Transcript - Media conference, Darwin, Northern Territory

SAM MCMAHON: It gives me great pleasure to be here today with the Minister for Northern Australia and Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud, and also one of my fellow senators, Senator Susan McDonald. And Minister Littleproud has got a fantastic announcement regarding grants for businesses in Northern Australia. We often get accused of talking up the north, talking about the potential, saying how great it could be and not actually delivering. Well, these are some fantastic grants that are going to deliver a huge boost to northern businesses and agribusinesses. And I’m very excited. Coming from Katherine, we’ve got a lot of small businesses in Katherine that have got a great start that, with this grants program, will have the opportunity to develop and expand. So I’ll let the minister tell you about the specifics of the grants.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks Sam and to Susan. Well, it’s great to be in Darwin, albeit a little humid for a western Queenslander. But it is good to be here today because we’re announcing nearly $112 million in grants, 50-50 with those businesses that want to get ahead to come up here and to invest. There’ll be a small business scheme, that will go from 50,000 to $2 million and there’ll be a larger business stream that will go from 3 million to $10 million – a 50-50 partnership where those businesses that want to make investments in the north, transformational investments – whether that be infrastructure, machinery – that will continue to grow their business, to grow jobs up here in Northern Australia, then the federal government will partner with them.

This is about filling the gaps. We made significant investments – over $6.1 billion has been committed to the north, and now we’re getting to the granular level of making sure those businesses, those people that have the courage and conviction to put their own wallet on the table and to invest in Northern Australia, we want to partner with them. We think this is a way to accelerate the growth and the jobs that are here in Northern Australia.

So this is an important step and we’re making sure that business knows that the partnership will be there. This is on top of what we’re trying to do with insurance – the $10 billion insurance underwriting scheme that we’re putting in place, and now also bringing Northern Australia into the infrastructure department is pivotal, about filling those supply chain gaps.

So this is de-risking the investments with what the NAIF’s doing, what we’re doing with insurance, then what we’re doing with filling in those supply chain gaps with big infrastructure and roads, rail and ports. It’s making sure we’re de-risking those investments. But this is not just for the big end of town; this is about those small businesses that might want to invest here or are already here. We want them to have the confidence to grow and we’re saying to those, and particularly in southern parts of Australia who are doing it pretty tough at the moment, now is not a bad time to look north, to move north and to have a crack.

So this is us making sure real money is getting out there. We’re cutting our cheque and we’re going to ask business to cut it with us. Because if we do that, they’ve got the skin in the game, they’re going to be here for the long haul and they’re going to take advantage of the huge potential that’s here in Northern Australia.

So, Susan, did you want to say anything as the special enjoy?

SUSAN MCDONALD: Good afternoon. This is another terrific announcement to really get the rubber hitting the road, to get small businesses – 98 per cent of the businesses and the employers in Darwin is coming from small business – these business incentives and grants will allow businesses to not only get funding for their projects but a wraparound service of business services and consultancies, which is what we heard the north needed.

It is extraordinary to think that in Darwin in the Northern Territory there was no horticultural industry here at all prior to the 1980s and now you look at the opportunity, the diversification of crops, I’ve been out at mango and banana farms this morning looking at the barramundi farm. The opportunities to transform and generate the Northern Territory and the north more broadly is really exciting. This is another terrific announcement to see businesses able to flourish, to grow and to see genuine long-term generational investment into Northern Australia.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Very good. Any questions?

JOURNALIST: You’ve set aside a large chunk of money. How many businesses do you actually think you’ll help?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it’s a competitive process, and even between the two streams we’re not partitioning off any portion of money to either one. We want to look for the best and brightest in each of these projects and pick what will be – give us the greatest return on investment for the Australian taxpayer. That’s why we’re trying to make sure this is targeted, it’s open to those that want to have a crack up here, but to put any limitations on it and to actually scale up a number, we think would limit the potential that we could find. So we’re saying now and we’re opening up this process now – in fact, we will be saying to anyone that is interested to firstly make an expression of interest to the Office of Northern Australia. The money and the governance around the program is just being finalised now to make sure that the Australian taxpayer can have confidence in it. But we want to get it out the door, and we expect all the money out of the door by February at the latest. But there has to be a process of application, assessment, and we think if we start this now we can get the money out the door and in the north and in the economy right here, right now.

