Developing Northern Australia Conference

11 July 2019

Opening remarks

Good afternoon everyone, thank you for that introduction, and to the organisers for inviting me to take part in this year's Developing Northern Australian Conference.

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land in which we meet here today, and pay my respect to the elders, past and present, of all Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Throughout the morning, we have heard a range of interesting perspectives on progress, growth and investment opportunities here in Northern Australia.

Certainly, Northern Australia is blessed with a wealth of natural resources, a strong agricultural sector, world-renowned tourist attractions and close proximity to the booming economies of China and South East Asia.

Success in these regions can also bring much-needed improvements to the quality of life of many of Australia's most disadvantaged communities, while providing opportunities to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and support sustained growth.

There is no doubt that strategic infrastructure investment and reform will be key in realising these objectives, so I'm very pleased to have an opportunity to speak to you today about how infrastructure can be a catalyst for growth, development and better quality of life.

I want to begin today by explaining exactly what we do at Infrastructure Australia.

We were established in 2008 to drive better infrastructure outcomes for all Australians.

We have two core functions:

The first is to evaluate business cases for nationally-significant investment proposals seeking more than $100 million in Commonwealth funding and

The second is to set the agenda on the long-term opportunities for infrastructure reform that will improve living standards and national productivity. 

I commenced as Chief Executive of Infrastructure Australia in April this year, but I am pleased to say that supporting development in Northern Australia has always been an important focus for our organisation.

In fact the first major audit we undertook of Australia's infrastructure was the 2015 Northern Australia Infrastructure Audit, which supported the Australian Government's White Paper on Developing Northern Australia and took a detailed look at the infrastructure assets and networks that support the north, and how these could be adapted to support growth.

It was also a precursor to our second major report of this kind, the 2015 Australian Infrastructure Audit, which has guided our broader investment and reform agenda over the past five years.

2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit

Next month we are releasing our next major report, the 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit.

In this document, we will be presenting a single, national view of Australia's infrastructure needs that also identifies the distinct issues faced by Northern Australia.

It will zero-in on the key challenges and opportunities facing infrastructure delivery in our northern regions, and the role strategic investment could play in unlocking their potential.

We have taken this approach, because we believe that taking a national lens to Northern Australia is critical to ensuring that the unique challenges of the region are understood and addressed as part of our national infrastructure story.

The 2019 Audit will present a forward-looking view of Australia's future infrastructure needs, and outline a community-centred approach to infrastructure planning and delivery—focusing on the three key measures of access, quality and cost.

Importantly, the Audit seeks to be relevant and easily accessible to all Australians.

We have adopted this approach to enable everyone—from industry experts to members of the community—to access a common set of evidence and analysis. 

And whether you are reading it from the perspective of government, industry or the community—this Audit is intended to provoke robust discussion about the future of Australia's infrastructure.

In the remainder of my presentation today, I will provide an overview of the challenges facing Northern Australia's infrastructure that we identify in the 2019 Audit, and some of the investment opportunities we see for the region.

I will also talk about how you can engage with the Audit when it is released next month, and how we will be looking to collaborate with a broad cross-section of the community as we develop Infrastructure Australia's ongoing investment and reform priorities.

Unique challenges of Northern Australia

Across all sectors, Australians share a common need for infrastructure to be accessible, affordable and high-quality.

There are many similarities in what people across the country tell us they want and need from their infrastructure—physical and digital connectivity, affordability and accessibility of services, and long-term sustainability of their community.

But many of the issues faced by Northern Australia are distinct from those in other parts of the country, including vast distances between communities, low population densities and extreme weather. In particular:

  • Exposure to more extreme weather and climate impacts, including high temperatures, high seasonal and variable rainfall in tropical regions, and events such as cyclones and floods,
  • Higher costs of living and doing business, driven by remoteness, lack of scale and lack of historical investment in transport and essential services,
  • Higher levels of risk and barriers to investment in some regions, particularly for those trying to establish or extend supply chains to new areas,
  • A historical lack of coordination in planning and investment across jurisdictional boundaries, resulting in disconnected transport and energy networks and inefficient supply chains,
  • Higher rates of mobility, as workforces follow projects rather than settle in communities and
  • Large variation in the quality of life and diversity of needs from infrastructure, particularly in remote parts of the country and among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
  • These challenges have acted as a handbrake on development and investment across many parts of Northern Australia, and contributed to the slow rate of population growth since the end of the mining boom.

