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Media Conference, Darwin

14 September 2016

Subject: Road funding, Developing Northern Australia, NT moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, Budget savings, Backpacker tax, Government achievements, Same-sex marriage plebiscite

E&OE

MINISTER CANAVAN

It’s great to be here for Resources Week in the Northern Territory. This is such an important sector for the Territory economy.

I want to make sure that I work together with the Northern Territory Government, the new Government, for the benefit of the Territory, for the resources sector.

I also want to make sure that we continue to work together on developing the north. The Northern Territory is the heart of northern Australia, the only jurisdiction that is wholly contained within northern Australia, and we need to make sure that this agenda keeps going forward.

The former Government, of Adam Giles, worked very closely with us on the White Paper, and I have had discussions with the new Chief Minister this morning and I welcome the fact that he wants to continue that engagement and continue that momentum. There is a lot going on in the north, a lot of opportunities, and this is a great example of where federal and state governments, and territory governments, can work together, where Labor and Liberal-National governments can work together for the benefit of our country, to create jobs right across Australia and the north in particular.

This is an agenda not just for northern Australia – it’s for our while country. If we make the north strong, we will have a stronger economy. If we keep achieving the economic growth we have over the last quarter of a century, that will be good for all Australians.

Today, I also want to announce further road funding here in the Northern Territory, which builds on the road funding we have announced recently, as part of our northern Australian agenda. Today, I can announced $2.1 million for 10 new “blackspot” projects in the north, a relatively small amount of money but so important to protect people’s lives and safety. In these 10 locations across the Northern Territory, there have in recent times been two fatalities unfortunately, and 42 injuries. Our most important endeavour with our roads is to make sure we get people safely from work to home with their families, and minimise the trauma that comes from road accidents unfortunately.

These projects will help improve median strips, line markings, obstructions on the side of roads, to try to make sure that if and when accidents do happen, they do not cause major injuries or, unfortunately, in the worst-case, deaths. These are important investments here in the Territory. They include places like Lee Point Road and Daly Road, and we will have a list for all of you of those 10 projects.

It builds on what we are doing right across the north. During the election, I announced as the Northern Australia Minister $130 million of funding for projects like the Arnhem Highway over the Adelaide River, the Keep River Road, which is so important for Project Sea Dragon, and the Outback Way, outside of Alice Springs. We have also committed to seal the Outback Way over the next 10 years, creating a third sealed road from the east to the west of our country.

There’s a lot going on here in the north. The Federal Government is very committed to the Northern Territory and to developing the north right across the country. It’s a great time to be alive here in the Northern Territory, it’s a great time to be up here, in this beautiful weather, and I look forward to getting back because I love being here.

QUESTION

When it comes to momentum, it must be concerning, given that momentum is important in developing the north, how does the moratorium fit in with assisting momentum or impeding it?

MINISTER CANAVAN

As I said this morning, the Federal Government would prefer not to have blanket bans across large areas like Territories or States but I recognise that (NT Chief Minister) Michael (Gunner) has been elected with a mandate from the people. What’s important now is what we do going forward. I’ve offered to work with the Northern Territory Government, as we have with the Queensland Government in the past. I’ve offered to provide the services of the CSIRO, our nation’s most pre-eminent scientific body, to help the new Northern Territory Government get to the bottom of the scientific and other issues they would like to with tight and shale gas resources here in the Territory, and, by working together, and making sure we get to the bottom of the science, perhaps we will be able to progress this industry in the Territory. It will be a matter for the Northern Territory Government but we think our resources that we have in Canberra, and our commitment to funding to be provided through this program can be of great assistance to the Territory Government. We are willing to work with them.

QUESTION

(Indistinct) … a blanket ban I guess.

MINISTER CANAVAN

Recently, the ACCC did a major report on gas markets and they concluded that these blanket bans were not the right approach, and, primarily, it’s because we really should be looking at projects on a specific basis: what the project means for the water table, what the project means for other industries, particularly agriculture of course, and for the wider community.

The Northern Territory is a big place, Victoria is a big place, Tasmania is a big place – it would seem strange to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to this industry, where there will be different circumstances in different areas. I come from Queensland, and we have an unconventional gas industry there, that supplies more than 90% of our gas and has done for a number of decades now. It has done so safely, it has done so in a way that has been of great benefit to my State and to my region, with Gladstone emerging as a major LNG powerhouse.

I think this can work but I recognise there may be some areas, there may be some projects which are not environmentally appropriate. That’s why we have strong environmental controls but they should be applied on a project-by-project basis.

QUESTION

Have you sought any sort of timeline from Michael Gunner, because surely it would affect the momentum of the northern agenda in general.

