Address to the Developing Northern Australian Conference

As a nation we should be profoundly proud of our First Australians and the fact that we do have the longest living and I believe one of the richest cultures still existing in the world. And it’s something that we should cherish and be fierce custodians of. Aunty Bee’s welcome to country I think epitomises that.

And let me give this commitment to you, Aunty Bee, and to all our First Australians, is that I will continue to ensure that our First Australians are part of the Northern Australia conversation. And, in fact, only last week I met with the Hon Ken Wyatt, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, to ensure that he was part of the Indigenous reference group, that we will continually and regularly meet on a quarterly basis to ensure that the consultation with our First Australians, the opportunities it may bear for them are also there. So I give that commitment in response to your welcome to country as a commitment from this Government and me as Minister to move forward to ensure first Australians are also part of the conversation and part, more importantly, of the opportunities that lay themselves bare in Northern Australia.

Can I acknowledge my parliamentary friend and colleague, Senator Susie McDonald, Special Envoy for Northern Australia. I can think of no-one better to be given that responsibility. A passionate North Queenslander from Cloncurry and now resides in Townsville, but understands the North and understands the difference, as Aunty Bee quite clearly articulated, between Australia and Northern Australia. And I also have a vested interest – my electorate is part of Northern Australia, such is the expanse that it also controls and that I also obviously acknowledge the work that Susie will do in supporting me and really being the eyes and ears on the ground and making sure that she is a conduit, a continual conduit and not just living up there but working up there passionately in making sure that the Government fully understands the opportunities in real time.

And I presume that Senator Watt may possibly be on the line. I welcome him. And it’s always good to see a fellow Queenslander. And I don’t think Murray was able to get up there – he was in the same condition as me in terms of being able to get up there. But can I say to everyone else, thank you, and it’s great to be with you all, be it virtually.

It is a great honour for me to have been named the Northern Australia Minister. It fits very well with my other portfolio with respect to agriculture, but Northern Australia is more than just agriculture. And I think it’s been found over the last five years, six years now since 2015 when the white paper came out, that we identified a number of key industries that will drive Northern Australia. And the importance of that not just for Northern Australia, not just for the 1.3 million Australians that live in Northern Australia, it’s for our entire country. If we’re to get continual growth, exponential growth in our economy, then Northern Australia will have to play a significant part in that.

Much of it is untapped and unheralded in what it can do and has the potential to do. And we often hear about the potential of Northern Australia. It’s now time for the rubber to hit the road. And there’s been some significant work done since 2015 from the White Paper on in delivering over $6 billion worth of commitments, much of which has been through the NAIF, out of which 3.1 billion of that has been promised, I’m advised by the NAIF board and Tracey Hayes, who, as the new chair, is doing an exceptional job in bringing to light the new mandates that were passed by the previous minister and add to light to this organisation in ensuring that the investment of NAIF coupled with the investments, the grant investments, that have been made by the Federal Government through various programs have impact and create wealth and opportunity not just in Northern Australia but for the entire country.

It’s important to acknowledge also that during this ministerial change there has also been a Machinery of Government change – that Northern Australia will come underneath the Department of Infrastructure. And I think that’s a very important change, one in which will ensure that the strategic direction and opportunities are grasped, as they should be, in real time, bringing the expertise of the Department of Infrastructure with those key elements that have been pieced together, whether that be through the NAIF, whether that be through the CRC, the Northern Australia CRC, or whether that be through the Office of Northern Australia. Coordinating that, making sure that silos are broken down, we’re brought together in a coordinated approach.

And that’s pivotal, because the strategic direction opportunities that have been identified and worked on, whether that be in the resource sector, agriculture sector, tourism, what our job is to clearly identify the gaps, the gaps where the private sector has not – has feared to tread. And I think this is the opportunity of strategically understanding those gaps, bringing that together in a coordinated way, understanding those strategic opportunities that can be built on and making sure that the return on investment to the Australian taxpayer is one that is repaid not just through increased wealth but through increased opportunity for your fellow Australians in Northern Australia.

That’s through ensuring that there are jobs, new jobs, whether they be in resources or energy or agriculture, and that means that if we understand those gaps then we actually deploy our capital more efficiently and we getting a better return. And so that’s where not only does Senator McDonald play a pivotal role in making sure that that strategic direction is now more clearly defined and making sure that we build on the hard work of the over $6 billion put in place, five billion committed by the NAIF, over $700 million in roads, the investment through two research and development hubs for drought, making sure that we understand those opportunities but to build and to amplify and to build momentum is pivotal now.

For the next five years moving ahead it’s imperative that we build on the great work that’s been done but ensure we look at those opportunities that are there have a strategic direction in achieving them and ensuring that we have operational excellence in all not only the NAIF but in terms of the Office of Northern Australia and the CRC in delivery. Now is the time for delivery. We’ve laid the foundation stones, and it’s important now that from those foundation stones that we built by those who came before us that we actually get the rubber to hit the road. And that’s why it’s pivotal – pivotal – that the next five years be about delivery.

And so I challenge not only the NAIF board and the Office of Northern Australia and the Northern Australia CRC to break down any silos that were there but to make sure that our strategic direction brings everyone on that journey. And that’s not just First Australians; that’s also local government and State governments as well. It’s important we all understand we all have a role to play, that if we are to break down regulatory hurdles, if we are to break down those challenges that First Australians have, then we need to all sit at the one table. And then we all need to understand the strategic opportunities that are laid bare in front of us and grab them as quickly as they can.

And today I have to say that I have no reason to believe other than that focus and that effort continues. So it’s important that we understand what that strategic direction should be, what are the gaps that are missing and then what are the drivers that will drive into real action and actual real results. And, importantly, it comes back in many cases in supporting those key industries we’ve identified in Northern Australia and others that will come is about making sure that we look to the real tactile things of having a secure workforce, making sure that we can attract people to come and to work and develop Northern Australia, be part of those trailblazers that have laid foundation stones before us, to build on their work and be the new generation of trailblazers in the North, to make them understand the opportunities that lay in front of them and the role that they can play.

It’s also about ensuring that when you bring those people, that they have the services that are what is expected, whether they be in Northern Australia or any other part of Australia through health care and education. Even living in Western Queensland and even in Central West Queensland, I can tell you that that’s one of the biggest barriers to attracting that precious human capital we need. And that’s working with State governments, Federal and State governments work hand in hand, understanding the difference between Northern Australia and Southern Australia and making sure that that attraction of services and that human capital to provide those services is there.

But it’s also about making sure that we have reliable, efficient electricity, ensuring that those supply chains can be built on in a competitively advantaged way, as we in the southern parts of the country enjoy. And that’s making sure that we put those building blocks, those foundation stones, around growing the economy in Northern Australia, giving them the tools to be able to take a punt, get the private capital to have the courage to come forward and to have a go and to back Northern Australia. The gaps are where of what I have just identified are that we as Federal, State, other agencies, all have to come together to make sure that we give a clear pathway because then the courage and conviction of those that want to put at risk their own private capital will come forward. That’s how we unlock and that’s how we deliver for Northern Australia into the future.

So it’s an exciting time of building on the work that’s been achieved by so many before me, about looking at the opportunities and making sure that the strategic direction is one that will get results, that will deliver wealth, opportunities for not only Northern Australia – there’s 1.3 million Northern Australians there – but attract the next generation to go to the frontier and to develop Northern Australia for this country. There’s exciting opportunities ahead. And while I hear that as the catchphrase always about Northern Australia. Now is the time for delivery. Now is the time for commitment. And now is the time for results.

Thanks for having me and have a great conference. I look forward to seeing you next time in person. Thanks for having me.

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