Call for NAIF overhaul after damning report
THE long-term difficulties impeding the government's $5 million federal loans scheme were exposed in a new report examining the Australian Government's effectiveness in delivering for Northern Australia.
The report was the result of the Senate Select Committee on the effectiveness of the Australian Government's Northern Australia agenda spending more than a year conducting face-to-face hearings in Darwin, Townsville, Mt Isa, Mackay and Nhulunbuy, along with a series of video conferences.
The bipartisan inquiry outlined a series of nine unanimous recommendations to fast-track growth in the region - eight of which were related to changes to the struggling Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF), a $5 billion federal loans scheme.
It called for more focused Federal Government investment on smaller shovel-ready projects, First Nations-led projects and industries that have been badly impacted by COVID-19.
The report found that the NAIF was sluggish in delivering on funding, noting that "As of 30 October 2020, total payments of only $218.4 million (including capitalised interest) have been drawn down.
"Further the NAIF's current projections are that proponents will have made a drawdown of only $400 million in NAIF funds by 30 June 2021. Simply put, the committee is concerned, that it is taking too long for NAIF funding to get out the door," the report said.
The report suggests converting some of the NAIF funds to grants, equity stakes and guarantees, to ensure that small scale projects and First Nations projects are adequately supported.
"Ensuring NAIF projects buy local and employ locals, as a way of generating jobs in the regions," it said.
Perennial critics of the NAIF, Labor's Keppel MP Brittany Lauga and Shadow Minister for Northern Australia Murray Watt, have seized on the findings of the interim report.
"The LNP's $5 billion No Actual Infrastructure Fund (NAIF) has spent less than 5 cents in every $1 for infrastructure over the past four years," Ms Lauga said.
"The dismal spending of the $5 billion in the fund was revealed in the Senate on Thursday. "What is the Assistant Minister for Northern Australia Michelle Landry doing? It shouldn't be so hard for the LNP to spend $5 billion on infrastructure."
Senator Watt said the inquiry had found there was a big gap between what the Coalition Government promised with its Northern Australia agenda, and what had actually been delivered.
"The message could not be clearer for the Morrison Government - the NAIF needs to be overhauled significantly," Senator Watt said.
"After five years, only two projects have been approved in Central Queensland, and neither of them have actually received a dollar.
"We've also seen a lot of worthy projects deemed out of scope of the NAIF.
"It simply has not worked. It hasn't created the jobs that were promised because it hasn't actually got money out the door."
Especially after COVID, he said government needed to be taking a good hard look at what could be done to fix the NAIF and back more projects that could improve liveability and create jobs around Central Queensland.
"We've had members of the government, members of the Opposition, members of the crossbench all sign off in this report, so we're very hopeful that the government will take up these recommendations as it makes changes to the NAIF," he said.
Government responds to criticism over report
Speaking last week at CQUniversity to celebrate the NAIF's contract close with university for a $76 million technology upgrade, Assistant Minister for Northern Australia Michelle Landry said her government was working on legislating changes for the NAIF.
"The Federal Government has already announced changes to the NAIF that put a much stronger focus on job creation and projects that boost economic opportunities throughout the north," Ms Landry said.
"We value the north and understand it can play a key role in Australia's economic comeback from the coronavirus pandemic and we remain committed to realising the region's enormous potential.
"Given Labor's new found interest in regions outside our capital cities, I look forward to their support when our legislation to allow these important reforms goes before Parliament."
The committee will continue to hold more public hearings in Northern Australia, including two in Cairns and Thursday Island later this month.
A final report will be tabled in March 2021.
The interim report can be viewed here.
Recommendations from the interim report
• Broadening the eligibility of the NAIF to allow smaller projects and more industries to apply.
• Consideration of converting some of the NAIF funds to grants, equity stakes and guarantees, to ensure that small scale projects and First Nations projects are adequately supported.
• Ensuring NAIF projects buy local and employ locals, as a way of generating jobs in the regions.
• A review by the Morrison Government to determine which industries have been impacted by COVID-19 and prioritise projects within those industries.
• Greater transparency and accountability when it comes to NAIF management, project approval and staff bonuses.