Hard Talk…growing Cairns and North East Australia October 2021

This will be one of the many engagement forums where Enterprise North will discuss the issues that matter to each of us.

Kevin Byrne, Enterprise North Inc.

Well, there’s certainly lots to talk about in this issue. 18 months into a      haphazard and confused national response into pandemic management   caused in no small part by State Governments going it alone on the basis of unenforceable agreements at National Cabinet. Federal and State budgets around the country are bleeding billions of dollars with a Federal election probably eight months away and the posturing has commenced in earnest. One thing is central and that is the show must go on. So, lets deal the issues in an attempt to make sense of where we find ourselves and why; and what might be the remedy.

COVID 19: Northern Australia fortuitously has been spared from the health experiences of the southern parts of the country but not from the resulting economic impacts of the border closures as State Governments employed eradication policies at all costs. This has resulted in some parts of the economy across Northern Australia doing particularly well as Australians explored their own back yards with smaller communities faring particularly well, as well as the building and construction industry on the back of government subsidies and a boom in the renovation sectors. Federal and State Governments continue to support the general economy and in particular those who are suffering a steep decline in turnover and business activity due to the consequential effect of all the pandemic lockdowns elsewhere, and this particularly applies to the tourism industry. Whilst the establishment of the “National Cabinet” might have given us collectively some confidence that we would respond to this emergent situation with a sense of unified national purpose, those expectations were dashed and betrayed by State Governments pursuing their own political and health agendas. It continues to this day and has shone a light on the frailty of the concept of national consensus. Whilst at the outset we were reminded that “we were all in this together”, it quickly became obvious we were not. The Commonwealth fractured along political lines as each state followed the differing dictates of their health bureaucrats and politics naturally followed with Premiers adopting the safe and emotionally charged position of “keeping us safe” on the back of early highly exaggerated and irresponsible doomsday predictions of death and disease, and bugger the consequences. Covid suppression soon became Covid elimination and many of the responses were shambolic and businesses and communities were thrown to the wolves. Planning was driven exclusively by health dictates (different in each State), and we were never in this together. We are now at the fork in the road and again States are going it alone and there is no national consensus as to a coordinated action plan of exit. Queensland’s response is particularly irresponsible. Our vaccination rates are amongst the worst in the country and the messaging from central casting is shambolic leaving those who rely on international connectivity for their futures second guessing…think international education providers, business and agriculture labour issues, international travellers, reunion travel, exporters and importers, and now as I write this, the Premier is effectively using Queensland’s alleged poor preparedness of the health system 18 months in as a lever for more funding from the Commonwealth. Readers of this column would understand the philosophy of Enterprise North is to promote independence of thought and promote and advocate for policies that allows us to grow and develop regardless of the endless array of handbrakes encountered along the way. In this case the Cairns Regional Council needs to drive the CAIRNS TRAVEL BUBBLE CONCEPT as a distinct destination project linking Cairns to New Zealand and Singapore. We have ample underutilised accommodation, an effective health system with two capable and well-resourced hospitals, an international airport, an established international travel industry screaming out for patrons, the Great Barrier Reef and little exposure to COVID in the past 18 months. All that is needed is the community and political will, and a marketing plan to make it happen. Of course, we need to ensure that within the CRC boundaries the vaccination rate of the local population proceeds quickly to 80%. The challenge is there.

REGIONAL CONNECTIVITY: It is pleasing to see that the TNQ Regional Organisation of Councils (ROC) has raised the importance of upgrading the Kuranda Range Road (KRR). There is no doubt that the capacity constraints of the KRR are now a serious impediment to the connectivity from Cairns to the region in the west and north and will place a handbrake on population and economic growth from here on. Should the environmental constraints prevent an upgrade in capacity to satisfy our future growth plans on the current alignment, then a decision needs to be made as to an alternate route. Simply throwing more money at studies is not going to cut it and this should be part of the wider consideration in the Northern Australia action agenda to be driven by the Commonwealth with State participation. Yet again this issue points to the need for a comprehensive review of a regional plan that accommodates realistic population growth projections and a realistic assessment of all the economic opportunities ahead of us. Those of you who are familiar with the objectives of Enterprise North would understand the high price we place on reliable data driven policies to grow our population and economic base, and connectivity between the city and the surrounding regional communities is crucial.

WORKFORCE ISSUES:  This issue is attracting much attention. Concern is being expressed about the lack of a suitably sized and competent workforce across Northern and Regional Australia. Attached at the bottom of this newsletter are a couple of recent articles the detail some of the issues. In the first article it talks about the difficulties attracting suitably qualified people to the tourism industry. This is a challenge to be sure but these are not highly qualified personnel who are difficult to replace, but the issue is attracting them here in the first place with immigration certainty and keeping them here with the confidence that industry across Northern Australia will stay open and not be subject to the vagaries of reactive border closures. The other talks of the difficulties in providing a long-term reliable workforce for the agricultural sector across all parts of Region Australia. The response here requires the agriculture and horticulture industry to agree with the Federal Govt to a visa regime to bring in farm workers free from the ongoing political threats that undermines industry confidence in planning and the financing of future investment in an industry that is poised for record growth in the next three years. Additionally, it would seem that there are many departments involved in the process but perhaps now is the time to move to a single department solution to provide certainty and clarity moving forward. There are a number of schemes already in place including the Pacific Labour Scheme that have been operating for years and now the implementation of a new agricultural visa that is focused on a wider geographic region.

