Article – Local governments cautiously welcome inquiry

10 September 2014
Ben Leahy
Pilbara News and North West Telegraph
Pilbara local governments have cautiously welcomed a parliamentary inquiry calling for studies into special economic zones in northern Australia and new measures to discourage companies from setting up fly-in, fly-out workforces.
The Federal committee’s Pivot North report, tabled last week, made more than 40 recommendations to boost economic growth in northern Australia.
Town of Port Hedland Mayor Kelly Howlett said the “very promising report” contained a number of financial incentives and measures to boost economic diversity in the Pilbara.
She said this included investigations into SEZs, calls to help reduce the cost of insurance premiums, changes to tax structures in relation FIFO workers and potentially establishing a defence base in the region.
“Across the board it has been recognised … (that there are) much higher costs of doing business and living in the north and so a number of the recommendations are geared towards addressing those,” Ms Howlett said.
However, while Pilbara leaders are excited by the joint committee’s recommendations, they are more interested in seeing action.
While the committee has the support of politicians from the major parties, it has no power to implement its recommendations.
Pilbara Regional Council chief executive Tony Friday said North West WA had grown used to inaction by Federal politicians.
He pointed to the example of a 2013 parliamentary inquiry report damning FIFO workforce arrangements, which made newspaper headlines but little else.
“My real worry with this report … is if it ends up being like the much-hyped cancer of the bush report into FIFO … (where) not a single recommendation has been implemented,” he said.
Despite Mr Friday’s concerns he was happy to see the committee identified the need to investigate establishing SEZs as one of seven priority recommendations.
Business incentives
Pilbara Regional Council chief executive Tony Friday said he was delighted special economic zones were listed among priority considerations released in a parliamentary inquiry report last week.
The Pivot North report put together by a joint committee of Members of Parliament from the major parties listed 42 recommendations for boosting Northern Australia’s economy.
Mr Friday said the committee had correctly identified financial incentives as an important tool for creating new businesses in the north.
He said this included the inquiry’s recommendation that the Federal Government investigate the “potential and practicality” of setting up SEZs in Northern Australia.
“We’re really happy that’s come through as a priority recommendation,” Mr Friday said.
“It’s particularly important for the Pilbara … that there needs to be … changes to enable economic diversification because at the moment everything just gets sacrificed at the altar of extractive industries.”
The recommendation comes after Pilbara local governments lobbied for a number of years for the introduction of SEZs.
Mr Friday said a working group was currently putting together a proposal to present to Federal politicians in November about what form a Pilbara SEZ could take.
“(SEZs) can be industrial estates or tax incentive schemes — there a whole range of different things (they) can be,” he said.
Town of Port Hedland Mayor Kelly Howlett also welcomed the priority recommendation that the Australian Government “take measures to reduce insurance premiums” in Northern Australia back to affordable levels.
The recommendation was based on Hedland real estate agent Morag Lowe’s submission that escalating property insurance and electricity costs made housing unaffordable for the average family.
But Mr Friday dismissed another recommendation that people working in the north should be eligible for rebates on their university fees.
He said the focus should instead be on building a diversified economy to attract people to the Pilbara permanently.
“In the absence of diversified industries and supporting infrastructure, graduates will get to the end of that stretch and turn around and head south again,” he said.
Building diverse economies
Ms Howlett said the inquiry’s recommendation that Federal Government departments and “defence assets” be relocated to the north had the potential to play a key role in diversifying local economies.
She said the Australian Army’s presence in Queensland had transformed Townsville’s economy, and the same thing could happen in the Pilbara if military aircraft were based at Hedland airport or a navy base established in Dampier. She said the Town of Port Hedland had been actively pushing for defence assets to be located at Hedland airport.
“Our submission has always touched on the strategic value of the land surrounding the airport and … opportunities, particularly around flight training,” she said.
Ms Howlett also welcomed recommendations to build a connected Pilbara power grid, which currently comes from various small sources around the region.
City of Karratha president Peter Long cited recommendations to boost indigenous tourism as a great opportunity for his local government.
FIFO and sustainable communities
Shire of Ashburton president Kerry White said the inquiry’s recommendations to introduce measures to discourage companies from setting up FIFO workforces were particularly relevant to Onslow.
The inquiry suggested in its report that transient workers camps should be located no closer than 60km to an existing settlement and that changes be introduced to the Fringe Benefits Tax to make residential workforces more attractive.
This comes after Chevron recently decided to walk away from housing its workers in Onslow and instead build a workers camp 20km from the town.
Mr Friday said Chevron — like all resource companies — was beholden to its shareholders.
It was therefore up to the Government to enact measures to create sustainable communities.
“That’s a very clear indication of why companies are taking advantage of the FIFO tax provisions at the expense of local communities,” he said.
Implementing the changes
Despite the positives in the inquiry report, Mr Friday said he was still concerned too many of the initiatives were geared toward North Eastern Australia.
“Just because there are currently more people living in Queensland doesn’t necessarily mean that’s where future development opportunities lie,” Mr Friday said.
“At the end of the day, the North West is still more proximate to Indonesia, India and China, it still carries the vast bulk of the mineral reserves.”
He also said he was determined not to let the report and its recommendations gather dust in the halls of Federal Parliament.
“Our intention is to hold the Government of the day accountable for the recommendations,” he said.
Courtesy of the Pilbara News and North West Telegraph