Minister Littleproud interview - ABC Darwin with Adam Steer

ADAM STEER: The North Australian Infrastructure Facility, not only an awkward name for what is basically a loan scheme from the Federal Government, but it's also been plagued with controversy since its inception. The $5 billion fund was initially earmarked for major projects and failed to attract enough participants. But since the eligibility of the scheme has been adjusted, more than $600 million has been handed out to businesses here in the Northern Territory. They include the $250 million for the Charles Darwin University's CBD campus in Darwin, $300 million for the Shiplift, and support to voyagers, Indigenous Tourism for airport upgrades in Yulara. Today, the Federal Government is announcing a further $2 billion will be injected into the program. The question is, are we getting any of it? Or will it just make its way to Queensland, a state that may decide the outcome of the next federal election?

David Littleproud is the Federal Minister for North Australia and Deputy Leader of the National Party. He's in Darwin to make the announcement later today. Minister, good morning and welcome back to the Territory. How much of the initial $5 billion has been loaned out so far?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So there's been $3.2 billion committed to date, and of that, $426 million has been drawn down. And the reason there's a big difference is because we expect those applicants to use their own money first before they use Australian taxpayer's. We want to see the colour of their eyes and the colour of their wallet before we start handing over Australian taxpayer's money. And these are big projects that are not your garden-variety corner store, and they take a long time to build, and that's why we want to see them put their money out first. So we've committed that 3.2 but we're now at a stage where, with the pipeline of investment that's coming forward through to the NAIF, that we'll exhaust the $5 billion probably within 12 months. So it's important that we send the right signals, the investment signals, out there to the private sector that we want to help them de-risk their investment in the north. And this is about sending those signals to SA, the Federal Government will put up an additional 2 billion to partner with you to make that investment and to come up here and to create jobs. And we've already created over 11,000 to date from the investments that have been made.

ADAM STEER: It is important to clarify here, this money that you are making available for private companies, it is a loan only?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: We- you can also take an equity stake. We changed the mandate terms of the facility recently to also allow the Australian government to- through the NAIF, to take an equity stake if we see fit. But to date, all have been through loans, concessional loans. But obviously they're at a commercial rate that gives a return to the Australian taxpayer, but it just simply partners with other financial institutions and investors to accelerate that development and that investment in the North.

ADAM STEER: So you say that the $5 billion you expect to be exhausted by the end of the year. What do you say to Territorians when they hear that, up-to-date, only $600 million of that has been in the Northern Territory, the money's been spent elsewhere?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it's predicated by who applies. And that's what we're saying and that's why we're trying to work with state and territory governments, to partner with them to attract that investment into the key infrastructures that's required in the North. But ultimately, it requires a proponent. It requires an individual or company or an investment arm that wants to come and make those investments. So it's fully open to anyone in any state in the- up in the North, the Territory, Western Australia, and Queensland. But it relies on a proponent. But what we're saying is we're not discriminating against one state or territory against another. We're simply saying the money's there to be used, and we would encourage to work with those state and territory governments to make sure that we are attracting those dollars, it's used efficiently and effectively to get those returns of those jobs.

ADAM STEER: You're an ABC Radio Darwin. Adam Steer, Jo Laverty with you. You are hearing from David Littleproud who's the Federal Minister for Northern Australia, Deputy Leader of the National Party. I want to take you back a year, Minister, to when you were making changes to the NAIF. The Government stated, your government stated, that they can also support the Beetaloo infrastructure developments, facilitating the NAIF discussions to ensure stakeholders do not miss out on Beetaloo gas development opportunities. Now, last time we spoke, we chatted about how you'd lost a federal court case in December stopping you handing out $21 million to mining companies to fast-track work in the Beetaloo; is this just another way around that, Minister? Is this designed for extra NAIF funds to fast-track developments like Beetaloo?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we're going to invest in any infrastructure project that's good for the economy, that creates jobs, and can be done sustainably. And that's where we let the board get involved. They make those assessments, not myself as the Minister. They make the recommendations to me, predicated off that social well-being, environmental well-being, and economic well-being that they will create. And that's how it should be. There is a structured process with due process and governance to ensure that we are using Australian taxpayers' money to leverage private equity to create jobs. That's a smart way to do it. And that will involve, not only gas, but other precious minerals, agriculture, tourism, and we're hoping even defence. So these are the types of things that we're prepared to look at and we don't apologise for that. We're going to do this in a way that will create jobs, that will create the potential that has been there for so long for Northern Australia that everyone's talked about, but no one's done anything about. And that's why we're going to look at this through the lens of sustainability on an economic, social, and environmental front.

ADAM STEER: Will this extra $2 billion be targeting projects in your home state of Queensland? The ABC's election analyst, Antony Green, has come out only today saying, Queensland, WA, that's where the federal election is likely to be won or lost. Are you expecting a lot of these- a lot of this cash to go to Queensland?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I would hope it to go right across the top from Western Australia, Northern Territory, and across into Queensland. And I can tell you, let me- that I think that, you know, the Northern Territory, the Coalition has great opportunities in Lingiari. Damien Ryan, I'm with him today. And I can tell you that we have great hopes in the Northern Territory as well. But this isn't about re-election, because I don't make the judgement calls on this. There is an independent board that makes those assessments. Of which, there's a Territorian that chairs the NAIF that makes those determinations. So, again, they are determined by the applicant and whether they're prepared to make that investment, and that's why state and territory governments are important in trying to identify those investment arms, those private equity arms, that want to come and invest, and they partner with them and then come with us through the NAIF to make it come to fruition, to accelerate them. So we're not discriminating. We don't make a decision, and the NAIF will not make a decision predicated on an election because it's independent of the Government.

