Minister Littleproud interview Mix 104.9 Darwin

KATIE WOOLF: Now, if you were listening to the show yesterday you would have heard that we had the Senator Murray Watt on the show. He’s also the shadow spokesperson for Northern Australia. And some fairly scathing claims when it comes to the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund and the fact that the CEO has stood down from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund. Also comments around the politicisation of some of the appointments to the NAIF.

Now joining us on the line to talk more about that but to also talk about, well, these grants which are up for grabs at the moment for Northern Australian businesses, I am joined by the Minister for Agriculture and Northern Australia, David Littleproud. Good morning to you.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

KATIE WOOLF: Now, Minister, we know that yesterday obviously on the show Labor Senator Murray Watt joined us and, as I said, he was quite scathing in his discussion about the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, but particularly the around the CEO, the NAIF’s CEO obviously resigning just ahead of that Senate hearing. What exactly happened with the NAIF CEO?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it was a personal decision of the CEO. The CEO isn’t – doesn’t report to the government; he reports to the board. The board is accountable to me. I have full 100 per cent confidence in the board and the chair, Tracey Hayes, despite some of those comments made by Senator Watt. I have the utmost faith in both Tracey and the board, and the decision by the CEO was his alone, and obviously that’s something for the board and him to reconcile, and they have, and we are now moving on. But it has not in any way diminished the progress and the work of the NAIF. It continues on with or without the previous CEO.

KATIE WOOLF: Now, for those out there listening this morning who missed that discussion yesterday with Senator Murray Watt, I’ll just play a small bit of that audio.

MURRAY WATT: One of the things that we have been hearing is that there has been sort of increased politicisation of the NAIF. We’re obviously getting closer to an election, probably in the early new year. Let’s face it, the National Party who oversee this fund have a pretty poor record when it comes to rorting public funds and trying to use them for their political ends. There are some very political people now involved with the NAIF. So I am concerned about those kinds of reports, and I think it’s really up to the Minister, David Littleproud, to front up and explain why a CEO who’s being paid over $400,000 a year to run this organisation has suddenly departed. Clearly this is a political appointment. Don’t debate whether Ms Hayes has ability or not, but, you know, also she’s clearly a political appointment.

KATIE WOOLF: Sorry, Minister, a couple of those little grabs there got intertwined somewhat. But, yes, he’s definitely been speaking about the CEO’s standing down and then also spoke about Tracey Hayes the chair of the NAIF, being a political appointment. I know that here in the Northern Territory Tracey Hayes is certainly very well respected. Many people do understand that she ran against the Chief Minister Michael Gunner at the last election but certainly has a whole repertoire of skills not related to politics.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, exactly. And the reality is she was appointed on merit and ability. Tracey Hayes has the ability to be able to run the NAIF and to make sure that the operational management via the CEO and the staff are to an operational excellence level. And I have no doubt that she’s been able to do that and she is doing that. Now, the fact that the CEO’s left is a personal decision for him, not Tracey Hayes’s call. So with all due respect, while Senator Murray Watt wants to play politics, I’m going to – not going to indulge in that. In fact, so much so that I’ve engaged with Senator Watt about giving names for the Indigenous reference group that is attached to Northern Australia. I’ve asked him to give me names so that we can work in a bipartisan way. But if he wants to play politics, well, that’s the Labor Party way. Good luck to him.

KATIE WOOLF: Now, I do want to ask, though, he did also make some claims around other issues with the NAIF, one of those being that half the staff he says are actually based in Sydney not here in Northern Australia. Is that the case? And, if so, why?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, some of those – that is correct. And some of those – and the reason around that is that some of those people have skills that aren’t found in Northern Australia. But we are rectifying that. And obviously that is one of the key KPIs that I’ve given the board not only on the NAIF but also the Office of Northern Australia – that we should be able to build that capacity and capability in the north of Australia. And I intend to make sure that that actually continues to move through. Some will have to continue to remain in Canberra, and the reason for that is that that interlinks with the Department of Infrastructure. But the majority of them should be in Northern Australia, and that’s something that, as the new minister, I intend to pursue and to make sure that we have these key positions from people who are either in Northern Australia now or are prepared to move to Northern Australia and be part of it.