But despite the challenges facing Northern Australia—or perhaps because of them—there are significant, largely untapped opportunities for development in the region. This includes:

  • An abundance of natural resources, rare earths, and other environmental assets
  • Large tracts of undeveloped land in a tropical climate
  • Proximity to rapidly growing and developing Asian markets, with strong demand for our agricultural and mining products, as well as education, health and tourism
  • Natural beauty, with geographic and topographic features unlike anywhere else on earth, with 65 sites listed in World, National and Commonwealth Heritage Lists, and
  • Rich Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, traditions and sites of cultural significance.

Infrastructure as a catalyst for growth

Infrastructure can play an essential role as a catalyst for growth in Northern Australia.

In particular, improvements in physical and digital connectivity, as well as the development of gateways for trade with domestic and global markets, can help drive economic development.

The 2019 Audit has identified a number of opportunities for growth in the region, across agriculture, resources, energy, tourism, specialist health care, professional services and even space and aerospace services—provided we have the right enabling infrastructure in place.

Given the vast distances between communities and exposure to a volatile and seasonal climate, improved connectivity through upgrades to transport and telecommunications networks in Northern Australia will be absolutely vital.

There is also a need for greater investment in ports, airports, remote aerodromes and other elements of supply chains, such as storage and refrigeration facilities, which could open new domestic and export markets for businesses.

Improving this kind of export infrastructure will give local producers opportunities to get their goods to markets more quickly and cheaply, and can have flow-on benefits for regional areas and their communities.

More agricultural exports by air would also improve the viability of inbound tourism flights and increase the productivity of other airport infrastructure.

Equally important are improvements in broadband and mobile coverage, which can support growth of service industries, and enhance access to social services such as remote education and telehealth.

Prioritising investment in this kind of enabling infrastructure will be key in enhancing the liveability of regional communities, and helping to attract and retain residents.

Improved infrastructure services are also critical to address entrenched disadvantage.

Providing infrastructure to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples—particularly in remote communities and areas—remains one of Australia's most considerable, and long-lived infrastructure challenges.

In particular, Infrastructure Australia has identified an urgent need to address overcrowding and poor quality housing in remote communities.

We consider this to be as a nationally-significant investment priority, requiring coordinated action by all levels of government in the near term.

It is estimated that, in 2018, there was overcrowding in more than one-third of remote housing in Australia.

Good-quality housing underpins all targets in health, education and employment, as well as community safety, and is a critical issue for Australian communities.

There is a clear need for greater investment in infrastructure to help overcome the disadvantage and inequality suffered by some communities in Northern Australia.

And equally, we have an important opportunity to improve community welfare through better health and education, and unlock employment and the development of local industries.

The need for more detailed and evidence-based studies

A key finding of the 2019 Audit is that more detailed and evidence-based studies are needed to guide infrastructure investment in the north.

Development in northern regions could benefit from more detailed information and evidence-based studies of economic opportunities, as well as a better understanding of local needs and values, particularly of local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Better information on opportunities and local needs can support more efficient investment and greater benefits for northern communities.

Given the limited resources of governments, these kinds of studies are necessary to help understand how infrastructure can unlock strategic opportunities, and can deliver improvements in outcomes such as improving productivity, sustainability and quality of life, or reducing socioeconomic disadvantage.

Examining the economic, social and environmental benefits of potential projects can also help to support efficient investment in underdeveloped regions.

We would like to see this analysis supported with scenario testing using a range of external factors, such as changes in exchange rate, climate change and developments in technology, can ensure these opportunities are resilient to potential future changes.

Concluding remarks

The 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit paints a clear picture of the future trends that will affect how Northern Australia grows and changes over the next 15 years and beyond.

It's also a fantastic opportunity for us to engage with you, our valued stakeholders working across the region on what you see as the key challenges and opportunities ahead.

Public submissions will be invited in response to the Audit, and we warmly invite all stakeholders and the public to provide feedback and submissions.

It's critical that we receive a diversity of views, as it will help us to identify the right infrastructure solutions to support Australia's growth and development.

Infrastructure must responds to local needs, and planning for the future will require different approaches for different regions.

This is something we have worked hard to reflect in the 2019 Audit, but we need your input—to inform a genuinely community-centred agenda for investment and reform. 

Our consultation following the release of the Audit will inform the development of the next Australian Infrastructure Plan, which will outline a blueprint for infrastructure reform.

With the needs of the community at its heart, the Audit will provide a clear picture of the problems we need to solve, and strengthen the evidence base for infrastructure decision-making across Australia.

I look forward to sharing it with you in coming weeks.

Thank you.