominant rural industry in the north. That's why we've committed this $100 million to a new program that spans the cattle supply chains across northern Queensland, northern Western Australia, and the Northern Territory.

The Northern Australia Beef Roads Program will make targeted upgrades to key roads necessary for transporting cattle, strengthening the future viability of the cattle industry. Importantly, this work will draw on state of the art CSIRO modelling known as TRANSIT which stands for Transport Network Strategic Investment Tool to identify which road improvements will make the biggest long term financial impact for the industry and the CSIRO will talk a little bit about the program later today.

Today's roundtable discussions will determine what priorities are tested under the TRANSIT priority. The Beef Roads Program is a Coalition Government initiative and an important- you might say essential- part of developing Northern Australia. The release of what is the first ever white paper on developing Northern Australia- Our North, Our Future—confirms that the Australian Government is behind Northern Australia for the long haul.

The North is currently home to more than one million people with many strong and vibrant communities like our host city Rockhampton. Unlocking the potential of Northern Australia is an essential part of the Government's plan for a strong, prosperous economy and a safe secure Australia. A strong north means a strong nation. Prime Minister Turnbull reaffirmed the importance of Northern Australia when he unveiled his new ministry a couple of weeks ago, appointing the Honourable Josh Frydenberg as Minister for Resources, Energy and Northern Australia. Josh is already planning an extensive network of visits to the North so he can get to know you all and understand the key elements of his new portfolio responsibilities. Northern Australia is already a major contributor to the national economy, with 55 per cent of Australia's exports shipped from Northern ports in 2012/13. By 2040, Deloitte forecast that Northern Australia may account for almost 42 per cent of the Australian economy with gross regional product increasing by an average of three per cent every year in 2020. Now we're talking about a vast land base that covers more than three million square kilometres and is home to many of our most treasured icons and tourist attractions including the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics of Queensland, Great Keppel Island off the coast here and of course Kakadu National Park and the spectacular scenery of Western Australia's North West.

However, Northern Australia remains under-utilised, relative to the rest of the country, despite its natural geographic and strategic assets. Nevertheless, Northern Australia has developed a diverse economy with strong agricultural, mineral resource and tourism sectors—but we need to build on that base to ensure we can lead future challenges and respond to the clinical opportunities that are opening up. The agricultural energy, tourism and recreational prospects are almost limitless and our government is committed to ensuring we allow those prospects to take root and grow for generations to come. Northern Australia is the logical gateway to the rapidly growing Asia Pacific trade zone including China and Indonesia.

Consider this—by 2020, more than half the world's middle class will be in Asia. This seismic demographic shift is already driving an increasing demand for high end primary produce, including beef and dairy and access to reliable energy. We set out an ambitious, long term reform agenda for the North, and we started work right away alongside the people who live and do business in the North, those real people like yourselves, with a particular stake in the future of the North. And I ought to stress that the White Paper is far more than a vision; it's a 20 year road map to achieving that vision by 2035. No one is saying it'll be easy or it'll all happen overnight. It will require a strong policy platform that fosters long term sustainable development.

This platform includes clear, consultative governance arrangements, programs that improve infrastructure and encourage strong private sector involvement, as well as providing focus in a strategic government leadership. More than fifty measures and initiatives will be delivered across 15 government agencies in what truly is a broad reaching, comprehensive approach, covering water, infrastructure, employment, governance, business, and trade investment. Through these measures, an initial $1.2 billion of funding will be provided in addition to a $5 billion concessional loan facility. That's right, the Coalition will establish a new $5 billion Northern Australia infrastructure facility and will look to partner with the private sector and Northern jurisdictions to provide concessional loans to finance infrastructure projects in the North. We've already had a number of proposals and expressions of interest in this part of our Northern Australia initiative.

These concessional loans can be used for a range of projects such as airports, ports, rail, roads, energy, water and communications infrastructure. Through issuing concessional loans, this facility will provide funding for projects that may experience difficulties in obtaining finance through the traditional measures. By enabling the funding of such projects, infrastructure will be delivered that will increase the productive capacity of Northern Australia. In recognition of the North's vast distances, and the importance of keeping communities connected, and freight moving safely and efficiently, we've established a $600 million Northern roads program that funds priority projects in the North.

