Doorstop interview, Darwin

MADELEINE KING: … a number of projects right across Northern Australia, particularly here in Darwin, but also in the Pilbara in Western Australia and across Northern Queensland. These are important projects that will go towards the further development, job creation and liveability of Northern Australia as a whole.

Northern Australia has long faced challenges to its economic development. Successive governments are aware of this challenge. In a ministerial forum today, we have come up with a set of priorities that I'll go through in a minute, but really most urgent priority is to make sure that there is action. It is really important to have these meetings so we can set the agenda for the future of Western Australia, but the outcome we really want to see is the actions taken across all level of governments – from federal, state, territory governments, but also through to local governments, because we know that local governments are those that are on the ground that see all the issues firsthand.

So we're committed to working right across those levels of government. I do want to confirm that one of overarching priorities in Northern Australia, of all the four of us here today, is to ensure we build liveable, safe and healthy communities right across Northern Australia and that will put a priority on the development of human capital, including engagement with First Nations people, as well as migration and mobility, and also workforce skills and development.

We'll also have a focus on enabling infrastructure, importantly that will include digital connectivity, which the Albanese government is investing in very enthusiastically and very importantly. Also, a focus on economic diversification and development, with a focus on addressing the issues with climate change in this country and that will include a focus on transformational and complex projects, among other things.

This forum today has also agreed to refresh the 2015 white paper, ‘Our North, Our Future’, which is on developing Northern Australia, so that work will commence as soon as possible. We will also review the Northern Australia Indigenous Development Accord to ensure that it reflects the needs and aspirations of Indigenous communities as the whole community takes on the challenge of making sure and ensuring there will be a voice to the Australian Parliament's review on the Statement from the Heart, which, as you know, the Albanese Labor Government is firmly committed to.

Now, I'm going to thank each of my colleagues here and we had a very constructive, collaborative discussion over a couple of hours. We met firstly the night before and had some great discussions and obviously when I first became Minister, we've been in contact ever since then. What is really important to take as an outcome from today is the very thoughtful participation of all Ministers into building a future for Northern Australia.

There is a lot to do, there are many challenges for Northern Australia, but the people of Queensland, of Northern Territory and Western Australia can rest assured that you have four Ministers, all committed to driving the development of the North. With that, I'm going to hand over to our host here today, Minister Nicole Manison.

NICOLE MANISON: Thank you. Well, good morning, everybody and it was wonderful today to host the Northern Australia Ministers Forum right here in Darwin, the place that I like to call the “capital of the north”.

I want to thank Minister King and the Albanese Government because they have put the Northern Australia agenda back on. And this is really important because I think it's fair to say, under the last few years of the Morrison Government, we really saw the Northern Australian agenda falling by the wayside, and it's great to have a Minister and a Prime Minister that understand the importance of Northern Australia, not just to the people who live there, but to this nation.

We have got a busy program ahead of us and it is important that this nation invests in Northern Australia because it creates immense opportunities for everyone. We have got the resources to help us tackle the issues of climate change. We have got a wonderful place to live, a wonderful life, for families to have, to grow up in Northern Australia and places where we are short on people. So, there's great job opportunities for people who want to move here and become part of our communities.

And of course, we have high populations of First Nations people, and this is a wonderful thing to have that strong culture and that opportunity for governments, for businesses, for investors, to work with First Nations people. We've also made it very clear today that we want to make the most of all the opportunities for First Nations people with the prosperity and the future of Northern Australia as well.

For the NT Government, we're going to be continuing making sure that we advocate for better enabling infrastructure. Things like roads, water infrastructure and, of course, digital connectivity, which is a really big issue for people particularly living in remote areas.

We want to see the continued investment in important areas that make the Northern Territory a more liveable place for all people. And we have got a very busy agenda ahead of this forum. It's great to be back together. It's great to see that Northern Australia is a priority for the Albanese Federal Government and we look forward to working with our colleagues from the Federal Government, Western Australia and Queensland to make sure we always get the best deal for the people of the Northern Territory too. I'll now hand over to Alannah MacTiernan from Western Australia.

