Growth is the key

Sunday Territorian - - OPINION -

THIS week I said the bud­get set the North­ern Ter­ri­tory on a path to in­sol­vency.

To hear that the North­ern Ter­ri­tory will be sad­dled with a $4.5 bil­lion net debt (in 2018-19) is un­prece­dented. This is not a bud­get, it’s a com­plete and ut­ter blow out.

Even more so, $7.5 bil­lion net debt by 2021-22 is fright­en­ing. Fright­en­ing for Ter­ri­to­ri­ans here now, for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions lumped with the decades of debt to deal with. It’ll mean fu­ture gen­er­a­tions miss out, are fur­ther dis­ad­van­taged and pay the price for reck­less and fool­hardy spend­ing by La­bor in bud­gets such as this. By 2021-22 Ter­ri­to­ri­ans will be pay­ing an in­ter­est bill to the tune of $1.4 mil­lion a day.

The mo­nop­oly money mind­set has to stop.

This year’s bud­get should have been re­spon­si­ble and re­sults driven. The nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion to the wind­ing down phase of Ichthys LNG plant, the chal­leng­ing eco­nomic cli­mate and the steady de­crease in NT pop­u­la­tion did not just oc­cur overnight. A good govern­ment would be plan­ning and act­ing ac­cord­ingly.

In­stead, the Ter­ri­tory econ­omy has moved from good to bad, and bad to worse. This bud­get should have fo­cused on the ur­gency of the chal­lenge and ac­tions re­quired to dig us out of a deep­en­ing and widen­ing debt hole.

At the heart of this is peo­ple. Put sim­ply, we don’t have enough of them in the Ter­ri­tory. We can’t sus­tain­ably grow our pop­u­la­tion without an at­trac­tive en­vi­ron­ment for pri­vate sec­tor in­vest­ment. The young women that the gov­ern- ment is tar­get­ing won’t be keen to move here without a job, a safe com­mu­nity in which to live and fair costs of liv­ing.

The NT should be the home of world class op­por­tu­nity.

In­stead, the pro­posed hy­brid min­ing tax, a world’s first and world’s worst, puts more than $5 bil­lion worth of in­vest­ment into the Ter­ri­tory at stake. That could be the dif­fer­ence be­tween an in­flux of new Ter­ri­to­ri­ans and an on­go­ing de­crease in pop­u­la­tion. I’d pre­fer to keep taxes down to lift the econ­omy, and op­por­tu­nity, up.

Op­por­tu­nity and as­sis­tance should also ex­ist for lo­cal busi­nesses, the ones who are al­ready em­ploy­ing lo­cals and have done it tough over the last two years. We can’t af­ford to see an­other va­cant shop space or fam­ily leav­ing town be­cause they couldn’t af­ford to keep the doors open. The pay­roll tax in­cen­tives an­nounced this week should be help­ing them too.

The old adage “you’ve got to spend money to make money” rings true, but that is not the scape­goat for this bloated bot­tom line in red pen that this week’s bud­get de­liv­ered.

Smart spend­ing, on in­fra­struc­ture that cre­ates jobs for Ter­ri­to­ri­ans, fa­cil­i­ties that we need (not want) and bet­ters our Ter­ri­tory should be the fo­cus. A staged ap­proach to the un­der­ground­ing of powerlines is a good ex­am­ple. As are roads and bridges that en­able ac­cess for our pri­mary in­dus­tries sec­tor, re­mote and re­gional com­mu­ni­ties (who can be cut off for months at a time) and tourists vis­it­ing.

Roads are en­ablers to ed­u­ca­tion and health ser­vices and an em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­nity for Ter­ri­to­ri­ans, but in­stead, the bud­get showed very limited new works spend­ing.

De­spite com­men­tary to the con­trary, the Op­po­si­tion does not sup­port the cut­ting of any front­line po­si­tions.

Not one nurse, teacher or po­lice of­fi­cer lo­cated any­where in the Ter­ri­tory should feel the brunt of the bud­get cuts the Ter­ri­tory needs to have. This is a not ne­go­tiable. Front­line Ter­ri­to­ri­ans pro­vide vi­tal ser­vices, pro­tec­tion and sup­port across all cor­ners of the Ter­ri­tory. They should have ac­cess to the best train­ing, equip­ment and fa­cil­i­ties to do their jobs. They should want to stay in the Ter­ri­tory, to put down their roots and raise their fam­i­lies here.

In­stead, I sup­port a re­view of the seem­ingly in­creas­ing level of man­age­rial po­si­tions in the pub­lic ser­vice that have in­creased well and truly be­yond the pop­u­la­tion growth rates of the Ter­ri­tory.

As re­ported in The Aus­tralian this week, ap­prox­i­mately half of the Ter­ri­tory’s aver­age an­nual ex­pen­di­ture growth is made up of pub­lic sec­tor staffing costs. And rather than blam­ing the fed­eral govern­ment, La­bor should in­stead be look­ing to work along­side the Coali­tion for the bet­ter­ment of all Ter­ri­to­ri­ans. I do not sup­port Ter­ri­to­ri­ans los­ing one cent of fed­eral fund­ing or any de­crease to dol­lars re­ceived from GST dis­tri­bu­tion. One cent less of in­come is one cent too much but, de­spite the Trea­surer’s mis­lead­ing com­men­tary in re­la­tion to so­called “sud­den” and bil­lion dol­lar cuts, the ac­tual fig­ure is $184.4 mil­lion since 2015-16.

The $259.6 mil­lion ‘top up’ re­ceived some weeks ago and an­nounced in Alice Springs by the fed­eral Trea­surer has less­ened the bur­den. Look­ing be­yond cash splashes, I’d like to see op­por­tu­ni­ties ex­plored like tax breaks and in­cen­tives for pri­vate sec­tor in­vest­ment and long term, sus­tain­able plans to wel­come new peo­ple to the Ter­ri­tory, which could, for ex­am­ple, in­clude a freez­ing of HECS debts for grad­u­ates to start their ca­reers in the Ter­ri­tory in­stead. These are the con­ver­sa­tions La­bor should be hav­ing with Can­berra.

And look­ing to our north, en­gag­ing with our Asian neigh­bours is an op­por­tu­nity we should be pur­su­ing with great vigour.

Gary Hig­gins is the leader of the Ter­ri­tory Op­po­si­tion.

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