Infrastructure Australia's Northern Australia infrastructure audit will help inform what projects will be funded by the Northern Australia roads program, but we'll also be consulting with Northern jurisdictions to ensure all projects with strategic importance are in fact considered. Roads identified by jurisdictions as priorities, such as those connecting communities or regional towns to ports and airports will be considered for funding. The projects which are funded through this package will primarily be selected for their ability to maximise Northern Australia's economic growth. This means that projects that improve inter-jurisdictional activity, or upgrades to the North's key freight routes to boost overall network capacity, will be prioritised

Now we've also made a $5 million commitment for freight rail analyses in the North, starting with a feasibility study of the Mount Isa to Tennant Creek rail line, and an upgrade of the Mount Isa to Townsville line. Further analysis, after consideration of the priorities of the jurisdictions for rail upgrades in the North, will also be reconsidered.

Hand in hand with the Northern Australia White Paper, the Government has also released the Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper, to which I know many of you, including David and Troy, made valuable contributions. The opportunities for this sector are enormous, and as I mentioned earlier, there's great potential to tap Australia's proximity to major emerging Asian markets. Australia can pride itself on a well respected and developed agricultural sector with world class food safety and environmental potential, using modern farming technology and techniques, and a workforce of highly skilled farmers.

The agricultural sector is well placed to prosper, given the right support. And that's precisely why the Government spent months listening to the challenges that farmers are facing, and where improvements can quickly be made to deliver success. The Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper outlines what the Government will do to address these concerns. First up, we're investing $4 billion in our farmers and in the future of our nation. Our actions will be targeting five key areas, which include ensuring a fairer go for farm businesses, building the infrastructure of the 21st century, strengthening our approach to drought and risk management, making the farming sector smarter and accessing premium markets.

We all know that stronger farms mean a stronger economy, and we're committed to strengthening the sector to build a more resilient and more sustainable industry, which remains globally competitive.

I'd like to take a moment to highlight the significant investment the Government has already made in improving transport infrastructure in the North. In addition to the funds flowing from the agriculture and Northern Australia white papers, the Government has already committed around $5.5 billion of its nationwide investment in infrastructure to high priority projects across the North. The projects that we're supporting with this $5.5 billion nationwide investment for high priority projects in the North include those that improve gateways to ports and airports, a significant investment for the Cape York region to improve access and to promote economic growth, significant ongoing investments in the Bruce Highway to improve safety and efficiency, and investment in highways such as the Flinders and the Landsborough to benefit heavy vehicle movement. More than $600 million has been put towards upgrades along Northern Territory roads, and of course our investment in the Outback Way across all three jurisdictions to provide benefits to road users.

Let me just wrap up by saying that the $100 million Northern Australia Beef Roads Program is aimed at reducing the costs of transporting cattle in the North, and today's discussion provides an opportunity for you, as the industry leaders and key stakeholders, to help shape investment priorities which improve the efficiency and productivity of the Northern cattle supply chain. However, we need to be realistic and recognise that $100 million, while a significant amount of funding, will probably be spent many times over on upgrading roads in the North used by the cattle industry. That's why prioritisation will be important. That's also why we're asking for co-investment in the roads of at least 20 per cent: by state, territories or local governments, and even industry if possible. And the higher the funding proportion the more favourably the Australian Government is likely to view a proposal in terms of its priorities with all other things being equal.

We also need to think about how various proposed upgrades might fit together to improve the overall network efficiency at the regional level, and how this feeds into the national network. And finally, we do recognise that the Australian Government works in partnership with state and territory governments to manage the delivery of roads. We have no engineers or planners of our own, we're heavily dependent upon the states to provide us with the advice and technical support in the design and development of these projects. A collaborative process with industry and all levels of government, and with CSIRO's modelling as an input, will help identity the best candidate projects for co-funding. I hope to be in a position to announce the successful projects in the first half of next year, with funding available from 1 July 2016 to progress the procurement and construction of these projects.

Thank you for being here today, and your participation in this information session. I believe that based on what we learn from one another today we can put together a program that will make a real difference to securing the future of the beef industry in the North, and making its supply chain so much more efficient.