KATIE WOOLF: Yeah, it does seem quite absurd that when you’re talking about a Northern Australia infrastructure facility that, you know, half of those staff aren’t actually based in Northern Australia.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: And it comes down to the skill sets in terms of these are very defined skills in terms of finance assessments. So, they’re not skills that you find right across Australia. They’re in a very small subset of the finance sector. And so, getting that skill set is difficult to attract. And obviously what we’re now trying to do is to make sure that as positions become vacant, we push those towards Northern Australia. And one of the prerequisites is that they live there. And I think that’s important. Coming from Western Queensland, I think that unless you live in the community, you’re part of it, then you don’t have the connection, you’re not making the decisions predicated on what Northern Australia or, in my case, Western Queensland is about. That’s one of the things as the new Minister I intend to rectify. And that will take time, but it is something that is high on my priority.

KATIE WOOLF: Well, I reckon it’s pretty bloody fair enough. You know, if we’re talking about developing Northern Australia, you’d want to think that some of the people working on that actually want to live in Northern Australia.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Exactly. And that’s really just common sense. And that’s what I intend to rectify.

KATIE WOOLF: Now, one of the things that has been announced today, applications for the first round of $111.9 million worth of grants open today for eligible businesses in Australia’s north looking to expand, diversify or grow a new industry. Minister, this is the first round of the Northern Australia Development Program grants. Who’s eligible and what kind of businesses might be able to get one of these grants?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, we’re looking not just to small business that are there in Northern Australia at the moment but those that want to come up, that want to transform their businesses, to expand and to grow jobs and create jobs in Northern Australia. So we’ll try to keep it as flexible as we can to ensure that those businesses that either want to transform their businesses with new technology or expansion – but this is a 50-50 partnership. This just isn’t straight out the Australian taxpayer pays it all. This is a competitive grants process where we’ll get the best bang for buck partnering with business, with those businesses, whether they be small – and you can be a small business and get up to $2 million or a larger business up to $10 million but you have to be able to demonstrate how you’re transforming your business, how it’s going to grow Northern Australia and grow jobs in Northern Australia.

So this is a 50-50 partnership to try and incentivise growth of the business sector and to fill those supply chain gaps that we’ve got across Northern Australia as quickly as we can.

KATIE WOOLF: I know there’s always plenty of different types of grants, but are these the first of their kind or has this rolled out in previous years?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, these are the first of their kind. And we’re trying to make sure that we have a suite of measures for Northern Australia, whether that be through grants, whether that be through NAIF. And can I just also address Murray Watt said that we’ve only drawn down $400 million of the $5 billion loan facility for NAIF. That is correct, and the reason for that is that we expect business to pay their portion first before we use Australian taxpayers’ money. So, we only draw down that money once they’ve hit milestones and they’ve spent their own money. Otherwise the Australian taxpayer gets left with an asset that’s not operatable and there is no actual value for money.

So that $400 million will actually grow exponentially very soon as these businesses that have these loans put their money up first. That’s the responsible use of taxpayers’ money. Murray Watt and the Labor Party are saying, “Let’s just spend the money straight away. Don’t worry about it.” And if the proponent walks away, then we get left with an asset. You’ve got to have skin in the game, and that’s why these grants that we’ve announced today, you’ve got to put 50-50 up. With the NAIF loans you’ve got to put your money in first. We’ve got to see the colour of your eyes and the colour of your money before we use Australian taxpayers’ money. But if we do that in partnership and we spend your money responsibly, then we all get the return on investment that the Australian taxpayers deserves. And that’s whether these grants or with the NAIF loans, we expect the proponent to use their money first.

