Developing Northern Australia Conference

Publication Date
17 August 2021

Good morning and thank you to Professor Allan Dale and members of the Developing Northern Australia Conference for inviting me to speak today.

I would like to start by acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the land from which I join you today, the Gurin-gai People.

I pay my respect to their elders’ past, present and emerging.

I would also like to acknowledge some of the distinguished speakers here today including:

  • Ms Claire Martin AO the Co-Chair of the Territory Economic Reconstruction Commission and
  • Ms Tracey Hayes the new Chair of NAIF – I look forward to hearing their insights.

It is also great to see many of the organisations we work closely with including the RDA network, the Office of Northern Australia, NAIF and the Cooperative Research Centre here today.

Infrastructure Australia is the nation’s infrastructure advisor.

We sit alongside government, with a mandate to provide evidence-based analysis and advice on reform and investment priorities - to help deliver better infrastructure for all Australians.

Despite our national remit, we understand that if Northern Australia prospers, the broader Australian community benefits.

That is why, we have worked to embed the development of Northern Australia in our work program and provide tailored advice that reflects its unique characteristics. 

Events like today, sharpen our understanding of Northern Australia by providing an opportunity to hear directly from stakeholders who understand its challenges and opportunities.

Helping to ensure we have an accurate understanding of Northern Australia, which will enable us to develop advice that adds value to the developing Northern Australia agenda.

We know that Northern Australia provides significant contributions to the Australian economy and broader society.

While it is home to only 5% of our population, Northern Australia generates about 8% of Australia’s GDP.

This equates to a per capita Gross Regional Product that is 50% higher than for Australia as a whole.

Northern Australia is a major producer and exporter – for example, in 2019-20 agricultural output represented 15% of our total production and was valued at over $9 billion.

We also appreciate that Northern Australia is home to a rich cultural heritage, breath-taking natural scenery, and vibrant communities.

Despite this strong foundation, we know that Northern Australia has untapped potential.

There is capacity to build on Northern Australia’s traditional strengths such as tourism, mining, and agriculture.

Opportunities also exist to develop new industries as we transition to a low carbon economy.

The region’s vast land area and high-quality solar resources makes it a preferred location for large-scale renewable energy projects such as Sun Cable, and green hydrogen.

I was able to gain a firsthand understanding of these opportunities last year through my work on the Territory Economic Reconstruction Commission.

However, through this experience, I also learnt that Northern Australia faces many challenges.

Infrastructure service gaps continue to negatively impact quality of life, as evidenced by regional communities’ still experiencing poorer health outcomes compared to our major cities.

Inadequate and unreliable transport corridors impede efficiency and limit economic growth, as anyone from the trucking and logistics sector can attest to.

Northern Australia is also more vulnerable to natural hazards,
with its communities and infrastructure exposed to weather events, including storms, droughts, bushfires, and floods.

To address these challenges and capitalise on the available opportunities, Northern Australia needs robust, reliable, and resilient infrastructure networks.

I am not just talking about upgrading a few roads -
Northern Australia needs improved infrastructure across the telecommunications, water, energy, and social sectors.

While developing Northern Australia should always be a priority, the significance of unlocking its latent capacity has only increased in the context of the national COVID-19 recovery.

Our 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan is scheduled for release on 3 September.

The 2021 Plan provides a 15-year cross-sectoral forward work-program for our national infrastructure landscape.

As part of this, the 2021 Plan also identifies specific reforms that can help ensure Northern Australia prospers into the future.

Before I provide a glimpse into the recommendations the Plan includes for the north, I would like to provide an overview of the 2021 Plan and its role in guiding infrastructure reform.

The 2021 Plan provides Australia’s governments with a practical reform pathway focused on supporting the national COVID-19 recovery and delivering the infrastructure we need.  

The reforms identified prioritise community and user outcomes, while also considering costs and risks in implementation.

To ensure our advice is practical and actionable, each recommendation is accompanied with an owner, interim outcomes, and a series of enabling activities.

