NSWICC Inaugural Infrastructure and Construction Forum and Awards

Publication Date
10 December 2021

Check against delivery


Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the country we are meeting on today, the Wonnarua people, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples here today. 

On the background behind me you’ll see an artwork created by Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay artist Dennis Golding, entitled ‘Moving Along Pathways’ -  

This piece was created specifically for Infrastructure Australia as part of our first Reconciliation Action Plan, and depicts examples of Australia’s first infrastructure.  

Pathways and river systems are prominent in the artwork, and reference the pathways First Nations peoples formed on land and water for transport and communication of knowledge, stories and goods.  

Images of waterholes, campsites and boomerangs within the artwork acknowledge First Nations cultural practices, technology and places for gathering that continue to be operated today.  

This artwork hangs in IA’s main foyer as a reminder of ownership of the Country that all of our infrastructure is built on, and First Nation’s people’s continued connection to that Country. 

About Infrastructure Australia 

For those who aren’t familiar with what we do – Infrastructure Australia was established in 2008 to advise government, industry and the community on the investments and reforms needed to deliver better infrastructure for all Australians. 

We have two core functions: 

  • The first is to evaluate business cases for nationally significant investment proposals seeking more than $250 million in Commonwealth funding and 
  • The second is to set the policy agenda on the long-term opportunities for infrastructure reform that will improve living standards and national productivity.

We sit alongside the Commonwealth government, with a mandate to provide evidence-based analysis and advice on reform and investment priorities - to help deliver better infrastructure for all Australians, and take a forward-looking view of the challenges and opportunities shaping our nation.  

We do this through: 

  • our national infrastructure Audits – the most recent of which was released in August 2019 and outlines the major challenges and opportunities in Australia’s infrastructure  
  • the Australian Infrastructure Plan, which contains the solutions to the problems identified in the Audit, (which I’ll be talking to in more detail shortly) 
  • And our Infrastructure Priority List, a pipeline of nationally-significant investment opportunities for governments at all levels to consider. 

2019 Audit 

Australia’s First Nations people live in all parts of our nation – from cities, to remote tropical and desert areas – 

And the differences in quality of life and equity are well known, and not acceptable. 

We know that it can be challenging to access a high quality of life in particular parts of our country, and that many of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, suffer from poor access to infrastructure and associated services. 

Our 2019 Audit noted that 13.9 years is the gap in life expectancy in remote and very remote areas between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous people –  

And that infrastructure can do more to support our Indigenous peoples to underpin progress towards local and national objectives for improving quality of life.  

We found that at all levels and for all types of infrastructure, access to appropriate skills is a significant challenge -  

In regional centres and remote areas, on top of the national skills constraints, labour shortages affect most levels of the workforce, including attracting and retaining skilled construction workers –  

These constraints present opportunities for developing local workforces. 

This is acutely experienced in the Northern Territory, where skilled workers are required to support economic development, delivery of services and provision of infrastructure.  

Of course, economic and employment objectives cannot be viewed in isolation –  

Government policy aiming to meet these objectives need to be understood in the context of the social and economic disadvantage faced by vulnerable communities –  

And also need to consider the strengths of Aboriginal people and their connection to Country.  

Which brings me to the 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan, which we published in September.  

The 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan 

Unlike the Audit, which was an assessment of the challenges and opportunities faced in Australia, the Plan is a practical and actionable roadmap for infrastructure reform that the Commonwealth government must respond to. 

It's focused on reforms and policy recommendations that will deliver better infrastructure outcomes for all Australian communities. 

The importance of place 

Place is one of three cross cutting themes of the 2021 Plan, alongside ‘sustainability and resilience’, and ‘industry productivity.’ 

What is Place? 

Place is best defined in collaboration with local people to identify a geographical area that is meaningful to them on an economic, social, governance or environmental level.  

In regional development settings, a ‘place’ might be a region or a larger area where economic, social governance or environmental trends interact (for example, South East Queensland).  

At a localised level, a place might be a suburb or area that crosses defined administrative boundaries, but where locals feel connected to what happens there (such as border communities). 

A failure to think of infrastructure in terms of ‘place’ leads to a lack of coordination between different levels of government and even different bureaucracies such as transport and planning in the same level of government. 

We have all seen occasions where housing is built before the transport infrastructure is there to support a population or vice versa. 

Place in the Plan 

This focus on Place reflects the understanding that many challenges and opportunities facing Australian cities and regions require a holistic response, harnessing the knowledge and skills of local people, rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach. 

By taking a ‘place-based’ approach we can connect infrastructure planning and delivery with the needs of the community at a local level, enabling people to identify their priorities and objectives, and for governments and communities to work together to tailor their response.  

To be successful, a ‘place-based’ approach, should take the unique characteristics of a Place and turn them into a shared vision for a region. The vision should be: 

  • Developed collaboratively and locally and 
  • Based on a holistic picture of interrelated elements in that area. 

By developing a shared vision, the capacity to deliver infrastructure that improves productivity and quality of life while meeting community needs is enhanced. 