ALANNAH MACTIERNAN: Thanks very much, Nicole. Thanks, Matt. Look, fantastic to have us here representing the northern half of Australia. We have so much in common from across the top end that it is really important that we come together to share those learnings and to work out those things that we can do more profitably together. And we're very appreciative that the Federal Government really wants to reinvigorate this Northern Australia forum.

We've got great confidence that many of these challenges that we have – we’ve faced from climate change – that we have some transformational programs here in the North that really can help address those issues that Northern Australia offers a tremendous place for the emergence of a green hydrogen industry, and we've got to work really hard to get those opportunities up and running.

Northern agriculture also has great potential to be part of addressing that climate change story, with our grass-fed animals. We have got so much more that we can learn and do in the carbon sequestration space. So it's really exciting stuff that we can come together to work on.

We also acknowledge that we wanted to work on the Justice Reinvestment projects that we really do need to give, particularly our young people, real opportunities to reset their lives and to get out of cycles of offending. Complex issues – but if we work together, join forces together, share experiences, share Commonwealth funding, I think that there is really exciting things that we can do in order to transform Northern Australia.

SPEAKER: Over to Glenn.

GLENN BUTCHER: Thank you, and the only male on the panel today. It was great to be here in Darwin, certainly great to be able to get together again and recreate the forum going forward for not only Queensland, but also Northern Territory and Western Australia.

When the Minister asked us to put our ideas and thoughts together on what our collective areas were looking for in support for Northern Australia, most of the priorities that we put forward were all very, very similar. We in Queensland certainly now have a huge opportunity on the back of our $62 billion Energy and Jobs Plan moving forward. So a lot of the stuff that we talked about today at the forum certainly aligns with that, particularly in the renewables. Not only in the renewable space on hydrogen and those new economies coming on, but also the opportunities for manufacturing in this typical type of industries, where we're going to need electrolysers for hydrogen, we're going to need solar panels, we're going to need cables.

All of those things now will form part of how we're going to make sure that the northern part of Australia gets a piece of this very large pie of these new industries moving forward. Certainly on top of that, the priority areas we're looking out for – certainly Indigenous engagement. We know that certainly some of the areas in northern Queensland aren't the same as what happens down the east coast of Australia and down their southern counterparts. Connectivity, particularly, one area we talked a lot about today, how people in those remote Indigenous communities particularly can get the same connectivity that someone does in a place like Gladstone where I live.

So collectively today we had a really good conversation. It was very positive. It's great to have – a breath of fresh air, to be able to sit with colleagues and come up with a plan for the north of Australia to work collectively on it. Now it's a job for us. I don't want to just see a paper that comes out where we just look at it and refer back to it every now and then.

I want to actually see some actions out of what we've discussed today and how we can put some of that into tangible things in Northern Australia, and particularly in Queensland, where I'm from, a better place, not only to live, but to work.

MADELEINE KING: Thanks for that and happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: [indistinct] seeing some nuclear B-52 bombers in Northern Australia.

MADELEINE KING: Will we be hosting them? I saw the request on that earlier today. As everyone knows, the alliance between the US and Australia is very strong. It’ll be a question for the Minister of Defence. But if that is the case, then that may be so, and [indistinct].

JOURNALIST: [indistinct] the China-Australia trade situation further, with this US build-up in the North?

MADELEINE KING: Well, that situation is very one-sided and it's a situation where China has taken trade actions against Australia and it's up to China to make its decisions and I hope reverse those decisions. As for the articles about the aircraft that may be visiting, or basically, I'm really not sure of the detail, that's really all about the Australia-US alliance and that’s what’s included.

JOURNALIST: With this, in cities like Darwin or [indistinct].

MADELEINE KING: I don’t believe that to be so. There's been a lot of investment in Darwin and towns that host aircraft right across this country, but particularly in the Northern Territory. And that’s welcome investment - it’s good for the communities, it's good for jobs in those areas; the indirect jobs that come with having Defence Force people there, I do not think it increases the risk for those communities.

