Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2023

I support the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2023, as it makes amendments to the previous coalition government’s announcement and clarifies definitions in existing powers relating to Indigenous persons. The Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility was an initiative of the former government, introduced in 2016 with the objective of NAIF’s investments supporting the transformation of northern Australia by financing projects that generated broad basic public benefits, helping to grow the economy and population of northern Australia and catalysing private sector investment—that piece is really important—and by being an innovative financing partner.

It was another clear and direct beneficial coalition commitment to rural, regional and remote Australia. It was a $5 billion commitment originally, which is being expanded to $7 billion in this bill, as announced by the coalition in December of 2021. Of the original $5 billion committed by the coalition, $4 billion has been committed to projects financing in general. There was $2.6 billion committed for closed deals. Over 15,000 jobs and $29.6 billion in economic benefit has been forecast from this investment.

And what a successful investment it has been! The facts and results speak for themselves. NAIF has  already helped to fund many projects which otherwise may have struggled to secure finance or not have been delivered at all, but they have, in actual fact, delivered exactly what NAIF was intended and set up to do by the investment from NAIF: projects in northern Australia in agriculture, tourism, varied power generation projects, port infrastructure, a ship lift—the basics—beef processing, technology, infrastructure and many others.

With the support of the former coalition government, as the Assistant Minister for Regional Development and Territories, I worked to have Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands included in the NAIF, which it is in this bill, and I’m very proud of that. I’ll concentrate my remarks on item 4 of this legislation, which amends section 5. This amendment will enable NAIF to provide financial assistance for infrastructure that provides a basis for economic growth and/or stimulates population growth in the Indian Ocean Territories.

As the assistant minister, I was particularly focused on the need for economic diversification in the Indian Ocean Territories. There has been a historic fertiliser mining operation run by Phosphate Resources Ltd. It has underpinned the economy, local jobs and revenues for so many years. It has been the main economic activity and driver, and a very important one. As the mine comes towards the end of its productive life, it’s important that both PRL and Christmas Island transition to alternative economic opportunities. I know that PRL has had a vision for its own transition post mining into alternative opportunities for the people that have worked with and for them for so long, and for the small businesses on Christmas Island. The company has a project team currently working on plans to develop and construct a resort and other facilities, which will facilitate broader regional tourism opportunities. There are also plans around a solar master plan to deliver potential food and agricultural opportunities and/or to power further accommodation and tourism options.

I know that these initiatives fit within the specific purposes of NAIF, and there may well be other potential investors with a range of projects that may seek NAIF funding also. While tourism numbers are currently limited in the Indian Ocean Territories, there are great opportunities. The island is wonderfully dominated by tropical rainforest and is 63 per cent national park. It’s affectionately known as the Galapagos of the Southern Hemisphere. It is the home of unique flora and fauna, and is globally famous for its red crab migration. I am really proud that in March 2022 the coalition declared two new marine parks off the Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands, which, together, form one of the largest highly protected marine sanctuary areas in the world. It covers 744,000 square kilometres of remote tropical ocean, reef and lagoon habitat. These parks will help protect the unique marine environments of the Indian Ocean Territories and support social and economic outcomes for local communities and other marine users, as well as supporting really tailored tourism ventures in the years ahead.

The marine environment of the IOT is known for iconic species such as whale sharks, turtles, manta rays, spinner dolphins and a vast array of seabirds. There are also lesser known but equally fascinating species, including locally evolved hybrid fish, which result from the mixing of waters from the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. This unique environment is why I was exploring the opportunities around longer term research potential on Christmas Island as part of the economic diversification piece. I held a research roundtable, and there were ongoing negotiations in this space. I believe there are great opportunities there to connect local students with visiting or resident researchers, to engage them, and local residents in citizen science as well. I think it might also encourage local students to pursue higher education and possibly other university research projects themselves. We were also looking at other ways of managing some of the challenges, particularly in the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, because often a lot of the plastic waste that comes through from Indonesia lands right on their doorstep.

