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Interview on ABC TV's Lateline

22 September 2016

Interviewer: 
David Lipson

Subject: Youth unemployment, Townsville stadium, Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, Adani coal mine, backpacker tax

E&OE

DAVID LIPSON:   Matt Canavan is the Minister for Northern Australia and an LNP Senator for Queensland. In a previous life he was an economist for the Productivity Commission. He joins me from Rockhampton. Matt Canavan thanks for your time, what is the best thing that Government can do to address the youth unemployment problem in this country?

MINISTER CANAVAN:   Well, there are a few things Government can do, David and thanks for having me on. Principally, our prime job is to provide the right infrastructure, the right business-friendly policies for the private sector to get on with business and employ people. Most of the jobs of course in Townsville and all across regional areas are going to come through private businesses not the Government employing people directly. So that should be our focus.

In Townsville in particular, we recognise the challenges and problems it faces. That's why we've announced a quarter of a billion dollars of infrastructure during the election including an upgrade of their port for economic infrastructure. It’s why we've got a long-term Northern Australia agenda as well.

We recognise the upheaval that Townsville and North Queensland is going through, where I am right now, it's a tough time coming off the mining boom but we have been through tough times as a country before. We've particularly got a very bright future here in North Queensland with lots of opportunities and agriculture, in tourism and still in mining as well, and the policies we've got in place help support those industries by building new infrastructure and by supporting local businesses as well.

DAVID LIPSON:   You mentioned that quarter of a billion dollars for Townsville specifically. The big headline during the election campaign was for the stadium, $100 million to build a new stadium up there. 1600 jobs created during that project but as I understand it 31 jobs once the construction phase is over. Is that really the best way to spend taxpayer dollars?

MINISTER CANAVAN:   That's according to one study, David. When we announced the stadium it was part of a city deal for it whole of Townsville. That particular project, the stadium, is primarily about urban renewal for Townsville so we certainly plan for it not just to be about football, but to be about new restaurants, new areas for people to meet and greet, new jobs for the very young people that you had in your story before.

And also we've announced $150 million for the port in Townsville which is about getting better access for the port, the rail line upgrades that are needed to get better access to the port. That will too open up land in Townsville particularly for logistics and other opportunities for the city and the wider region.

DAVID LIPSON:   More broadly, when can we expect the Government's $5 billion Northern Australia infrastructure Facility or fund to start actually flowing?

MINISTER CANAVAN:   When we announced that - we did announce it last year as the program indicated, but when we announced it we said it would be up and running by July 1 this year and it was up and running by July 1 this year.  That was only a couple of months ago of course.

They have held board meetings now, the board of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility have a number of good projects that are going forward to that facility and recently I have been speaking to people about projects in Townsville that might be able to come forward for it as well.

That is on track but that is something that will take some time to roll out those large-scale infrastructure projects and that's why during the election we announced a $30 million jobs package for the Townsville region, the Bowen Basin region - the region's been hit by the mining boom – to help small businesses diversify, go into new areas of business, try and employ young people. We realised we needed a mix of policies here, short, medium and long-term, to respond to these challenges and take the opportunities North Queensland has.

DAVID LIPSON:   You've long been an advocate for the Adani coal mine. Has it, as far as you're aware, applied for some of that public assistance through NAIF?

MINISTER CANAVAN:   My understanding is they've been in discussions with the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. It's not really a typical Government-run program where you make a formal application, if you like, David, it is a commercially oriented venture where you, as a proponent or investor, can go and ask and discuss your plans.

DAVID LIPSON:   But should public funds be used, do you think, to help get a coal mine, such a controversial coal mine, off the ground?

MINISTER CANAVAN:   Well, certainly the Government won't be providing funds for a coal mine as such. Whether any related infrastructure would be provided with funding under the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility…(interrupted).

DAVID LIPSON:   So a railway to service it?

MINISTER CANAVAN:   Well that's a matter for the independent board. The Parliament only a couple of months ago established a board to be independent in this space, look at these projects, they will make their recommendations in due course, if indeed any are made on this project, I think it's too early to tell at this stage.

DAVID LIPSON:   You’re Resources Minister, would you ever block a loan offered to Adani? That's what the Senate moved a motion just a couple of weeks ago urging the Government not to support such a mine?

MINISTER CANAVAN:   I'm certainly not going to pre-empt any decision of an independent board, David. That's sort of the definition of independence. I don't think it's appropriate for me as the Minister to do so.

I'll judge any particular project or proposal on its merits as it comes forward, as I am meant to do, along with the Government as well. This particular proposal was also put forward to us by the Queensland State Government last year, as I say, those discussions are continuing but there's not much more to add at this stage.

DAVID LIPSON:   About 30 per cent of people in Northern Australia are Indigenous from the figures I have seen most recently and they're enormously, as you know, over-represented in unemployment numbers, yet Closing the Gap and the Northern Australia policy seem to be operating in isolation of each other or at least viewed largely separately. Should there be - should they be issues the Government is viewing in tandem with each other?

MINISTER CANAVAN:   Certainly in some aspects they should be, David. It hasn't received the same high profile as some of the infrastructure projects we've announced under the Northern Australia agenda but the very first chapter of the White Paper we released on northern development talks about Indigenous lands and native title issues in particular.

We cannot develop the north without unlocking the value that exists in native title given how much it covers Northern Australia and we've got an ambitious reform agenda to help traditional owners develop new and innovative ways of creating value with that title ownership and also settling native title claims over the next decade.

So that's a complex reform proposal. It will take time to deliver but you're right to identify that developing the north must include our first Australians, very much at its core. If it doesn't we will have failed… (interrupted)

DAVID LIPSON:   We're almost out of time and I did want to get to one more issue and that is the proposed and then delayed backpacker tax that would tax foreigners at 32.5% from the first dollar earned. When can we expect a decision on this? And what sort of outcome do you think would work for Northern Australia? Are we going to see some exemptions for agriculture and tourism, for example?

MINISTER CANAVAN:   Well, we've certainly listened to the concerns of the industry, that's why we've put this off for six months. We are doing a review right now, listening to people. We've said that review will be completed by November. I would certainly like to see that completed as soon as possible. I know the industry would.

This is an area the industry itself recognises that we need to change the taxation arrangements. The current arrangements in effect mean many backpackers pay no tax even though they did before 2012, before the tax-free threshold was changed.

I don't think it's right that any workers in this country, whether they are domestic or foreign, don't pay tax and contribute to our public services. That needs to change. So it is complex to design that change. We recognise the tax that was introduced has created a lot of concerns and that's why we're holding this review and we'll get back in very short form.

DAVID LIPSON:   Look forward to it. Thank you for your time. Have to leave it there, Matt Canavan.

(ENDS)