Transcript - interview - ABC Radio Kimberley Broome, Breakfast with Vanessa Mills

VANESSA MILLS [HOST]: State and federal departments with an eye on developing the north met in Kununurra yesterday, It was the Northern Australia Ministerial Forum led by Minister for Resources and Northern Australia Madeleine King. She’s also the member for Brand in Perth.

Good morning, Minister King.

MADELEINE KING[MINISTER]: Good morning, Vanessa. It’s a delight to be here. Kununurra has really turned it on for us southern visitors.

VANESSA MILLS: I’m glad to hear. Now, there is a big conference on developing the north in Darwin in July.


VANESSA MILLS: What was the purpose of this smaller gathering in Kununurra?

MADELEINE KING: Well, its purpose is to bring together the state and territory government representatives to talk about how we can further plan for economic development in the north and collaborate with one another. Because we know particularly here in Kununurra you’re very close to the Northern Territory border, and we need to work together a bit better on moving things forward in that development space. And the same goes for Queensland as well. We have a lot of in common across the whole of Northern Australia, whether it be geographic challenges, our remoteness, also lots of Indigenous communities that need greater assistance from time to time, and also these wild weather events that we see come through that affect the tropics much more than any part of the country. And these are the things we have in common and that we can work together on.

And so the purpose of the Northern Australian Ministerial Forum is to make sure all the governments are working together and that I hear as the federal minister what’s going on on the ground that affects each of those jurisdictions. And we had the last one in Darwin, this one in Kununurra, and next time we’ll have to go to Queensland I’m afraid. So that’s all there is to that.

VANESSA MILLS: Now you mentioned the phrase ‘economic development.’ What do you see as being economic development for northern Western Australia?

MADELEINE KING: Well, there’s lots of opportunity across the Pilbara and the Kimberley. We see the development of the Ord that’s been a slow burn, the Ord Valley and the canals and all the irrigation that’s had to go in place and what we grow here or what the farmers grow. I mean, I can’t pretend to have been part of it for very long, of course, but there is so much opportunity. So it’s economic development through the NAIF – the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility – for example, is putting a concessional loan in for the construction of the cotton gin, which will drive more investment in the cotton farming around this district and hopefully nearby. So there’s that kind of economic development.

Also the potential across the north, whether it’s in the Pilbara, the Kimberley, the NT, around critical minerals and rare earths and making sure that government helps with those common user infrastructure facilities that can allow that mining to happen responsibly and in an economically viable way for the benefit of really reaching our net zero ambitions, because we need this critical minerals to get to that place.

VANESSA MILLS: Minister King, you’ve had this portfolio for a year now. Do you see the region’s development being about infrastructure projects or about people?

MADELEINE KING: It’s about everything. I mean, infrastructure is really important. We all know how important roads are and maintaining road and bridges. We see what’s happened in Fitzroy Crossing and the need for greater resilience in that what I’d call hard infrastructure. But there’s also that need for social infrastructure. And that’s what I’m – I’ve turned the attention of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility to make sure it concentrates on some projects like that. So addressing the dire need for housing for people in the region. We know that that’s right across the north. It’s right across the country to be frank, but the pressure is much more on the north. So the NAIF is investing in projects like social and other housing projects.

But also the government needs to make sure – and it is – putting money into more education up in the remote communities and regional communities across the north. So it’s very much about people. Absolutely. And without the great pioneering people of the north we’re not going to have that economic development. So, we’re a hundred per cent behind it.

VANESSA MILLS: And you touched there on the massive shortage of housing. It is costly to build in this region. It’s costly to even break new ground on greenfield sites for new housing areas. All of this contributes to a lack of rentals, high rent costs, high costs of homes to buy. People cannot afford to stay in the north. What strategies do you think are needed?

MADELEINE KING: Well, I think we need to release the money that the government is trying to build up through the housing fund. It’s currently being blocked by the Greens in the federal parliament. But we’re going to keep working on that because we need that funding to release the capital investment along with private investment to make those – that housing stock grow. But, you know, that doesn’t happen overnight. I totally accept that. It’s not going to magic up the hundreds of houses or thousands of houses that are needed tomorrow.

So this really is an ongoing challenge, and we work with the state and territory governments to each do the best we can to make that housing available. But there are struggles across these things. I do accept that there’s no easy solution, but we’re trying to get that funding in place to start that kind of building work so people can have houses. But right now unfortunately we’re stymied by the Greens party, but we will look at other means of doing it through another housing infrastructure fund that already exists within the federal remit to make sure that this happens.

But we all know – and everyone in the north knows – there’s the labour shortage issue as well. So that’s something we’re trying to address through reviewing the whole migration system so there’s a legitimate pathway for people and they’re not trying to get in through dodgy education-type visas but they’re able to come here and work productively and contribute to the community. So, there’s a raft of things going on in this space to try and address these problems that are right across the north.

VANESSA MILLS: Do you think the entire Kimberley region would become a DAMA designated area migration agreement zone?

MADELEINE KING: Well, we’re talking about that, and that already exists. I know the shires here are looking for that variation to it. And I’ll be working with the Minister for Immigration Andrew Giles and the Minister for Home Affairs Clare O’Neil. I spoke to members of the community last night at an event out at the Hoochery Distillery, so – and they raised this. And it has been raised before with the ministers, and I’ll be following that up straight away today.

