I'm pleased to be here today representing The Hon Andrew Robb, Minister for Trade and Investment. Unfortunately Minister Robb is currently in Singapore for meetings with Singaporean government counterparts and senior investors.
First, I'd like to offer my congratulations on celebrating the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Cooperative Research Centre's program. I'd like to welcome the Minister for Industry and Science’s announcement yesterday of $74 million in Government funding for two CRCs focused on mineral extraction and competitive manufacturing. It demonstrates this Government’s commitment to CRCs that drive greater collaboration between industry and research, and find real-world solutions to problems.
It's very timely to be looking ahead to 2040, and the challenges and opportunities for Australia over the next 25 years. There’s no doubt that developing Northern Australia is one of the great challenges and opportunities facing our nation. The North covers more than 40 per cent of Australia’s land mass but is home to just 5.7 % of Australia’s population. The region has abundant land, water and mineral resources, and world-class medical and educational institutions – for example about 60 per cent of our rain falls in the North yet we capture and use just 2 per cent of it. There are also up to 17 million hectares of arable land suitable for some forms of agriculture and horticulture, and over 1.2 million HA suitable for aquaculture.
Northern Australia is on the doorstep of Asia, and the world’s tropical zone – which by 2050 will encompass over half the world’s population and 60 per cent of the world’s children. There are great opportunities but, in the past, it has lacked government commitment to pursue investment and development in a consistent, sustainable and coordinated way. As the Chair of the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia, I led the Inquiry into the Development of Northern Australia, examining the potential for developing the region – whether mineral, energy, agricultural, tourism, defence, or other industries.
During the course of our inquiry we identified some of the barriers to developing Northern Australia. I’d like to briefly discuss these, and how we can overcome them in order to realise the potential of the North.
What are the barriers?
Firstly, population. We need investment in economic and social infrastructure, a focus on livability and policies which will make the North an attractive place to live and work.
Secondly, capital infrastructure with a particular focus on east-west networks, and not just the north-south. We need to invest in all types of infrastructure — water, power and energy, telecommunications, and transport including roads, rail, port and airport facilities.
Thirdly, the regulatory environment needs to be looked at with regard to aquaculture, fisheries, taxation, land tenure, and standardisation.
And, finally, the high insurance premiums paid by those living in the north needs to be addressed.
So how can we overcome these barriers?
Well, the government has announced a $5-billion concessional loans fund to stimulate regional infrastructure investment. It was a major inclusion in the recent Budget, along with $100m for the Beef Roads and commitments for the Hann and Gregory highways. We also recently announced the Northern Australia Insurance Taskforce. This Taskforce will identify which option the government should support moving forward — whether a mutual or a catastrophe reinsurance pool similar to Australian Terrorism Reinsurance Pool.
Another option involves writing off some or all of student Higher Education Loan Program debt in return for working in regional areas. We're also looking at options to increase the presence of relevant Australian Public Service departmental functions in Northern Australia; and we're finding ways to give firms in the North opportunities to repair and maintain Department of Defence material and infrastructure, or even relocating defence assets to Northern Australia.
We need to improve speed, reliability, and access to high-speed internet, and encourage ongoing bilateral exchange between Northern Australia and its neighbouring countries and communities in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions.
How can research and development assist?
Modelling: the Northern Australia Beef Roads Fund will employ CSIRO to look at the whole cattle supply chain – every farm, road, stopover, port and processing facility in Australia – and analyse different scenarios, such as how sealing a road will influence transport times and costs.
The use of highly innovative technology and world’s best practice — such as the Etheridge Integrated Agricultural Project (EIAP) — to ensure every by-product of an integrated agriculture, aquaculture and horticulture project can be used. This will increase efficiency, economy and effectiveness of operation.
The Australian Government has a public service obligation to develop new water resources to cater for our growing population and agricultural requirements. These proposals must be viable and sustainable, and based on science. They will provide us with opportunities to partner with private enterprise and attract investment to regional areas.
The Northern Australia Committee has been working in in parallel with the White Paper process. Back in June last year (2014), the Government released its Green Paper on Developing Northern Australia, and one of the six policy directions was the ‘fostering of education, research and innovation’. The Green Paper noted that Northern Australia has ‘six universities, a number of research institutes and centres, more than 200 registered training organisations and approximately 50 technical and further education institutions’. Opportunities around research, development and education featured strongly during our Committee’s hearings and inspections, too, including:
- Research being undertaken by Curtin University for carbon dioxide waste streams to be converted to methane (natural gas) using solar energy and rare earth catalysts. Such technology could be available in just 10 years time;
- The newly created Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine (AITHM), with three campuses at JCU Townsville, Cairns and the Torres Strait, focusing on tropical infectious diseases, chronic disorders with high prevalence in the tropics and health services in tropical, regional, rural and remote communities;
- Research being carried out by JCU at the Centre for Macroalgal Resources and Biotechnology in Townsville, where carbon dioxide is being used as a feedstock in the production of macro algae. The algal biomass can be used to produce renewable fuels (known as biocrude) biomass energy, algal meal as an animal feedstock, functional food and feeds, and as biochar and fertilisers.
We presented our final report and recommendations to Parliament in September last year in the ‘Pivot North’ report. A key recommendation – number 14 out of 42 – was that the Australian Government support the creation of a Co-operative Research Centre for Northern Agriculture, with the involvement of the three universities substantially based in Northern Australia. The committee’s view was that the CRC for Northern Agriculture would provide a focus point for the research necessary to exploit the enormous potential for agricultural development that exists in Australia’s north, facilitating research on crops, soils, water, climate and potential innovation — whether in new industries or in promoting new varieties and practices in existing industries.
The CRC would focus on products for export to the growing Asian market, promote coherent agricultural development across the North, and support the development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, allowing them to develop their land resources for economic gain.
Following that, Recommendation 15 was for the Australian Government to support the development of a national institute for tropical sports and sports medicine in Northern Australia. With the growing affluence of countries in the tropical zone, the importance of organised and elite sports in countries in the region is being increasingly recognised. Tropical sport acclimatisation training centres have been developed in several cities in the Asian region. With the presence of world class health and sporting facilities and a strong tradition in sports medicine, Australia is well placed to take advantage of this trend.
We’re now looking forward to the release of the Government’s White Paper on Northern Australia, in June. Minister Robb is playing an instrumental role in bringing together the different portfolios involved. I’ve mentioned a number of the key measures which have already been funded in the Budget, but I also want to highlight Minister Robb’s recent announcement of $15.3m over four years to cement Australia’s position as a global leader in tropical health. The Australian Tropical Medicine Commercialisation Grants Programme will provide $8.5 million to commercialise research in new tropical therapeutics and diagnostics undertaken in Australia. The Budget will also invest $6.9 million in a strategy to build Australia’s research capacity, funding projects focused on priority diseases including dengue, malaria, Hendra, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis and others. This will provide fabulous opportunities for our research institutions, including – in my region – James Cook University and the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine.
Developing Northern Australia is one of the great challenges and opportunities facing our nation. There have been previous false-starts, from the 1947 report on the Development of Northern Australia, to the 1994 ‘Committee on Darwin’ report and in 2007, the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce. We’re finally on the cusp of real change, as demonstrated by the commitments already outlined in the latest Federal Budget. Only when we support investment, encourage growth, foster innovation and improve liveability in Northern Australia, we will be able to realise all of the incredible opportunities available to us as a country.