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North to benefit from a rare moment of bi-partisanship backing investment

Politics

Ahead of the election, Coalition Senators have taken the unusual step of backing reform recommendations made by a Labor-led committee.

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A Senate committee investigated the effectiveness of the government’s Northern Australia agenda and whether changes were needed to facilitate economic development opportunities. It followed criticism of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility not living up to its promise to fund a development boom.

The report tabled in parliament contained 29 recommendations, and Coalition senators on the committee supported 13 of them “in an effort to be constructive”.

They include the need for all levels of government and stakeholders to hold further talks aimed at “de-risking the investment environment in northern Australia”.

The Federal Government would also be required to prioritise its response to insurance issues examined by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which could see more disaster mitigation works and potentially taxpayer-funded subsidies.

The Coalition senators supported a recommendation that the Commonwealth “increase investment in disaster mitigation in northern Australia, and research to improve mitigation options”.

“Insurance has become the single largest barrier to investment for many businesses in northern Australia,” they wrote in the committee’s final report.

“Average residential insurance premiums within the region are nearly double the rest of the country and are also continuing to increase at a faster rate than the rest of the country. Commercial insurance premiums are also increasing rapidly with some customers being quoted double-digit increases year -on-year.”

The Commonwealth would also be compelled to develop a “dedicated plan for improving digital connectivity and mobile black spots” and, with the states and territories, conduct long-term planning for a “comprehensive and fit-for-purpose road and rail network” in northern Australia.

The Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility could play a greater role, with the committee calling on the Commonwealth to seek closer engagement with “commercial financiers” to unlock the investment potential. Coalition senators opposed more targeted intervention.

While the committee split on how to “refresh” the northern Australia agenda, address the social impacts of development and issues around water and land tenure, there was agreement on the need to prepare for the end of the pandemic.

“The committee recommends that the Australian Government urgently prepare a post-COVID workforce strategy for northern Australia that identifies mechanisms to access essential overseas labour, including from Pacific nations, on a sustainable basis, with proper protection from exploitation and wage theft, that preserves the integrity of Australia’s migration system,” the report found.

Queensland remains a key electoral battleground, made more interesting by the pending retirement of long-term Coalition MPs Andrew Laming and George Christensen.

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