Federation Chamber Speech

Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (12:16):  I missed the contribution by the member for Herbert, but I assume that when he, in the motion, speaks about new customs and border security arrangements at Townsville airport he is talking about the opportunity to secure international flights. I am sure that is something that the opposition would be happy to support. Maybe I should have consulted my transport spokesperson before saying that, but it sounds like a reasonable proposition to me and one which would be good for the local economy there.

From what I have seen of the debate, it has become a much broader debate not inconsistent with the motion, as put, about the economic development of Northern Australia. It is a debate we should be having in this place, and a debate we should be having in this place on a regular basis. There are very significant opportunities for us in Northern Australia, for the people who live in Northern Australia, for the businesses which operate in Northern Australia and of course for the country more generally, because of the potential it has for our national economy—and particularly when we think about the opportunities further to our north in terms of what I call the 'dining' boom.

My concern though is that we have been doing a fair bit of talking about the development of Northern Australia in this place over the course of the last 16 or 17 months without doing much about it. We have seen a promise of a white paper which is yet to be delivered. We had a joint select committee established with great fanfare, which was talked about a lot, but not much action since. I think we got some fairly sensible recommendations out of the committee process, but the government is yet to respond in any substantial way.

By contrast, when Labor was last in government, we established an Office of Northern Australia. We had a minister for Northern Australia. We had a significant coordination effort across state and territory governments working together to lower barriers to investment, and to properly coordinate strategies and plans for Northern Australia. Continuity is important in these matters. The truth is that we have had a hiatus for the last 16 or 17 months. We have had policy inertia while the government of the day talks about the development of Northern Australia rather than concentrating on doing something about Northern Australia.
I also want to highlight inconsistencies here.

People like to talk about what governments need to do. Yes, that is important. I have mentioned a few: developing strategies, coordination, lowering barriers to investment et cetera. But it is the private sector that in the end will determine our success or the extent of the success in Northern Australia.

Thanks to the Greener Pastures report, we know that to fully capitalise on the food opportunities in Asia we will need around $500 billion of investment in infrastructure in this country out to 2050. In this world in which the competition for global capital is intense, this will not be easy. As we have a relatively small population, with limited savings, by definition and by necessity much of that investment will come from foreign capital. What we do not need at the moment is a government putting additional barriers in the way of those inflows of foreign capital. That is exactly what the government has done by reducing the FIRB threshold for investment in agricultural land and agri-business—although I must note they are still debating what the threshold will be for agri-business.

We need to be open to foreign investment. Yes, we should be discerning about who invests, where they invest and how they invest. We do need a register. The Labor Party first committed to an open and transparent investment register. But the government has given no additional resources to the FIRB for this new process. We are going to have a logjam of applications, most of which are completely unnecessary in terms of FIRB scrutiny. This is not the way to welcome foreign investment into this country. Therefore, this is not the way to ensure that we have the infrastructure we will need to properly and fully develop Northern Australia.

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