Morrison government urged to stop using northern Australia fund for fossil fuel projects

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Sam Mooy/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Sam Mooy/Getty Images

Coalition announces extra $2bn for Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility and won’t rule out Beetaloo basin funding

The Morrison government has tipped an extra $2bn into the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (Naif) with critics concerned the funds could be spent supporting fossil fuel projects.

The northern Australia minister, David Littleproud, when announcing the $2bn cash injection on Tuesday did not rule out Naif using it for the development of the Beetaloo gas basin.

The Greens and the Australia Institute have called for rule changes to prevent the Naif being used for fossil fuel projects. Labor has criticised the fund’s track record of having spent less than 10% of its initial $5bn but has not supported changing the rules.

Littleproud said $3.2bn had already been committed to projects and the extra $2bn would continue investment “across all sectors, from mining and agriculture to renewable energy, education and tourism”.

Related: Liberal MPs scorn National’s $250bn plan for taxpayers to underwrite fossil fuels

The Naif has come under fire over its governance arrangements which include a ministerial veto on projects, controversially used in May to nix a $280m windfarm and battery project in northern Queensland.

Rod Campbell, the research director at the Australia Institute, said “the idea of more money to develop northern Australia isn’t a bad idea” but Naif “hasn’t really demonstrated that they have a capacity to put this money to good use in the past five years or so”.

“Naif has shown itself to be very supportive of fossil industries,” he said, citing $300m for the Darwin ship lift and $16.8m for the Onslow marine support base, both of which support the oil and gas industries.

Littleproud gained responsibility for Naif in a July 2021 reshuffle but before that it was overseen by Keith Pitt, who is still the resources minister and has called for a $250bn loan facility to underwrite fossil fuel financing and insurance.

The Greens senator Larissa Waters said the Naif was “little more than a slush fund for coal and gas corporations”.

“The last thing northern Australia or the rest of the country needs is the government stuffing another $2bn into the pockets of multinational climate-wreckers,” she told Guardian Australia.

“There are incredible opportunities to fund sustainable, job-creating projects in northern Australia, but Morrison never misses an opportunity to give public money to his fossil fuel mates.”

Waters took aim at Labor and the Coalition for blocking the Greens’ attempt to stop Naif being used for coal and gas – suggesting this would be a key demand if her party held the balance of power after the election.

Labor’s shadow minister for northern Australia, Murray Watt, said that “while funding has been ‘committed’ for a raft of projects, the most recent government figures show that only $427.6m has hit the ground to create jobs and build projects across our north”.

“It’s no wonder the Naif is better known as the ‘No Actual Infrastructure Fund’ in the north,” Watt said. “How can we believe the government will spend $2bn more when it’s spent less than a quarter of that in seven years?”

On Tuesday, Littleproud explained that less had been spent than committed because applicants must “use their own money first before they use Australian taxpayers’” money.

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“These are big projects that are not your garden-variety corner store and they take a long time to build,” he told ABC Radio.

“So we’ve committed that $3.2bn but we’re now at a stage where, with the pipeline of investment that’s coming forward through to the Naif, that we’ll exhaust the $5bn probably within 12 months.”

Asked if the funds could be spent on developing the Beetaloo gas basin, Littleproud said it would “invest in any infrastructure project that’s good for the economy”. He also noted the four “corridors of growth” identified by the government were mining, agriculture, tourism and defence.

Littleproud said there would be no “discriminating” about which states projects were located in because “Naif will not make a decision predicated on an election because it’s independent of the government”.