VANESSA MILLS: You mentioned a couple of infrastructure projects – mines and things like that – but you also spoke about trying to have an emphasis on social development of the north, because I think over many decades we’ve seen that big projects usually don’t get up or, if they do in the north, they often fail. Surely developing the north is about building up society and community to be good, livable, functioning places with issues of housing shortages. We’ve also got lack of childcare. That keeps parents out of the economy. And if childcare centres try and recruit staff they’re not getting any staff. Have you had this brought up with you? Any ideas how to fix that?

MADELEINE KING: Look, you’re right. There’s a range of challenges, and the world has changed dramatically since the COVID pandemic when we lost a lot of the workforce in this country. But so what we’re doing as a government and with the agreement – and enthusiastic agreement I might add – of the state ministers from around the country, we’re going to do a refresh of the white paper for the economic development of Northern Australia because we need to look at exactly the things you mentioned. Like, how do we build sustainable, long-term future for the communities right across the north given the challenges they face, whether it be in the social sphere like childcare and so forth and early education and education from primary through to high school, access to further studies beyond high school, how do you keep people here and how do you welcome them back. Because we all understand that young people want to leave their home, but we want them to come back, you know, and take on the family business or whatever it is they want to do. Because it’s such a tremendous lifestyle choice up in the north. But they have to have sustainable, ongoing options and housing, like you say. It’s really vitally important.

So we’re going to do this refresh. We’re going to make sure we consult widely right across Northern Australia. You know, the Kimberley is very important to that given its massive contribution to the state as well as the country for that matter. So that’s what we’re undertaking to address those challenges. And, you know, I’m not going to kid anyone listening today across the Kimberley – we can’t fix the issues that are here overnight. But we’re committed to making sure we look at the problems, listen to the people and try and fix them as best we can.

VANESSA MILLS: And with that refresh, do you think that part of trying to develop the north economically also needs to take a good hard look at the embedded social dysfunction and the very high unemployment rates locally?

MADELEINE KING: Yeah, absolutely. It needs to look at all of these things and I think across the table in this white paper refresh, and that’s when we go out to the communities and start that consultation. We just – the money got allocated to this project in the last budget, so that work will be undertaken, will start soon. But, yeah, absolutely, this is a problem. It’s long-term unemployment, multi-generational unemployment as well. So that is absolutely something we’ll be looking at and we’ll be working with the Indigenous agencies and the minister, Linda Burney, as well through her portfolio to make sure we address all of these issues. So it’s going to be a big project but an important project. And the thing is I really want to get some runs on the board here too. I don’t want other things to stop while we take on this refresh, and that includes keeping the funding going through the social infrastructure projects of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility as well as other regional funding projects as well from the federal government.

VANESSA MILLS: So, Minister King, out of this small meeting, the Northern Australian Ministerial Forum, what key takeaways are you leaving with that you’re going to do, make happen?

MADELEINE KING: Well, I mean, we’re going to start work on a strategy to make this a sustainable north for the whole of the north. But equally we concentrated at this meeting on the biosecurity risks that the north faces with its proximity to overseas nations and the fact that, you know, a bad storm can bring in some diseases that we don’t want. So, you know, we want to make sure we address those issues. And one big takeaway from this meeting and something we concentrated on was disaster resilience and disaster recovery, because we’ve seen what happened here in Western Australia with the Fitzroy Crossing and the bridge being taken out, and that’s had, you know, a gargantuan effect on transport and will have some effect for some time.

And one of the takeaways for me is the importance of building these communities back better. We all know a lot of old housing stock is in remote and regional communities, and when disaster funding is applied what we find is that most of it is applied after the disaster, and that’s really important, but we need to build in resilience. Like, when we rebuild it’s got to be strategic recovery so that the housing and the other infrastructure around the community can last better and is more appropriate for the next event that’s going to come along.

VANESSA MILLS: That is often a problem with the disaster funding, for example, it’s that betterment. You can’t build the road better because you’re not allowed to under the funding.

MADELEINE KING: Yes, it’s a problem. And that’s – Murray Watt, the responsible minister, is conducting an urgent review on that, because we came into government and these things happen and you take stock of exactly where that spending is. And you’re right – the restrictions on betterment creates a problem because some of these houses, they need to be made better. Like, this does not make sense to be rebuilding things exactly as they were when design has changed and we know more about the location of houses and their susceptibility to flooding.

And also the evacuation centres that are, you know, 40 years old and they’re culturally inappropriate when people have to evacuate in a rush and it’s very uncomfortable for those evacuees, you know, desperately uncomfortable. So we need to make sure, you know, we put in this kind of infrastructure that’s multipurpose, can be used all the time but particularly when there’s an emergency there is appropriate places for people to evacuate to. And moreover, the housing when it becomes damaged is more easily repairable. And I think that’s really important. We do have to build some of these things back and build them in a more resilient fashion.

And that’s what we’re aiming to do, and that’s what we want to have this review to change the balance in that emergency funding so some of the funding or some more of it can go do that prevention side of things or mitigation rather than all the, you know, millions of dollars that have to go out after a disaster to rebuild something and with that betterment restriction on it, which is not really helpful.

VANESSA MILLS: Madeleine King, it’s been good to speak with you. Thank you for making time today.

MADELEINE KING: Thanks Vanessa. This is such a beautiful part of the world, and I’m so glad to be here again and I’ll be back soon.

VANESSA MILLS: Thank you. Minister Madeleine King, the Minister for Resources and also Northern Australia in Kununurra at the moment as part of the Northern Australia Ministerial Forum involving reps from Queensland, Northern Territory and WA. And there is a bigger conference on developing the north in Darwin in July.