MINISTER CANAVAN

Well, I’m willing to work as quickly as possible with Michael. It’s a matter for him how he establishes his inquiry. I believe today he has released a draft terms of reference, so that’s good he’s getting on with it quickly. I am willing to work with him as soon as possible. Any decision on the moratorium is obviously one for the Northern Territory Labor Government ultimately but we are willing to work with them and provide the great resources of bodies like the CSIRO to help them out.

QUESTION

How will the fracking moratorium affect the economy ... (Indistinct)? How will that affect it?

MINISTER CANAVAN

I want to see projects happen, I want to see investments occur, and they do have to occur in an environmentally sustainable way, but we need to make sure we don’t obstruct those investments. We are at a critical time in our economy. We have had 25 years of uninterrupted growth in our country. In areas like the Territory – that rely heavily on resources – they’re struggling at the moment to attract that investment, given the subdued commodity prices situation. I just like to see us base our decisions on the science as much as possible: that’s what we should be doing for the people of the Northern Territory and the people of Australia.

I’m not saying we should open the gates and just let anything happen. We should make sure we make decisions that are right for our environment but that are also right for the people and provide the people and the jobs that we need. The environment is very important but so are all the people that live in this city, so are the jobs that are required in the resources sector. Our job as leaders and my job as a Minister is to find that right balance for the Australian people and I call on the Northern Territory Government to get this going as quickly as possible so we can unlock any opportunities that might be there for this industry.

QUESTION

(Indistinct) … with plans for northern Australia, do you have renewed hope now that there’s a new Chief Minister?

MINISTER CANAVAN

As I said, there’s no doubt that Mr Giles worked very well with the Federal Government on the agenda and he was a great spur to developing the north. There is a risk of course, with any change, that we may lose momentum, but that’s why I made it one of my first priorities to get up here and meet Michael Gunner, to try to keep the momentum going. I have been heartened by our discussions that we had this morning, and his commitment to the agenda. He has made himself the Northern Development Minister, so I believe that shows the level of commitment. It’s now a matter of getting down to business. I don’t need to talk that much anymore. We’ve got $130 million of road funding on the table and I offered to Michael that we want to get that moving as soon as possible. Obviously that relies on the Territory Government because that involves their roads, but we are funding them to the level of 80%. We are happy to just get cracking, that’s what I want to do, get cracking to create jobs here in the Territory, and I am happy to work with Michael Gunner and his whole team to make sure that happens.

QUESTION

What’s your reaction to the scrapping of the baby bonus?

MINISTER CANAVAN

Well, it’s a tough budget environment right now, and in tough times you have to make tough decisions. I think Australian households realise that when their budgets tighten, they’ve got to sometimes look through the spreadsheet and realise that, well, maybe we don’t need a Foxtel subscription or we’ve got to cut back on our grocery bill during the week to make ends meet, and we’ve got to do the same federally, and so some of the measures announced yesterday had previously been argued for by the Nationals party and by myself, but I am willing to compromise and make difficult choices for the benefit of our country, for the benefit of our budget, because this is a budget that we will deliver to the next generation of Australians and we have a responsibility to deliver it as strong as we possibly can.

What I also do is call on the Labor Party to do more. I welcome the fact that they have agreed to just more than $6 billion in savings but there is a lot more to do. This needs to be a first step, not a final plan, a first step to making sure we develop more savings. The Labor party is still not agreeing to savings they agreed to only two months ago in the election, and are now back-tracking on those. I find that remarkable that two months ago it was good enough for the Australian people but two months later it is not good enough for the Labor Party caucus. I think they should put the Australian people first, and the Australian budget first, and work with us on delivering more savings to get our budget back in shape.

QUESTION

Has there been any movement on the backpacker tax and the effects that would have up here?

MINISTER CANAVAN

As you would probably be aware, we have announced an inquiry into the backpacker tax, announced during the election. Submissions closed on that, I believe, about 10 or so days ago, and so they are all being evaluated right now. I have had many discussions with Ministers on this issue. I am confident that we will come to a better situation, which does tackle the fundamental problem that, after the changes announced in relation to the carbon tax, many backpackers pay no tax now, and there does need to be some change but also deliver a competitive outcome for agricultural and other sectors that rely on backpackers.

QUESTION

Just on the budget again, is it not crucial then that offshore / onshore projects that deliver royalties into our budget requirements be accelerated to improve that budget bottom line, given that the resources sector is producing lower royalties?

