Speech to the developing Northern Australia conference

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Acknowledgement of Country

I want to begin by acknowledging the Yuwi people – the traditional custodians of the lands we are meeting on today.

I pay my respects to their Elders, past present and emerging.

I extend that respect to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who are participating in this event.

That acknowledgement is particularly appropriate this week, as we celebrate NAIDOC week.

Uluru Statement

Along with that acknowledgement, I also reaffirm the new Government’s pledge to work in genuine partnership with our First Nations people.

The Albanese Government is committed to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a generous offer of a genuine partnership, and a real chance for us to create a reconciled Australia. It calls for Voice, Treaty and Truth.

This is a high priority for the Albanese government.
It will be significant to the people of Northern Australia, and as Minister for Northern Australia, I will do all I can to ensure the Uluru Statement is implemented - and implemented in full.


Thank you Professor (Allan) Dale for your kind introduction.

I would also like to acknowledge

  • Mayor Greg Williamson for hosting us in this wonderful city

  • Senator the Hon Murray Watt, Minister for Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry; and Emergency Management

  • Senator the Hon Anthony Chisholm, Assistant Minister for Education; and Regional Development

  • Nita Green, Senator for Queensland and Special Envoy for the Great Barrier Reef

  • Senator Susan McDonald, Senator for Queensland and Shadow Minister for Northern Australia and Resources

  • The Hon Darren West MLC, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Regional Development; Agriculture and Food; Hydrogen Industry; and Member for the Agricultural Region in Western Australia

  • The Hon Glenn Butcher, Minister for Regional Development and Manufacturing and Minister for Water for the Queensland Government  

  • The Hon Nicole Manison, Deputy Chief Minister for the Northern Territory and also Minister for Northern Australia and Trade, among many other important portfolios

As you know, Australians went to the polls in May. I am delighted to be here today as Minister for Northern Australia in the new Albanese Government.

Demonstrating the Government’s commitment to diversity I am also very proud to be the first female Minister for Northern Australia.

Although the title is new to me, many of the issues are not. I am also the Minister for Resources and, before that, the Shadow Minister for Trade.

Obviously, there is an overlapping footprint across these portfolios, but my ambition for Northern Australia extends beyond resources-linked projects.

I will be a strong advocate for the north inside Cabinet and at the highest level of government, because the economic and social upside of getting this right is simply enormous.

In this, I will be working with keen supporters. Our government’s commitment to the north was highlighted recently when our full Cabinet met in Gladstone, just weeks after the election.

The commitment of Cabinet will not stop there. The full cabinet is also intending to meet in the north of my home state of Western Australia.

This reflects our determination to ensure regional Australia and Northern Australia remain at the heart of decision making.

My home state of Western Australia, along with Queensland and Northern Territory, also signifies genuine collaboration across governments.  

The importance of Northern Australia

We all know that Northern Australia has strategic and comparative advantages for the nation.

It is a gateway for defence and security cooperation into the Indo-Pacific region.

It is an important producer of the resources that are powering the development of our region and will power the new resources economy.

It provides a close connection to our key trading markets in south-east Asia.

The unique challenges of Northern Australia

However, the 1.3 million Australians who live in the north have experienced higher costs of living and lower levels of service delivery, over many decades.

Together, we face a unique and complex set of challenges.

The north’s low population density and dispersed industry means it is difficult to capture the economies of scale that would normally underpin the case for community and infrastructure investment.

The north also faces higher costs associated with distance and remoteness.

The low diversity within our economic base, thin markets, absence of scale, and underdeveloped supply chains all contribute to a higher cost of living and a riskier business environment.

The weather presents its own set of challenges.

The spectacular landscapes across the north have been shaped by the region’s climate. However, in tropical regions, the wet season compresses construction and maintenance into a six-month window and impacts transport reliability.

This fact of life is well known to everyone here, but is often overlooked and forgotten in the more temperate conditions of the south.

Building requirements to address cyclone and flood risks also add to costs.

Frequent high maximum temperatures – which are projected to increase – compress the peak tourism window, with many visitors preferring to travel in the cooler winter months.

Similar to other regions, industry reports widespread labour shortages.

I had the opportunity to meet with James Cook University in Townsville a few weeks ago, and hear firsthand about the intertwined issues of education and skills.

Completion data shows that North and Far North Queensland lags behind the rest of the state, and Australia, and that picture is even worse for Indigenous students who may disengage with education at an early age.

Without sustainable, long-term commitment to education and building skills locally, we cannot address this serious barrier to sustained economic growth in the region.

COVID-19 has severely impacted the availability of seasonal and travelling workers.
Without this workforce, businesses are needed to constrain service offerings – I know this is a particular pressure point for the tourism, hospitality and agriculture sectors.