ADAM STEER: You're the Minister for North Australia. What do you hope to achieve with the extra money? Is there any projects that- I mean, as you say, it is an independent board that decides where this money is handed out to, but are there some projects in the Northern Territory that you think may be worthy of NAIF?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, look, I'll- it's important I stay out of that. I'll leave the board to make those determinations, but I think what we've been keen to do, particularly since I've become Minister, is become very strategic. And we've identified four corridors of growth, and we're identifying what drives those. And those are, you know, precious minerals, the mining sector, agriculture, tourism, and I think also with some of the strategic shift that we've made with AUKUS, is that there's also opportunity for businesses up here in defence. So I think there's enormous opportunities for a number of different industries to come forward and to partner with the Federal Government and even state and territories to come through. But I don't want this to be a Canberra solution. I think this is the important thing. This money is not about someone in Canberra making a determination. This has to be someone locally. It has to be driven by the- on the ground because otherwise it won't be sustainable. And that- my job is to simply create the environment and allow the board to make those decisions. And Tracey Hayes is the chair of that. We'll do that independently and fiercely.

ADAM STEER: Okay. Let's move to your agriculture portfolio. Where do you see the future of cotton here in the Northern Territory? I know this dry cotton scheme has been fairly controversial around the Katherine area. Is it something that you would like to see more of?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, I would. I've got to be honest, I think you're going to see that the cotton industry will start to move north. As being someone from South West Queensland, I can attest to the fact that they do have challenges of being able to grow at their- probably not to the extent that you have the capacity here. And I think you'll see that, so long as it's done environmentally, sustainably, and I think that when you work with territory governments up here and you do that responsibly, it can be achieved. I think we've got to change the mindset in this country of why can't we do things, but rather to how can we, and we should back ourselves with the science to be able to make sure that we can do that. And I don't think you should back away from it. I can tell you that the cotton industry has been a significant player in the development of South West Queensland, and little places like Dirranbandi. I used to be in the bank out there many years ago, and when I first got there, that last block was being sold for arrears rates for $500. Cotton came, and the last block sold 12 months later for $16,000 because there was an investment being made. And that's something we shouldn't be frightened of. They do look after the environment; they are sustainable; they're conscious of what they're producing. They have to, otherwise no one will buy their product. So we just got to back the science. And I don't fear cotton coming up into the Territory. In fact, I would say to you, I would encourage it.

ADAM STEER: Okay. What about the Adelaide River dam, or what's been called off-river storage facilities?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, and this is where I think we really do need to change the culture of our state and territory governments about how can we build that infrastructure. This just makes sense. There has been 20 dams built in this country since 2003. Sixteen of those have been in Tasmania. They have effectively plumped the whole state. Now, the opportunities in the north, particularly for agriculture, will come with water infrastructure. And this is where we need some sensible policy about working with state and territory governments who own the resource in making sure that we can actually achieve some development of agriculture because the water is up here. I mean, I came in last night and I just missed the storm but it's been raining. In your wet season, you should catch it and you should be able to catch a portion of that. Not all of it. You got to do it sustainably. But we have the science to work that out. We have the hydrology to understand what's good for the environment and what we can use for sustainable development. And one of the things I've also been very keen to work with is my Indigenous reference group. And we're very keen to make sure that, particularly if there is development of water, that our First Nations people get the opportunity to be part of that, particularly if it's industries like cotton or horticulture, so that they have a chance to close the gap through economic advancement, and I think water will actually give that opportunity.

ADAM STEER: Meanwhile, the Federal Government announced temporary changes to student visa fees, backpacker visa fees in an attempt to get more workers here. We spoke to the VC of Charles Darwin University. He says an international student will face costs of around $32,000 a year to study here. You're spruiking a $650 visa discount for each student. Now, sure, every little bit helps, but do you really expect that $650 out of a cost of $30,000 dollars is going to make a difference to people choosing to come to Australia or not? And this isn't- I'm not just talking about students, but it's also backpackers who we need up here to work in agriculture.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think, with respect to student visas, I think it'd be a big stretch to expect the Australian taxpayer to start to pay any of the tuition of an international student. And I don't think any government's going to start getting into that realm of possibility.

ADAM STEER: That's not what I'm suggesting. I'm just suggesting that that $650 isn't going to make a difference whether a student decides to study here or not.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think you're being very presumptuous. I think some will look at Australia and our education system; this is simply- compared to other countries, our competitors like Canada and the United States, I've contested our system is better. This is simply a signal to them to say that you can come back. We have gone through a period of COVID where they've been locked out, and we are simply saying to them, we want you back. And one of the things that we do have a lever over is those fees. Now, as small as it may be to you, let me say that is more about the signal of enticing people back to this country to help the education sector who's done it damn though.

ADAM STEER: Minister, how long are you spending in the north?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I'm heading today on to Indonesia. I've got some trade talks that will be very important for the Territory as well around live export, import, exports into Indonesia. So I'm heading out this afternoon in to Jakarta for a couple of days. And then hopefully, once we get back, we'll be back to Parliament and then I'll be back up into the Territory in March, hopefully when it's not quite as humid.

ADAM STEER: Yeah, exactly. Well, good on you, Minister. The best of luck in Indonesia. As always, thank you so much for your time.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Anytime. Great to be with you.

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