KATIE WOOLF: And, look, I certainly take on board what you’re saying, but we sort of have seen over previous years, haven’t we, that the NAIF maybe wasn’t as effective as what we might have liked it to have been in the early years.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that’s why we’ve changed much of the mandate and we can actually also take equity stakes on behalf of the Australian taxpayer if we believe that there’s a good investment in this. And we’re working with banks to make sure that we can aggregate debt and go further through in supporting some of these proponents. Because you’ve got to understand, these aren’t your garden variety ice-cream shop on the corner store in Darwin; these are big infrastructure projects and they take time to gestate and, you know, not only in terms of planning but rolling out. And that’s why there’s only $400 million of the $5 billion that’s out the door at the moment – because much of the money that is being spent is being spent by the businesses themselves before we call on the taxpayer. And that is a responsible thing to do. Labor way is just put it out the door and don’t have any governance over it at all. And that’s not a responsible thing to do. This is not our money; this is your money. And we’ve got to make sure we use it properly. And if businesses spend their money first, we know they’re going to follow through and they’re going to end up creating the jobs up there rather than taking an easy option and walking away early. And that’s why we’re trying to simplify the process more and more through the NAIF facility.

KATIE WOOLF: Now, Minister, just finally on these grants that obviously have been announced today, the first of their kind, we know, like I mentioned, $111.9 million worth of grants open only for those eligible businesses, and it is all about making sure that we are really expanding the north and bringing business to the Northern Territory and the rest of Northern Australia as well of course. Where can people find out – although, we’re a bit biased obviously to the NT.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: You’ve good reason to.

KATIE WOOLF: Hey, where can people go if they are after a bit more info or how can they sort of – you know, I know it’s not as simple as just going through an easy grants process. Where can they go to if they need to sort of talk to somebody or need to get some more information about these grants?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, the Office of Northern Australia, which we have an office there in Darwin and right across in Queensland and Western Australia, we’ve got offices right across the country making sure that they can connect. So, the Office of Northern Australia has the details. And, in fact, if you go to the website it’ll then get you through to the Office of Northern Australia to the application process, the presentations of interest process and to get your lodgement in so that we can make the assessment. Because we really want to get this money out the door in partnership with business early in the new year so that we’re getting the bang for buck as quickly as we can.

KATIE WOOLF: Before I let you go, how important is it, do you think, with Northern Australia – I know that there’s been a big push certainly from us in the territory and, indeed, everybody around Northern Australia, to really try and grow the population, get things moving. How important is it do you think that we sort of try to capitalise on this as we see Australia open up again and those COVID restrictions lift? I know we’ve got a few opportunities here in the territory right now when it comes to those Qantas flights and a few different things happening. But how important is it that we really just try to capitalise on it right now?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, look, you’ve got a window of opportunity to actually lead the country out of this. I think there’s some tentativeness down in the southern states. They’re a little shell shocked and they’re looking for new opportunities, because, you know, this has shaken the world up in how we do things. And I think there’s now an awareness that there are opportunities outside the big capital cities. That brings risk by being there while there’s population. Looking at new opportunities and where the resources and where the growth opportunities are is what I think business is looking at in particular. And that means investment dollars will follow. We need to continue to invest particularly in the human capital to make sure we’ve got the skills and the training to do that. And that’s why the Indigenous reference group is so important – because we want to make sure we’ve got a skills-based model to it to complement the population we’ve got there to have the skills to give those businesses the confidence to come up and have the staff to be able to do the work.

So that’s really what we’re trying to work through as quickly as we can. But this is a window of opportunity, and that’s why I want this money out the door now, partnering with businesses, so that we can take advantage of that. And I think there is an awakening that there’s more to Australia than Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, and that’s a good thing. And I think we’ve got a window of opportunity. This money needs to go out. There’s another 60-odd million that’s going out also from improved telecommunications grants as well, so the Office of Northern Australia has got those details. So, we’re trying to put the environment infrastructure around Northern Australia to take this window of opportunity and really run with it.

KATIE WOOLF: Well, Minister for Northern Australia and also Agriculture, David Littleproud, appreciate your time this morning. Thanks for having a chat with us.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Any time, thanks for having me.

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