Interview with Paula Kruger, ABC Radio Perth

Paula Kruger: Now if you did watch Utopia it might be the kind of plan that you heard on that program, but the thing is it's very real. The federal government has today released the results of a two-and-a-half-year CSIRO water assessments of Northern Australia. So this includes the Fitzroy River catchment here in WA. It highlights how the north could be further developed to create jobs, dams and food.

The Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack says the Coalition wants to make sure it gets carried forward now. I spoke to him earlier this morning and started by asking him why the government has decided to release this plan now.

Michael McCormack: It's timely—and certainly timely when we've got a nation talking about drought-proofing, talking about making sure that we build resilience, talking about taking the opportunities to enhance our market arrangements with our Asian neighbours and the middle class of Asia is absolutely burgeoning at the moment.

So all of those things taken into account with the Developing Northern Australia White Paper which ensured that this program, this proposal, was developed—the Northern Australia Water Resources Assessment. It delivers a wealth of new data to inform future policy and as I say, future policy is all about drought-proofing and ensuring that the Northern Australia area gets developed.

Paula Kruger: So just to clarify, it doesn't have anything to do with the political events of last week in Canberra. This was scheduled to be released all along?

Michael McCormack: That's my understanding. We are just getting on with the business of government as per normal and we've been a good government.

This was always being undertaken and just because we've changed Prime Ministers doesn't mean to say we've changed tack as far as these sorts of things. And certainly with developing Northern Australia, that continues, that progresses.

And certainly we want to make sure that people know and understand that we've got a policy and an aim and a vision for Northern Australia and we're going to continue on with it.

Paula Kruger: Can you tell us what your specific plans are for WA including the Fitzroy River catchment?

Michael McCormack: The study has identified the best sites within the best catchment and they identify those as Mitchell in Queensland, Darwin in the Northern Territory and Fitzroy in Western Australia river catchments.

So the best sites with the best potential for irrigated agriculture development, which is sustainable, it's productive, it's got everything that it needs to have.

There's a lot of water up there. It's not being utilised to its full extent, to its full advantage. We want to do that. We want to have this document published so the states can use it in their water management planning. We want to make sure that we take on board the suggestions, the ideas, the visions, to see if we can develop this sooner than what we planned.

It reflects potential for 387,000 hectares of crops such as cotton and sugarcane. It could potentially guarantee 15,000 jobs.

I come from south west New South Wales, the Riverina, where John Oxley the explorer described the area that is now an absolute Garden of Eden food bowl—the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area—as a howling wilderness that nobody would ever want to set foot in way, way back in 1817.

But honestly, add water, grow food and fibre. It's that simple.

Paula Kruger: So just to clarify, are you going to be turning cattle stations into irrigated land?

Michael McCormack: I'll take heed of the advice from experts such as economists and the CSIRO and obviously key stakeholders. But look, there is potential there and I'm sure that people who own cattle stations will also be delighted that they can diversify their agricultural production.

I've been to that that area. I know Senator Mathew Canavan, the Minister for Resources and perhaps more importantly in this aspect, Northern Australia, he understands and knows that country well. We want to make sure that the north gets developed for the good of the nation and for the good of our market opportunities going forward.

Paula Kruger: So how many jobs do you think this will create?

Michael McCormack: Potentially we're saying up to 15,000. I mean there's $5.3 billion of annual economic activity.

If what you see and read in the report and what's been suggested, the full vision becomes a reality.

And even just taking Darwin alone, you know, it could create around 200,000 jobs around Darwin and boost that local economy by $1.5 billion. So the Mitchell catchment could end up with 7,250 jobs. There's so much scope and potential here.

Paula Kruger: And what kind of jobs are we talking about?

Michael McCormack: Farming jobs, construction jobs, construction going forward as far as irrigated channels but even just developing new communities, new towns, indeed let's even talk new cities.

In my Press Club address earlier this year when I became The Nationals' leader, I talked about blue sky vision with developing new cities in Australia and if we're going to go forward as a nation we have to have that sort of blue sky vision and we have to ease the congestion now in our cities, in the Brisbanes and the Sydneys and the Melbournes. And we have to make sure that our regional areas are developed to their full potential.

Paula Kruger: We're talking to Michael McCormack. He is the Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals' leader. So can you tell us who's going to buy that sugarcane and cotton from this area? Is it a local market is or isn't an export market?

Michael McCormack: Potentially it's both. But certainly our export markets, I know Scott Morrison is heading to Indonesia to talk up trade arrangements with Indonesia tonight. So you know, there's potential there to develop even more markets and with the Trans-Pacific Partnership 11, that's a $12 trillion opportunity for Australian small businesses and indeed Australian farmers.

Paula Kruger: But it is a remote area, how are you going to get the stuff out of there?

Michael McCormack: We've also got a $75 million infrastructure pipeline over the next decade and we only want to build on that.

We've got the beef road projects. We've dedicated $1.5 billion of the $3.5 billion announced in the budget for the Roads of Strategic Importance program. They're not national highways. They're those secondary roads.

But certainly any development in the North can take into account all of those programs and projects.

Paula Kruger: And Deputy Prime Minister have you consulted with the traditional owners yet on this plan?

Michael McCormack: As I understand it, the traditional owners have been consulted and we'll obviously continue that negotiations and that consultation as time progresses.

Paula Kruger: And what about when it comes to the environment because I understand the Northern Territory's Farmers' chief executive, Greg Owens, has been quoted as saying that you know big dams on iconic rivers aren't really what we need because of the environmental impact and no one in the North wants it. What's your reaction to his view?

Michael McCormack: You're always going to have differing opinions. So you're always going to have these sorts of consultations and people who are perhaps naysayers and look, and I understand it. You've got to take all these considerations on board.

But the scope of the potential is enormous. We want to develop the North. We've laid out a vision. Since we were first elected back in 2013 or re-elected in 2013, we want to make sure that we give the North every bit of the ability to go forward and we'll do just that.

Paula Kruger: So that's the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of The Nationals, Michael McCormack. He was joining us earlier.