Importantly, the 2021 Plan represents an industry consensus.

It has been informed by an extensive engagement program that targeted more than 6,000 stakeholders across industry, government, and academia.

Like the 2016 Plan, the 2021 Plan will cover transport, energy, water, and telecommunications and digital.  

For the first time, the 2021 Plan will extend its focus to waste and social Infrastructure. 

It also includes three cross-cutting chapters covering:  

  • resilience and sustainability 
  • industry, productivity, and innovation; and 
  • place.

While Northern Australia is embedded throughout, our Place Chapter outlines specific reforms to support its future prosperity.  

We recognise that we cannot approach infrastructure using a ‘one size fits all’ method.

To unlock the full potential of Australia’s diverse geographies, we must harness the identity and uniqueness of each place. 

In line with this, the 2021 Plan includes specific reforms designed to account for Northern Australia’s placed-based challenges and opportunities.

It identifies Northern Australia’s pathway to prosperity by identifying where improvements can be made and how to do deliver them.

We know that Northern Australia’s future economic development will be underpinned by growth in industries including:

  • Renewable energy
  • offshore and onshore gas
  • advanced manufacturing
  • minerals development and processing
  • agribusiness
  • space industry
  • carbon offsets, capture and storage; and
  • tourism.

We also recognise that Northern Australia needs to remain a great place to live and work, which provides it residents high-quality services in an equitable manner.

With this in mind, we believe reform efforts should focus on:

  • Upgrading economic and social infrastructure
  • attracting skilled workers
  • improving baseline data; and
  • active Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community participation.

Realising a step-change in the Northern Australia’s economic development requires investment.

To attract more commercial investment, the region needs more government infrastructure investment to help reduce costs, minimise supply chain disruptions and help improve investor confidence.

The infrastructure required includes gas pipelines, electricity generation and transmission, water supply, all-weather roads, enhanced rail, sea and air transport and reliable telecommunications.

Targeted reform and investment in Northern Australia will boost national economic growth, industry productivity and energy security.

Investments that improve social wellbeing, cultural development, recreation opportunities, and underpin the development of cohesive communities, are also needed throughout Northern Australia.

This includes investment in theatres, art galleries, sports stadiums, and community sports facilities to provide the social infrastructure that makes communities liveable.

Access to high-quality services, such as education and training, health and affordable housing are also needed to produce, attract, and retain skilled workers.

However, Northern Australia also needs better data to inform decision-making.

The lack of data deters effective actions, including through impeding investment and service delivery.

Northern Australia needs better data to understand its:

  • Natural resources capacity
  • underground water availability
  • climate hazards
  • labour force, education, and skills; and
  • infrastructure service quality.

To support this, we are considering options for a new Northern Australia Infrastructure Audit to help assess data adequacy, identify gaps and prioritise future needs.

Finally, active and inclusive Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation is fundamental to developing Northern Australia.

First Australians represent the oldest continuous culture in the world, with an in depth understanding of how to harness Northern Australia’s strengths and adapt to its weaknesses.

We need to develop new governance and engagement strategies that actively involve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in planning and decision making.

We also call for significant infrastructure investment in First Nations communities to improve wellbeing and facilitate economic participation.

Along with this, private sector development should offer formal pathways to support greater economic participation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Taken together, we believe these reform focus areas will help Northern Australia reach its full potential and guarantee its future prosperity.

For more detail on these reform focus areas, I encourage everyone to review the 2021 Plan once it is released on 3 September.

If you have any questions relating to the 2021 Plan, please get in touch.

My team and I are willing and able to engage with you and answer your questions.

Thank you again Professor Dale and the Developing Northern Australia Conference for inviting me to speak today.

Northern Australia is well-placed to build on its strengths and capitalise on new opportunities to ensure it prospers both now and in the future.

But to do this, Northern Australia needs high-quality and fit for purpose infrastructure.

We remain committed to supporting government and industry with this task.

Thank you, I would be pleased to take any questions.