JOURNALIST: The Defence Strategic Review is due to be handed to the Government tomorrow. I don't think it's going to be made public until March. But should there be a refocus on Northern Australia as part of our defence strategy, given this is where the action is?

MADELEINE KING: Yes, it’s certainly where the action is. And I have no doubt that that report will be looking into the role of Northern Australia in our defence, as successive governments have been very aware of the vulnerabilities in the north. And I have no doubt that report will look into that, but I wouldn't want to pre-empt the outcomes of that review.

JOURNALIST: [indistinct] reassure Northern Australians that we will take a really independent position if there's a China-Taiwan hostility and not just follow what the US is doing, if they basically become more hawkish towards China during that situation?

MADELEINE KING: Australia always acts with its own national interest at the centre of its thinking. That is what this government will do. If there is any issues, we think of our national interests first, and that will be our guiding light, and our guiding principle.

JOURNALIST: Just on Middle Arm – your government has put forward $1.5 billion in [indistinct] industrial precinct there – what kind of cost-benefit analysis has actually been done to ensure the value [indistinct] has?

MADELEINE KING: The Northern Territory Government – and I really take my hat off the work that they've done over many years in relation to the business case and also the planning around the Middle Arm – they've not only been talking about it, they've been doing the work.

And I've seen the feasibility studies in relation to the Middle Arm Precinct in first – in fact, very soon after I became Minister, I came up here and did a tour of the land in question and met with the relevant Ministers and went through their plans. The Department of Infrastructure will widely – has used its expertise to go over those plans as well. They're very thoughtful and thorough and we support the ambitions of the Northern Territory Government to diversify its economy for a sustainable future, and part of that is through the Middle Arm Precinct.

JOURNALIST: And what exactly is this though? We haven't heard that much beyond some common unit facilities – what can we expect to see there for $1.5 billion, and when will the money actually start to roll [indistinct]?

MADELEINE KING: Certainly. It is the emphasis of the Albanese Labor government that infrastructure spends will focus on common use of infrastructure. What that is in relation to Middle Arm is something we'll keep talking to the NT Government about. What we won't do is impose direction or some kind of order from Canberra.

It's what we think should go there – the Northern Territory Government know best – what is best for this community and for the what will attract investment in Darwin and what will be the job creating industry of the future for Darwin. We know there is a focus on creating hydrogen-based and clean energy industries, but equally we have to get to the next level of planning with the NT Government, which we will undertake.

As for when the money flows, I will have to find out and get that confirmed by the Department of Infrastructure. But when the money flows will depend on further negotiations with the Northern Territory Government. But what you can be very assured of is that we will support this process.

JOURNALIST: Daniel Andrews says one of the solutions to the gas crisis is the implementation of a policy like Western Australia did many years ago, which is to reserve gas for domestic supply – is that something that the government's now considering on the East Coast?

MADELEINE KING: Well, I'm a Western Australian. I'm very supportive of the Western Australian domestic gas reservation policy, as Minister MacTiernan knows. And I know getting that to happen was highly controversial at the time. It was a great political struggle. But now, many years later, we see the returns of that, as well as not privatising the power industry in the choice of the Labor Government of Western Australia. It is a different situation on the East Coast because one, it's multiple jurisdictions, it's also gas out of – the focus seems to be a gas out of one jurisdiction out of Queensland. It's also very difficult to retrospectively put in a reservation policy after you've had investment go in. And it's, like, tens upon tens of billions of dollars. So the risk is around breaching international investment rules and WTO rules. So although we respect and totally support Western Australia's reservation policy, retrospectively putting one across Eastern Australia is very complex and problematic. But to the question about the energy issues as identified in the Budget and well before. not that long before because the former government hid the figures, we will be taking what action we can. And there's a number of ministers working on this project right now because we do appreciate the difficulty that manufacturers, but also consumers are facing with the hike in power prices and gas prices into the future on the east coast.

JOURNALIST: Well, shouldn't the Victorian Government then lift its moratorium on onshore gas – onshore gas development and then implement a domestic reservation policy on what would be a new development?

