In its interim report, the Senate committee chaired by Labor’s Murray Watt has made a series of recommendations aimed at delivering on the intent to boost northern Australia.
Five years after the Federal Government released a white paper on the issue, and established the $5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, progress has been slow and disrupted.
The NAIF has committed over $2.4 billion but only paid out $218.4 million, as of the end of October, and expects to see $400 million drawn down by the end of June.
“It is clear from the evidence received to date that while the NAIF may have initially faced some difficulties, it has since made a number of significant investment decisions, and enjoys a broad level of support from stakeholders,” the committee found.
“It is equally clear however that there remain a number of areas for improvement.”
The committee recommended reforms already identified for the NAIF be fast-tracked, administration be simplified, and its scope be broadened to include small and medium-sized enterprises, particularly in Aboriginal communities. It may also have a role in helping some areas, and industries such as tourism, education and agriculture, survive the COVID-19 recession.
“The impact of COVID-19 on some communities and industries in Northern Australia has been devastating,” the committee found.
“The impact across sectors and localities has varied, and it is apparent that COVID-19 has exacerbated the underlying structural issues in Northern Australia’s economy. That is, a narrow industry base, dependency on exports, a transient workforce, long and inefficient supply chains, and strongly seasonal cycles.
“The committee notes with concern the evidence of a significant financial impact on the tourism industry, the high education sector, and the agricultural industry and offers its support to all affected individuals and organisations.
“It is important that a strong evidence base is established to identify which industries, communities and sectors have been most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in order to ensure that (Office of Northern Australia) and the NAIF prioritise projects within those industries and communities.”
Deputy Premier and State Development Minister Steven Miles said the NAIF was overdue for reform.
“The interim report confirms what we’ve said all along – barely any funding has come out of the NAIF,” Miles said.
“The global COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on North Queensland. I support the recommendation that the fund focus on COVID affected industries and communities.
“Under the the Federal Government’s watch, NAIF has failed to be transparent and has given big bonuses to bosses. These issues need to be fixed and funds need to released to much needed projects quicker.”
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