We want local communities and local government to have more of a say about the kind of places they want to live in and their future infrastructure needs.  

These solutions help to develop a shared understanding of local context, drawing on a broad range of evidence from data and research, and lived experience and local knowledge.  

This approach of respecting a community’s cultural identity and existing strengths, while drawing on local knowledge, can also be a powerful tool for improving quality of life and opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and will help governments to direct investment where it will be most effective and have the greatest impact.  

Secondly, place-based approaches are a useful tool for building local agency.  

Place-based approaches can transfer power to Indigenous communities and organisations, to define and work towards infrastructure priorities and outcomes that reflect local aspirations. 

Taking a place-based approach means we can unlock the knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, providing a meaningful platform for local decision-making and create a sense of ownership over decisions that are made. 

Taking a place-based approach is actually not a new idea in Australia – despite some governments struggling with the concept.  

We recognise that in many Indigenous communities, ‘place’ is an essential organising feature with attachment to land, kinship and relationships and cultural heritage all important considerations in infrastructure planning.  

Many challenges and opportunities in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are also shaped by place, and should form the basis of policies and programs. 

Importantly, across all aspects of ‘place-based’ planning, we suggest well-structured governance frameworks to not only support collaboration, but also facilitate knowledge sharing and resource pooling. 

It is vital that we engage with communities in project development and meaningfully incorporating any feedback. That inclusive decision-making is ‘baked in’ when it comes to infrastructure. 

It not only builds trust in institutions, but also harnesses a local community’s knowledge of their Place, and the services they need in order to live productive, healthy lives. 

A recent example of a ‘place-based’ approach in action is demonstrated by our Regional Strengths and Gaps Project, which is currently underway.  

Regional Strengths and Gaps  

The ‘Regional Strengths and Gaps’ project is designed to bring a national perspective to the diverse infrastructure needs facing Australia’s regions. 

To ensure we have the best possible understanding of each local context, we have collaborated with the Regional Development Australia network - helping us consult with close to 800 local representatives across 51 sessions. 

This project provided local representatives the opportunity to highlight their most pressing infrastructure needs and champion the unique strengths of their respective regions. 

First Nations engagement was embedded in the project’s national consultation. Key community leaders and representative groups were invited, including local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members who provided local expertise and diverse perspectives.  

We also ran targeted workshops with First Nations stakeholders in the Northern Territory, Kimberley and Tropical North (Qld) regions. 

The focus of discussions centred on:   

  • Enabling industry growth and access to economic opportunity  
  • Placing culture at the centre of infrastructure planning  
  • First Nations-led infrastructure and service delivery  
  • Dealing with the impacts of climate change  
  • Improving water security  
  • Providing access to quality social infrastructure, and 
  • Housing availability and affordability.  

Our review of regional strengths and infrastructure gaps will enable us to identify priority areas for further planning and analysis and make the case for ‘place-based’ infrastructure investment or reform. 

We are currently finalising our report, which we expect to be released in 2022. 

Our vision for infrastructure in a reconciled Australia 

To finish, I might just reflect on the journey IA has been on to grow our relationships and establish the mutual respect and trust necessary to establish ourselves as a partner in reconciliation. 

We have just completed the commitments in our Reflect RAP and are in the process of gaining approval from Reconciliation Australia on our Innovate RAP. 

We learned over the period of our Reflect RAP that a focus on partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders, and on earning the trust of these stakeholders through respectful and genuine relationships, is critical to any contribution we can make to the national reconciliation movement.   

Infrastructure Australia’s vision for infrastructure in a reconciled Australia, is: 

  • That as a nation, we have gone through a process of truth telling, so that the future we plan for is grounded in an understanding of our past and present. 
  • That Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a share in the nation’s infrastructure planning and decision-making, grounded in the understanding that all Australian land is First Nations land.  
  • That employment and procurement opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and businesses are a standard consideration of infrastructure development.   
  • That infrastructure planning and decision-making values are strengthened by and incorporate local First Nations knowledge and understanding of Country, which have been developed over more than 60,000 years of continuous culture on this continent, and 
  • That infrastructure planning, decision-making and delivery protects Country and culture, as national heritage. 

Over the next two years, as we embark on our Innovate Reconciliation Action Plan, we are excited to work with new partners to pilot new initiatives and innovate our ways of working.  

We will have a focus on:   

  • reviewing our consultation processes and develop an engagement plan to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders and organisations  
  • using our position as a thought leader at the national level to promote placed-based Indigenous engagement in infrastructure planning and development, in pursuit of shared-decision making in line with the national agreement on Closing the Gap, and 
  • exploring how we can work with proponents to help them consider Indigenous employment and procurement outcomes in the development of major projects. 


One of Infrastructure Australia’s core values is collaboration –  

Our view, and the view we advocate on is that if we are to deliver better infrastructure outcomes for Australian communities, there should be a focus on collaboration with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders and earning the trust of our partners and stakeholders through respectful and genuine relationships. 

Thank you.