I also acknowledge a challenge in the North that gets raised with me at every single meeting – Internet connectivity and mobile communications.

You have all experienced the inequity of communications and connectivity across Northern Australia in regional, remote and very remote communities. This is a handbrake on new opportunities and better community connectivity in the North, and this Australian Government is determined to address it as a priority.

When you add them together – lower population density and less economic diversity, higher transport costs, challenging geography, distinct weather patterns, lack of connectivity, and labour shortages – Northern Australia faces a unique and complex set of challenges.

People are one of the key opportunities in Northern Australia

On the upside, are the people themselves, a young, multicultural population and the range of natural assets, including sun, water, productive soils, critical minerals and close connections to the Asia-Pacific.

The north (and this room) is filled with resilient people, dedicated to the future of their communities.

I am keen to reinvigorate collaboration in Northern Australia. To bring people together to draw on the depth of talent and the perpetual commitment to drive the Northern Australia agenda to deliver for the nation.

I recognise that collaboration is key to good planning and timely implementation of our agenda. Not only to provide for the highest and best use of our land, water, energy and infrastructure assets but also to bring our care, services housing, education and training up to par.

Each of these challenges require cooperation between jurisdictions to reach agreement.
In this regard, I am considering a range of options to support this essential collaboration into the future.

I intend to restart and reinvigorate the Ministerial Forum for Northern Development – the MFND – bringing together ministers with responsibilities for developing Northern Australia –  Minister Glenn Butcher in Queensland, Minister Nicole Manison in the Northern Territory, and Minister Alannah MacTiernan in Western Australia.

Our collaborations will be based on evidence-led analysis, such as census data, when fully available, to ensure priority investment is targeted for long-term impact.

And as I have already promised, I will be working closely with my Cabinet colleagues to champion a whole of Australian Government approach in Northern Australia.

Working with First Nations Australians

I believe we need to work together, including with First Nations Australians, to truly experience meaningful growth.

Not just in the cities, or for big companies, but for the smaller and lesser known places and communities that experience entrenched disadvantaged, yet have so much to offer our nation.

The resilience of remote communities, including some of the 600 First Nations outstations or homelands in the north, is demonstrated in the maintenance of strong connections to cultural and traditional knowledge.

This will benefit all Australians, not just those in the north.

The economic development of the north is providing alternative sources of national income, as we broaden out from some of our traditional industries to explore new or innovative opportunities – including better supporting First Nations cultural heritage and knowledge, but also the exciting innovation and business nous that a younger First Nations population brings to our economy.

The CRC for Developing Northern Australia is currently seeking new ideas and innovative approaches to unlock the vast economic potential of the Northern Australian Indigenous Estate through their funding call. The closing date has been extended to 22 July so please look into this opportunity.

In working to realise parity in Northern Australia, we are all contributing to the security of the nation and the economic and social wellbeing of communities across the north, including 200,000 First Nations people.

In keeping with our commitment to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart, developing Northern Australia needs to ensure a genuinely inclusive approach for all Australians.

I am pleased that members of the Northern Australia Indigenous Reference Group are participating in this Conference.

This morning I had my first meeting with the group to ensure First Nations voices and opportunities are at the heart of northern development. I thank all members of the Indigenous Reference Group for their thoughtful and ongoing work.

The Government will continue to support the work of the Northern Australia Indigenous Reference Group, and I look forward to working with the group into the future.

I will ensure the Northern Australia portfolio plays a role in creating genuine, inclusive and sustainable engagement.

Good policy can deliver good housing

Housing is also a priority for me.

We all know the security that having a roof over your head can provide. It is the hearthstone of family, community and economic participation.

We need to build more social housing, upgrade existing housing, and make sure that the promise of home ownership is extended to all Australians.

Tens of thousands of First Nations Australians live in overcrowded and run-down housing – which creates significant negative impacts on health, economic and social outcomes.

Closing the Gap, to achieve equality for First Australians, requires access to safe housing.
The benefit of investment in health, education and employment outcomes for First Nations people are amplified if people have access to safe and adequate housing.

The Australian Government will deliver an immediate boost of $100 million for housing and essential services in the Northern Territory.

There will also be maintenance and upgrades to remote housing across Western Australia and Queensland and the Northern Territory.

Diverse and sustainable growth 

Northern Australia is a large, diverse and vibrant region, with many exciting opportunities for market development and diversification and international investment attraction.

I believe the north’s natural and cultural assets can be sustainably developed to flatten boom and bust cycles, retain benefit in the region, build community amenity, and deliver workable social and care service solutions.

A cursory look at the many presentations to this conference shows that many of you share this belief.