MADELEINE KING: Well, that is up to the Victorian Government. I'm sure they are well aware of the issues the gas applied within – I know they're well aware of the issues, I've spoken to the Ministers that are relevant to this discussion. I thought they actually had installed a moratorium conventional onshore gas, not the coal seam gas, but that remains against the constitution. I've no doubt the supply of gas in Victoria is very much on their minds. We know the gas reserves of Bass Strait are depleting more quickly than anyone anticipated and this is for – it's part of the problem.

JOURNALIST: The Greens [indistinct] have said that they don't want Middle Arm to take because they view it as a [indistinct] project and they're asking is it really going to be also a renewable precinct, will the Federal Government still provide the money if there is no green industry in there?

MADELEINE KING: Well, if members of Parliament or senators don't support the Middle Arm precinct, they're not supporting the Northern Territory and its admirable and thoughtful efforts to diversify supply. That's the starting point. My anticipation is that there will be green energy projects and the Northern Territory Government has said this, and this is a government that knows the future as well. We all want to get to the same place which is net zero emissions by 2050, we know increasing the investment is coming in to these green projects, so of course they're going to invest in these green projects. So, I mean it's not really up to senators, from the ACT or Melbourne to dictate to the Northern Territory what their government thinks should go into a project which will be transformative for this economy.

JOURNALIST: The Australian energy regulator, sorry, says that the gas price cap needs to be done within weeks to be effective. Is that possible? The Australian Energy Regulator

MADELEINE KING: Sorry who said that?

JOURNALIST: The Australian Energy Regulator

MADELEINE KING: Well, we're working on this project. Price caps bring their own problems as well. There are many, many options the government needs to consider across many portfolios in relation to gas and coal supply in the Eastern States.

JOURNALIST: [indistinct]

MADELEINE KING: Look I sure hope not. There is no doubt and the Budget will be very clear about this pressure and the reality is, if there's increase in prices, we're well aware of it and the government's going to work very hard to do what it can to bring these prices down. A lack of investment in a number of energy areas has put us in a - bit behind the 8 ball in relation to our options in regards to energy. The lack of investment in renewables and new energy has meant these are not available. But there is a bright future ahead. We know Minister Bowen brought in the offshore wind farm legislation, which will take a bit of time to get happening. The important thing is it is now happening, and it will be attracting investment and those projects will get underway as soon as possible, but it's going to be a difficult time as the Treasurer has highlighted. But what I want to reassure to the Australian people and Australian manufacturers is that we are working on the best possible solutions. We don't want to make ad-hoc interventions in a market that can create greater problems later on. So we're trying to be pretty thoughtful about this and [indistinct].

JOURNALIST: You talked a bit about the renewable side of the Middle Arm. Do you acknowledge that part of the Middle Arm – if this case is that it would rely or in part at lease on some of the fracked gas of [indistinct].

MADELEINE KING: The Middle Arm I have no doubt will rely on some gas. Because the Northern Territory is powered by gas, as is most of Western Australia. That's the reality of the geology and geography of which this beautiful town is a part of. In Victoria and New South Wales in any given day, 84 per cent of power generation relies on either brown coal in Victoria or black coal in New South Wales. So power generation here is – and in most of Western Australia is based on gas which does emit carbon dioxide, and we need to bring that down, but it emits a lot less carbon dioxide than coal. So to power the industries for processing critical minerals, for processing anything, in production or advanced manufacturing on Middle Arm will require gas.

SPEAKER: Last couple, guys.

JOURNALIST: The Northern Territory's Glyde Point has been discussed as [indistinct] for manufacturing. Is that still on the Commonwealth's, sort of, radar?

MADELEINE KING: Is that Glyde Point? I'm sorry I'm not familiar with that, but I can get my office to get back to you [indistinct].

JOURNALIST: I'm not sure whether you've seen news, it's just come out recently, but the Victorian Government's going to stump up the $15 million that has been withdrawn by Hancock Prospecting to the Australian Netball Team. Should taxpayers be filling the void where a sporting organisation doesn't want the money of a resources company?