MINISTER CANAVAN

I want to get things going. It’s why I support the resources sector. As I did say though, the Northern Territory people have picked a side of government that has a policy for a moratorium, so that has to be worked through. I hope it can be worked through as quickly as possible. It is a broader point you raise that we need to make sure we have laws that protect the environment but don’t stop investment, that make sure we protect our beautiful  environment but also allow us to benefit from the resources that God’s given us under this earth: the black rocks, the red rocks, the black liquids that exist off our shores, that create that wealth and generate those jobs, and too often right now we’ve got projects held up by interminable legal cases by certain activist groups that are abusing – and they are abusing – our legal system, not to try to protect the environment or stop something that is against the law, but simply to delay a project to the extent that it will stop those jobs being created.

Now, we have tried at the federal  government level to make changes to our environmental laws to facilitate investment and we have established a new offshore regulator that creates a one-stop shop that will cut about $120 million a year in red tape for the sector but we have been frustrated on some other changes in the Senate that would facilitate more investment, frustrated by the Labor Party, frustrated by the Greens, so it really is up to Bill Shorten and others in our Parliament to decide whether they want to work with us to create those jobs or they prefer to continue to be on the side of a minority group in our community who want to stop everything at all costs.

QUESTION

In the year since Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister, what do you think has been his greatest achievement?

MINISTER CANAVAN

Well, I think the greatest achievement that we’ve got is that we continue strong economic growth in this country. Last week marked 25 years’ uninterrupted growth. Obviously, that goes back through multiple governments but this government has maintained the growth at more than 3 per cent a year, one of the highest levels in the world. This government has created more than 200,000 jobs over the past calendar year, when in the last calendar year of the last Labor government, 100,000 jobs were created. That is the most important achievement, that is the most important thing we can do for the Australian people. And business confidence has grown to a level not seen since late 2013. That bodes well for the future of our economy as well.

I also would say that we have continued to maintain our border security. There is no area more important for that than the north. It is important to ensure we control who comes into this country and that has been maintained through the life of our government. We have not had a boat arrive here illegally for a number of years.

We are also progressing a number of very important reforms on competition law, on the Australian building construction commission and on media reform as well to make our economy stronger, support small business, and ensure we have the most up-to-date laws for our modern economy.

QUESTION

Bill Shorten indicated this morning, according to reports, that he will recommend to the Labor caucus that they don’t back a gay marriage plebiscite ... (Indistinct)

MINISTER CANAVAN

It’s a matter for Bill Shorten. I think it’s pretty clear the Australian people want their say on this. Even Labor voters, when they’re polled, support a plebiscite, support the fact that the people should have a say on what is a major cultural change. I accept that many people would like to see that change . The quickest and easiest path for that change is to support a plebiscite . It can be done now by February next year. It’s not that far away now and I would call on Mr Shorten to now listen to the people, to respect the mandate we have from the Australian people in being re-elected and support that plebiscite.

I am up here today saying I recognise the mandate that Mr Gunner has from the Northern Territory people . I don’t agree with his position on that particular issue but I accept that the people have spoken and I have to now work with him following that result. Well, I think Mr Shorten needs to look in the mirror and do the same thing. He still seems to think he’s won the election when he didn’t win the election. The Australian people want a plebiscite, so get out of the way and let them have it.

QUESTION

(Indistinct … re CSIRO and other federal resources.)

MINISTER CANAVAN

We already have done that. We have before the election provided an additional $4 million for what we’ve created we call GISERA, which is a geographic geological consortium made up of industry, State governments, or the Queensland Government at the moment, and CSIRO. We committed another $4 million so that it could be expanded nationally, away from just Queensland. The New South Wales Government has already taken up that offer. I believe they are putting in an additional $2 million for that, and we will be happy to work with the Northern Territory Government to provide those services as well, consistent with our announcement we made before the election.

QUESTION

How much would that program be worth?

MINISTER CANAVAN

We put in an additional $4 million. It is a national program. It is then up to the individual jurisdictions to try to identify projects they would like it to do. In Queensland, they have focussed on looking at what are the cumulative impacts across the three different coal seam gas projects in the Surat Basin, how that’s going to impact. They’ve done work on what the community views are on the issue and how they can be best tackled. It will really be a discussion that I’m willing to have with the Northern Territory Government about how they’d like to focus that.

We have also put in $100 million towards exploring undeveloped parts of our country, with a particular focus on the north. That’s a separate program and it’s managed by Geoscience Australia but that too could help identify the resources you do have here in the Territory such as tight shale gas resources and also look at the groundwater issues. It will be focussed heavily on mapping groundwater resources which you desperately need here in the Territory, not just for resources but for irrigation opportunities too, so that’s another avenue where the Northern Territory Government could work with us in this inquiry that Michael Gunner has announced.

Ends