Presentations with titles such as:

  • Mobilising Indigenous Led Development

  • Developing a Digital North

  • Securing the North’s Long-Term Prosperity by Joining Asia’s Carbon Transition Journey

  • (the) Port of Townsville Expansion Project which I had the privilege of visiting recently;

And my personal favourite title …

  • Beef, Barra and Burnouts – Transforming Regional Economies.

(A big shout out to the Rockhampton crew for that one. And being from Rockingham, I know a thing or two about burnouts.)

Opportunities in Northern Australia

It’s clear that opportunities exist to build on traditional industries including in the extraction and processing of resources; 

As well as the diversification of agriculture and aquaculture to produce clean, safe food, fibre and foliage.

We can capitalise on cultural offerings and natural assets to grow tourism;

And increase local participation in the defence industry supply chain.

Opportunities exist in new and emerging industries such as renewable and low emissions industries for example, solar, wind and hydrogen;

And in advanced manufacturing in the resources technology, medical, clean energy, and food and beverage industries;

In the space industry including infrastructure and observational capabilities; and

In cultural and creative industries which can enhance arts enterprise and individual empowerment whilst protecting intellectual property rights and cultural heritage.

There is a great deal to collectively achieve in the application of traditional First Nations cultural knowledge to improve environmental understanding, inform ecological management and create new technologies, medical treatments and industries.

As Minister, I aim to support and encourage others through good public policy and select investments in infrastructure. 

For example, access to reliable water is a critical enabler.

Tailored investment in water infrastructure will increase water security for communities and industry, increasing resilience to a variable and changing climate, and water needs.

Darwin’s Middle Arm industrial precinct has been identified as a transformational project for the Territory, through low-emissions manufacturing and export of hydrogen and ammonia clean energy. I will be visiting this exciting project later this week.

We know the opportunities in the Pilbara – in my home state – could help the region play a leading role in emerging energy industries like hydrogen and critical mineral processing.

Just last month, I visited the Townsville Airport, which is currently being redeveloped with support from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility.

NAIF financing has also supported the new 450 bed student accommodation facility built at JCU. Demand for accommodation at local education campuses far outstrips supply, but it is my hope that these kinds of investments continue. 

These are just some of the infrastructure projects accessing concessional finance through this $5 billion facility.

The NAIF supports viable opportunities to produce public benefits to the broader economy and community, economic and population growth and Indigenous involvement in Northern Australia in alignment with government policies.

I am also very supportive of ensuring NAIF is able to support smaller projects.

I am committed to ensuring the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility supports social infrastructure needed at the heart of northern communities and can provide social benefits that are sometimes not well understood, but always worth every dollar.

There have been important reforms made recently to the NAIF, in regard to equity partnerships. But implementation is lagging. Much work is needed to be done to ensure the systems are in place so that proponents and the NAIF itself can unlock the potential of equity investments.

I will be meeting with NAIF staff on this issue, and I very much look forward to visiting NAIF offices and staff around the country, and particularly in Cairns from which this important organisation is principally based.

I look forward to seeing a renewed focus and leadership in the NAIF under the new CEO, Mr Craig Doyle, who recently commenced in the role and is with us today.

Our election commitments

As I said earlier, I will be a strong advocate for the north inside Cabinet and at the highest level of government, and in this endeavour, I will be pushing at an open door.

I am here as the Minister for Northern Australia today, because Australians chose a Labor Government in May.

We took policies to the election which will benefit the north.
These include:

  • A $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund, including value-adding in our resources, agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries.

  • Our Powering the Regions Fund and Made in Australia Industry Plans have been designed to enhance investment in projects that will help build a new platform for growth in regional economies, where these industries are often located.

  • The Better Connectivity for Rural and Regional Australia Plan will help to overcome the communications constraints on productivity and service accessibility in the North. Just last week Minister Rowland ensured NBN Co received $480 million in funding to upgrade the NBN fixed wireless network – an important milestone but still a long way to go; and
  • Our Housing Australia Future Fund will build social and affordable housing now and into the future including in regional centres. This will create jobs, build homes and change lives.

A whole of government challenge

As Minister for Northern Australia, I am committed to leading a new Australian Government agenda for development in the north. I will be adding a focus on social infrastructure and community-led development, while still supporting industry to expand and create regional jobs.

I would like to thank the team from the Office of Northern Australia, in my department, some of whom are here today. I also thank the team at NAIF for all their efforts.

I also want your help to implement a truly whole-of-government approach; to work with you to deliver social and economic prosperity across the north.

I look forward to working together to realise an inclusive, collaborative and contemporary vision for Northern Australia – to benefit Australians now and into the future.

Thank you for listening.