RAIL CONNECTIVITY: In previous newsletters I have suggested the wisdom of improving rail access to Far North QLD and across northern Australia more generally, but importantly the missing link of improved capacity between Townsville and Cairns. The right alignment exists and all that is needed is to improve the capacity of the line to be able to take larger and more frequent freight services between the two cities. This would provide for the twin outcome of getting more freight trucks off the Bruce Highway and provide a much-needed level of competition in the long haulage businesses. The current construction of the inland rail from Melbourne through to Brisbane and maybe to Gladstone has provided a focus again on the economic viability and flexibility of rail. The economic success of regions will be driven by the logistic efficiencies and cost competitiveness of our transport nodes. This formed the basis of the Admiralty Island Logistics Hub concept that you can see

CAIRNS STADIUM: The inability of Cairns to attract any NRL fixture during the past season when the season was played in Queensland is truly a lamentable outcome and has highlighted again the need for suitable international standard rectangular facilities for the growing demands of Rugby, Rugby League and Soccer at elite levels. A city of the stature of Cairns deserves a first-class facility. The clamour for this stadium is growing by the day and it is incomprehensible that a city with such quality hotels, restaurants, an international airport and other facilities with an existing sports precinct in walking distance of a CBD speaks volumes to the need to get cracking. Enterprise North continues to work collaboratively with others to bring the project to fruition. You can see the original project documentation

in this edition including our correspondence to the Mayor of Cairns

WATER: The contest for suitable bulk water storage and distribution across the North will take centre stage as we work to diversify our regional economies. Apart from environmental issues that continuously frustrate the approval processes when the word water is mentioned, there is an urgent need to clarify responsibilities for the provision of the infrastructure to hold, process and distribute. Traditionally the funding for regional projects falls largely to the Federal Government often in a partnership arrangement with the State Government. Projects within Local Government Areas are usually their responsibility as they are responsible for the treatment and distribution of water within their LGA. Successive governments have failed to deliver on their promises of bulk water security and distribution mechanisms by a failure of agreement between the Queensland State Government who are philosophically opposed to bulk facilities and distribution agreements that are negotiated with Sun Water. The latest Regional Development Australia TNQ is

and describes their current advocacy for the Lakeland Irrigation Scheme which provides links to the progress of their work.

NEW COMMONWEALTH MINISTERIAL APPOINTMENTS: The newly appointed Minister for Agriculture, Water Resources and Northern Australia David Littleproud MP and the newly appointed Envoy for Northern Australia Development Senator Susan McDonald recently conducted a joint Ministerial Forum in Cairns. My correspondence to the Minister can be seen

. The link to the Developing Northern Australia White Paper is

It is quite a voluminous document and you will see that the obvious conclusion to be drawn is despite the enthusiasm from governments little has been achieved. An easy test of this is the efficiency and coverage of our regional IT connectivity.

OUR TOURISM, INTERNATIONAL EDUCATION AND ACCOMMODATION SECTORS: I recently presented a case for a CAIRNS DESTINATION BUBBLE and here is part of that correspondence: “There is quite some fatigue with the increasing numbers of people at the coalface who are dealing on a daily basis to simply stay alive and keep people employed. They need, and indeed are entitled to some certainty in planning for the future. At the outset of the C19 pandemic, much was made of a community fightback plan by “keeping it local” and abiding by the health advice and to follow the dictates from the daily politically orchestrated media conferences from the lawns of Parliament House. The chief characteristic of our response from Cairns and TNQ has been just do as we are told and follow the advice as it is all about keeping us safe. Trust us to keep the virus at bay and build capacity in our health systems to handle any outcome and we will do this as part of our state wide strategy of “Unite and Recover” which became the narrative lazily accepted by much of the community leadership along with elements of the business and tourism sectors. The entire corrospondence can be viewed

We are of course “all in this together!” The initial national health plan of COVID submission flicked to elimination by the State overnight and there it has remained. We have now become victims of our own complacency along with an inability to contribute to an alternate narrative other than throw more money at keeping failing businesses alive. The Commonwealth Government has been the largely unrecognised heavy lifters of this response during the past 18 months and yet endure the biggest criticism for not doing enough financially, along with, it seems now, the failure for the shortcomings of Queensland’s health preparedness. This is a most unfortunate position that this State Government has adopted and again is a falsely manufactured narrative that they are not called out on. Many of the recent media conferences have descended into farcical blame shifting. The purpose of this correspondence is to propose that Cairns and the region gets back to what it used to do best, and that is chart its own way forward in times of challenge and promote its own destination bubble. The ingredients are in place and all that is missing is the will, the leadership and the wit to make it happen. Now is the time to chance our arm here. The current subservience to the flawed state wide model of “unite and recover” is not an option for the future for the city and region, and we deserve better than what is being dished up to us. Just look at where the recent state economic announcements are focussed. We are very poorly served under the current Brisbane and SEQ centric pandemic management model characterised by confused health messaging and the constant irrelevance of the political contest between the State and Federal Governments”. You can find a report on some community vaccination rates

.

SOME INTERESTING READING:
Covid forces new policies to address critical shortage of migrant workers, The Australian, 20 September 2021

Get behind northern Australia’s potential: Littleproud, The Australian, 13 September 2021

James Cook University bears eternal mark of dishonour in Peter Ridd case, The Australian, 14 October 2021

Climate Summit: Net zero and the transition of power, The Australian, 15 October 2021

Net-zero plan’s regional appeal, The Australian, 18 October 2021