JOURNALIST: And what are the eligibility requirements?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Effectively you’ve got to have an ABN. We’re not going to put any real limitation on this. We don’t want big corporates. This is open to mum and dad businesses. And we want businesses that are prepared and have taken the courage and they’ve already taken the step to be up here, but also those that are thinking about it. This may be the final push just to say, “Here’s my opportunity to partner with the government to get my idea up and going or to drive my business to the next level, to drive an idea that is unique to the north, that draws on those unique resources that are here.” So we’re not discriminating against anybody on this; we’re simply saying you must be a business. You’re going to pay tax in the future because you’re going to make a quid up here. So we want you to pay some tax, and that’s really the only requirement that we’re going to put on you.

JOURNALIST: When you hear words like “Federal Government grant, big business”, what would you say to those mum and dad businesses?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Have a go. And we’re tailoring this to make sure that you can have the confidence to have a go. We’re not saying you have to apply for up to the 10 million. We’re saying you can get into a stream for as little as $50,000. Those are the types of things we’re saying because every business is different. And from big companies have come smaller companies and smaller family businesses invariably. And that’s why we’re trying to say to them they will be the heartbeat of Northern Australia, particularly those small businesses. If they come here, they’re more likely to stay because their family is entrenched here. With the big corporates, they’ll come, they’ll take what they can, they’ll sprinkle some fairy dust with some people here and with some jobs for a while, but mum and dad businesses will make investment in the community because their family is here. And that’s why we’re saying to those small businesses in particular, we’re trying to make sure we incentivise you to come to Northern Australia as well because there’s more sustainable growth of having families move here to have their future here in the north.

JOURNALIST: So is this targeted at southerners coming up here or people who are already here?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Both. We are obviously saying to those businesses that are here, “Here’s an opportunity to take your business to the next level, to grow and to use the resources that are up here and move even further.” But to those that are thinking and see the opportunity up here we are saying, “Here’s your opportunity to partner with the Australian taxpayer to make an investment in Northern Australia, to develop Northern Australia to the potential it has. Because the Government can’t do this alone. Everyone sits there and looks at us and says the Australian government’s got to carry the weight. Well, the Australian taxpayers’ have only got a finite amount of resources. What we’re saying is let’s partner with that private investment, and particularly those that haven’t had the courage to come up here before, we’re saying, “Come up now.” Because we’re going to try and de-risk this, whether through this program, whether it be through insurance, whether it be through NAIF, through finance or whether it be through the infrastructure that we’ll put in place to fill those supply gaps. And that’s what we’re saying. We’re giving people the confidence to have a crack, to move north and know that there’ll be a future.

JOURNALIST: And what are some of the benefits or drawcards of Northern Australia, particularly the Territory?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, let me tell you, I reckon there’s about five or six million people down in Melbourne and Sydney at the moment looking up here going – walking around no masks, no Covid and being able to live their lives pretty unabated. And can I say the way that the north has handled Covid should be commended. And let me say that shows the opportunity that’s up here. And that’s the lifestyle. But I think what they often haven’t seen is the financial opportunity. But now the lifestyle is there, it’s now trying to say that you can have a financial future. You can have a career pathway in the north. And we’re going to partner with you to do that. Because if we do, as a return on investment for the Australian taxpayer coming up here and developing these assets, the new frontier that those before us have done such a great job in laying the foundation stones, can take it further to the level that will not just benefit Northern Australia; it will benefit all of Australia. So I suspect anyone sitting in – locked up at home today in Sydney and Melbourne are probably googling Darwin right now or Cairns or Townsville. Very good.

JOURNALIST: Senator, do you mind if I just ask you an unrelated question?

SAM MCMAHON: Sure.

JOURNALIST: Michael Gunner just unveiled his road map out of Covid for the territory and said he’s prepared to sack workers, frontline workers, that don’t get a vaccine. Do you support that?

SAM MCMAHON: Look, I don’t personally support sacking workers who choose not to get a vaccine. We’ve said all along from a commonwealth perspective that it’s your choice if you choose to be vaccinated or not. So I’m not of the opinion that workers should be sacked, unless they’re working with particularly vulnerable people – so aged care, child care. Working with close contact with vulnerable people might be an area where you might mandate a vaccination. But otherwise no, I’m not in favour of sacking government workers, no.

JOURNALIST: And what would you also say to people wanting to come up north and build a business up here?

SAM MCMAHON: Do it. Absolutely do it. Do it today. Don’t wait until tomorrow. Come. It’s fantastic. Look at the lifestyle we’ve got. Look at the natural resources we’ve got. You know, if you want to come to the north of Australia, the Northern Territory, and build a business, come today.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks, guys.

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