Call for billions to be more accessible to region
AS MANY parts of northern Australia alongside the Whitsundays are reeling from job losses due to coronavirus, Senator Murray Watt has called on the Federal Government to make billions from an existing infrastructure fund more accessible.
The Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) is a $5 billion loan facility that was established under the Abbott Government in 2015.
Since its introduction, only $88.5 million from the $5 billion has been released for projects in Northern Australia, which equates to less than two per cent in total funding.
In Queensland, less than $2 million has been released.
Senator for Queensland Murray Watt said loosening criteria for the loans and looking at smaller projects would help areas like the Whitsundays in both the near and distant future.
“We know across northern Australia there’s a number of regions like the Whitsundays that are really feeling the pinch now because of the coronavirus downturn,” he said.
“That came off the back of the bushfires, which may not have affected the region but certainly impacted tourism in the area, so there’s been that double blow.
“(The Federal Government) have got these funds sitting there, largely unspent, that would seem to be a good way of getting money out the door to support projects and get more projects happening and more jobs happening in North Queensland.
“If we can get the Federal Government using these NAIF funds quickly, that will obviously provide an immediate stimulus into the region to help cover some of the job losses that we’re seeing because of coronavirus, but it also has a long-term dividend by setting up the region to recover and to get its share of tourism business back once travel bans are lifted.
“What we want to ensure is that any tourism regions like the Whitsundays come out of coronavirus bigger and better and ready for tourists to return, so while things are quiet on the tourist front (it is) a really good time to see governments investing money in the kind of infrastructure that will help the economy recover down the track.”
For the Whitsundays, Mr Watt said tourism, agriculture and biofuels could all be avenues for development in the region.
In figures released on Tuesday by Tourism Whitsundays, 130 tourism businesses reported that 2593 jobs had been lost across the region.
Investing in infrastructure projects could help “soak up” some of the job losses in the tourism sector and provide employment in what Mr Watt said was a difficult time for the region.
The NAIF loans typically cover projects such as transport infrastructure, energy and communications networks, social infrastructure including health facilities, education facilities and research facilities, processing facilities such as abattoirs and agricultural processing plants and transhipment vessels.
However, in a time where small businesses are under increasing pressure, Mr Watt said NAIF projects that look at smaller projects would provide big benefits for regional Queensland and the Whitsundays.
“There’s been a lot of criticism that the NAIF has really focused on big projects in the tens of millions of dollars, and sometimes in regional Australia the kind of projects that generate jobs are smaller projects, they might be in the millions of dollars rather than the tens of millions of dollars,” he said.
“I think the current climate is a good opportunity for the NAIF to maybe refocus its attention on smaller projects that they might have previously turned away but would still have a big economic impact for the region.”
The NAIF mainly finances fixed rate loans where interest rates and payback periods are determined separately for each individual project.
While NAIF may offer concession in some circumstances, Mr Watt encouraged the Federal Government to consider relaxing loan requirements so businesses could invest in projects without fear of incurring more debt.
“People have had to wait far too long to see any of this money actually hit the ground and create jobs, and now there’s a greater need than ever to have money out the door,” he said.
“There’s no point in the Federal Government sitting on this massive war chest at a time when businesses are really hurting and workers are being laid off in their thousands.
“Now is the time to get the money out the door and I think the best way to do that is for NAIF to relax some of its restrictive processes and to take a second look at some of the projects they’ve knocked back in the past, and also refocus their efforts on smaller projects, which might not have cut it in the past.”