Interview - ABC Radio Kimberley - Mornings with Eddie Williams

EDDIE WILLIAMS, HOST: And there could soon be billions of dollars in extra money available to support infrastructure projects in the north with the Federal Government looking to expand NAIF, the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. The government's looking to increase NAIF's expenditure from $5 billion to $7 billion, as well as expanding its remit to include Christmas Island and the Cocas Keeling Islands. A short time ago, I spoke with Madeleine King, the Minister for Northern Australia and Minister for Resources, who’s introduced these proposed changes to Parliament. She says the extra money will help to keep the momentum going when it comes to opening up the north's economic possibilities.

MINISTER MADELEINE KING: So, there's a lot of momentum now within this Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility and this extra $2 billion means it will be able to unlock the economic potential right across the north of the country. But as you might know, and your listeners might know, there's been a lot of projects in northern Western Australia which is very important for those local communities.

EDDIE WILLIAMS: Do you just want to explain the extra $2 billion into a fund like this? How does that work? Over what time period? What's that actually mean in terms of money getting to projects?

MADELEINE KING: Well, it means the pipeline of projects can continue to progress. Because what was happening is that the NAIF had nearly run out because it's been very popular, it has worked very well once it got going. It did have a few delays in its starting years, but it's kicked into gear and that's really positive. So, we were coming up against the $5 billion limit. So, this is another 2 billion, and there's still a bit left in the first part of the expenditure possibilities. And it just means more projects can happen, projects like Pilbara Minerals, Pilgangoora Expansion, which is near Marble bar or the Perdaman project in Karratha. Projects like that will be able to emerge and create more jobs and more opportunities for people in the north.

EDDIE WILLIAMS: And there's now also the opportunity to expand to projects in Christmas Island and the Cocos Keeling Islands. Are there particular projects on the table that might have prompted that?

MADELEINE KING: Yeah, well, you're right, and this is really important for those two territories, the Indian Ocean territories, as they're called. It extends to them, but there are smaller project possibilities. But it's important that they get the opportunity to be able to access this infrastructure facility. And there's some proposals, and they're really at their opening stages at the moment, around particular resources projects. But we'll keep talking with the proponents and see what ideas emerge out of Christmas Island and Cocos Keeling. But the main thing is that they have the opportunity to access the facility and not are limited to resources projects of course, there may be some social infrastructure or housing infrastructure that can be invested in partnership with the private sector.

EDDIE WILLIAMS: The Bill also clarifies that NAIF is able to provide funding for the development of northern Australia economic infrastructure for the benefit of Indigenous people. What does that mean? How is that different to what it was doing before?

MADELEINE KING: Well, what it really does is clarify the position of the NAIF, that it's able to specifically have projects that specifically benefit our First Nations people. And it's always been the case that these facilities have that in mind when the board looks at them, that what is the benefit to local communities, including indigenous communities? But there was some doubt as between how the NAIF Act worked with the Constitution and what this government wanted to do was just remove any doubt that this is what the NAIF is empowered to do, is to create projects that benefit local communities and, in particular, as appropriate, First Nations communities.

EDDIE WILLIAMS: What might that look like?

MADELEINE KING: It actually doesn't change a great deal in as much as these projects have always had that in mind, but it just makes sure everyone's certain about that. And as the Minister for Northern Australia, I have responsibility for the NAIF, I want it to be clear to everyone that one of my priorities is to make sure all the projects that the Government supports through these low interest loans have a clear thought line and considerations for how they benefit indigenous groups in the community.

EDDIE WILLIAMS: Sometimes projects receive quite a bit of NAIF funding but then fall over. The Potash mine near Newman Kalium Lakes isn't in production. It had one shipment and then fell apart. Are there any changes or should there be any changes to make sure the Government funding isn't backing projects that don't actually end up bringing any benefits?

MADELEINE KING: Look, it's a fair point and I think the projects you're talking about, and there may be some others, I don't deny that, they do run into problems because circumstances change, the profitability mix changes, or something else happens in those private companies. But what I do know is that the due diligence that the NAIF carries out is extensive. And there's no doubt the NAIF, as a government facility does carry some risk. But that's kind of the idea because we need a facility that's backed by the government to get these projects up and going for the benefit of the north because of the challenges Northern Australia faces. It is hard to get capital into the north because of the expense, the challenging environment where sometimes you can only work on projects for six months of the year. So, kind of the purpose of NAIF is to accept some of that risk and we're very mindful of it because we want to make sure there's a return to the Australian taxpayer. And it turns out there absolutely has been in the jobs that have been created and the return on that investment and that kind of covers off some of those projects that haven't ordinarily worked. And we do – those loans, money does come back to government as well.

EDDIE WILLIAMS: The Prime Minister has addressed the media earlier today outlining the proposed wording for the referendum on the Voice to Parliament. How confident are you and the government that Australians will have the detail and the understanding to be able to back this proposal later this year?

MADELEINE KING: Today is a really important day in the history of this nation. Agreement has been reached with the working group on the referendum and that wording, and many people would have seen the images and they'll hear of it later tonight as the news sources go around, where this proposed a really important change to our constitution, where we recognise First Nations peoples - will go forward and be put to our nation. And having been involved in this, I find it one of the more remarkable things of my career to have had the privilege to be involved in. And there is a job to do as a government Minister and all my colleagues and I need to talk to all Australians about how supporting the Voice to Parliament and recognition of First Nations people in the constitution is important for our nation going into the future and recognising our past as well. I don't take anything for granted on a referendum. They're very challenging to win. But I will set about going up to the north in particular where of course, we've got a lot of indigenous people. That's where most indigenous people in this country live, is in Northern Australia and I want them to be able to have a say in this referendum as well.

EDDIE WILLIAMS: Madeleine King, the Minister for Northern Australia and Minister for Resources, who has introduced a number of changes to the Federal Parliament which would amend NAIF, the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, including expanding its expenditure by $2 billion and enabling Christmas Island and the Cocos Keeling Islands projects there to be eligible for finance through NAIF.