MADELEINE KING: Look, I'm not going to get into an argument over the Netball Australia Hancock Prospecting. Congratulations to the Victorian government and I'm glad that Netball Australia will be having some funding to get it through, because we know it's [indistinct] a good State and it's one of the highest participation sports in this country so I hope some other sponsors can get on board as well and the female participation in netball, of course, is very important.

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] in the coming years, potentially six US B-52 bombers. What's your reaction to that and do you think that in any way heightens any risks associated with the property?

MADELEINE KING: Well, the Northern Territory has a very long and proud defence history here and we are a very important strategic location when it comes to Australia and the region. And that's why over many governments, over many, many decades, you have seen significant defence investment in the Northern Territory. To the point where, after the White Paper, there has been a $20 billion commitment over 20 years to upgrading infrastructure across the Northern Territory defence facilities and training sites. And it does include Katherine, Tindal and the airstrip there. It includes Darwin, you just need to have taken a fight over the last few years and you can see the immense upgrades happening there. Across the harbour there at Larrakeyah, at the training fields. There has been a huge investment, and that's going to continue for years to come. So this isn't new news that we're going to have American planes that will be coming in to the Northern Territory which already, frankly, do when we have our regular training exercises here in the Territory.

JOURNALIST: I think NT Government have had enough of a discussion with the public about potential risks because we've heard a lot about the economic benefits over the years.

MADELEINE KING: I think everybody acknowledges that Northern Territory has always been a defence town, a defence place. We've got a long history there and that's why we've had very strong defence investment. I think Territorian's are very comfortable with that. They understand our strategic location and generally are very supportive of that defence investment.

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] capacity, though, [indistinct] done nationally or internationally?

MADELEINE KING: Well, there's been no secret here about the defence investment happening through the White Paper and $20 billion going in over 20 years to upgrade the Territory's ageing Defence Force facilities. You go through multiple, multiple scrutiny processes with these types of investments. Certainly, the Federal Government have got many structures in place when it comes Senate Estimate hearings, [indistinct] expenditure communities and so forth. So, there is a lot of room that happens there. And, like I said, we've already seen year in, year out with multiple defence exercises that happen here in the Northern Territory, including rotational forces coming in with the marines. We do a lot of work with our allies.

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] starting to change relations between China and the US deteriorate and in Australia and China. Do we need to have more of a conversation about potential risks.

MADELEINE KING: I think that it is a good, strong investment having defence, investing in our infrastructure here because it was ageing, we want to have world-class training facilities here. We want to make sure that when our hard working members of the defence force are posted to the Northern Territory that they have quality housing, good places to work and have got access to modern state-of-the-art defence equipment. So I think this is a very good investment. The Territory understands that we have always had a very big defence component of our community but also for our economy and I think people are very supportive of this.

JOURNALIST: There's been criticism in the past couple of years that the number of actual Australian troops based in Darwin has been declining and a large section of the seven RAR sent to Adelaide in particular. Is that something that the Federal Government should be looking to reverse as part of its Defence Strategic Review?

MADELEINE KING: As somebody who represents a community with a strong defence presence, we love having defence people live in our communities and their families. They bring so much to the Northern Territory through the contribution that they make to our defence forces, but also what their families do in our communities. They're part of our sporting teams, our schools. They're there to contribute to our workforce in other ways as well so it is wonderful to have a strong defence presence and without a doubt, a success of Northern Territory governments have lobbied the Federal Government with regards to movement of troops from out of the Northern Territory when we had seen some go over to South Australia and over to Queensland because we think having a defence population here is really good and healthy for everybody in the Northern Territory.

JOURNALIST: What do you say to locals who are [indistinct] concerned about [indistinct]?

MADELEINE KING: I think everybody's well aware that we have a very strong defence presence here. You can see it everywhere where you go right across the Northern Territory and that our defence members are wonderful part of our community. People understand the need for Australia to have a capable defence structure in place and have the infrastructure to support it. So, seeing this investment flow through wouldn't come as much a surprise to anyone because we've seen it happening for years and years and years now as part of a two-decade program of $2 trillion worth of investment.

SPEAKER: Last question.

MADELEINE KING: Thank you everyone.