On tourism offerings: currently locals and visitors can experience what is a magnificent marine world by either themselves or with a local tour operator—the small-business people that we’re trying to encourage into diversification—whether that’s scuba-diving, snorkelling, kitesurfing, kayaking, free diving or fishing. In fact, there’s a wonderful social golf round that brings the community and visitors alike together, often with very entertaining results when there’s special permission across the airstrip that goes with that. It’s a very different offering. But it’s on the back of the natural environment that there are significant opportunities for tourism development.

We know that currently the only flights to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands from Australia are the Virgin flights out of Perth that are subsidised by taxpayers. During COVID I had to make a specific arrangement with Western Australia to allow these flights to continue. There was a real need for tourism to continue to support the economic side of what was happening on the Christmas Cocos (Keeling) Islands and to not lose the tourism connection that existed there. We also provided significant funding to support locally needed projects to keep that economy ticking over and to keep locals and small businesses employed during the lockdowns and COVID management periods. In fact, between Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, we funded 23 community infrastructure and tourism promotion projects.

While I’m here, I would formally like to acknowledge the work of the emergency management teams and the AFP, who really assisted throughout COVID in the islands. They helped to keep active cases at a minimum, they managed quarantine requirements and they helped to keep local people and tourists safe. I also acknowledge the extraordinary work and commitment of the Australian Border Force, ADV Ocean Protector and ADV Ocean Shield, doing a power of work protecting our northern borders and assets as part of Operation Sovereign Borders. They are a key part of what happens in the islands. I do note that Border Force has had to deal with another asylum seeker vessel recently and the return of an increase in illegal maritime arrivals. ‘There has been a sharp increase in operation tempo,’ said the Operation Sovereign Borders commander at Senate estimates in February. This is, of course, as a result of Labor putting an end to temporary protection visas, which has given further encouragement to asylum seekers through this process. I want to thank Border Force for their work in that remote location.

In my visits to Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands I have met tourists from all over the world. It is quite an expensive place for them to get to. There are opportunities through NAIF for the development needed in the resorts to get more tourists—the type of accommodation and opportunities that they want and need. There are some really unique offerings. I’ve met people from Europe who said that for them this trip was a once-in-alifetime opportunity to the Galapagos of the Southern Hemisphere—the crab migration, the unique remote eco cabins that I saw and so many other unique and special experiences that people can have. All of these options call for further investment in either suitable resort or tourism development opportunities that really fit the NAIF criteria.

Make no mistake: there is absolutely a need for really enduring economic diversification in the Indian Ocean Territories. A key goal of NAIF’s investment is to support the transformation of northern Australia by financing projects that do generate that public benefit, help to grow the economy and help to catalyse private sector investment. That’s what’s going to work on Christmas Island.

The population is around 1,700 people on Christmas Island and about 600 on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, with a median age of 38. What a great opportunity. One of the great challenges is that it’s 1,550 kilometres from Australia, one of the most remote parts of Australia. It’s why there is a real incentive here for NAIF to support tourism development and growth, particularly when there is at least one serious investor with an existing and enduring commitment to the island, its people and its businesses. In spite of the unique environment and the experiences available I have described, in many instances tourism is quite limited in its accommodation options, and particularly the options many tourists actually seeking. NAIF investment could assist in opening up current and future opportunities in the IOTs.

In the couple of minutes left, I’d just like to say that one of my favourites there is the extraordinarily large robber crab. It is a protected species. You can’t in any way touch it, run over it or harvest it, for want of a better word. I had a really interesting experience in encouraging a group of about six or eight massive robber crabs to move out of the way on the road late at night when were coming back from a meeting. They understood that they had the right of way. As a dairy farmer used to herding cattle—let’s put it this way—I was the one to actually encourage the big robber crabs to get off the road far enough for us to be able to travel. I’d say to people: please take advantage of what is one of the most unique places that Australia has to offer. Through the NAIF, I am hoping, further investment and greater, more diversified economic opportunities will become available for this great community. It’s such an important part of our northern security as well for our assets in the northern part of Australia. On those comments, thank you.