Abbott hoses down tropical tax zone plan
Tony Abbott has played down a leaked discussion paper which reveals Coalition plans to create a new economic zone in northern Australia and to move thousands of public sector jobs to north of the Tropic of Capricorn.
''It's not our policy,'' Mr Abbott said. ''It's a draft discussion paper which had a reasonably wide circulation and obviously someone's decided to share it with the media.
Tony Abbott in Parliament on Wednesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
''We certainly have no plans and it would be unconstitutional to civilly conscript public servants''.
While reiterating he could not force public servants to move from one state to another, Mr Abbott said: ''It's not a bad thing to have Commonwealth facilities in different parts of Australia''.
''One of the factors in the very extensive development of the north we've seen in the last 20 or 30 years has been Commonwealth facilities going into these areas. Defence facilities in Townsville and elsewhere.''
Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce said on Thursday that the discussion paper contained some very good ideas that needed pursuing, but he's ruled out plans to forcibly relocate people from metropolitan areas to northern Australia.
Queensland MP Bob Katter said the Howard government cabinet rejected similar ideas, but called for zone allowances to encourage people to go to northern Australia and spur development.
''Tony Abbott was in that cabinet but if Tony Abbott's had a fall off his horse to Damascus I'll be the first to thank him and congratulate him,'' he on Thursday.
''Once you go 20 kilometres west of Cairns you're in very, very hostile environments and to get people to . . . live a long way away from their relatives . . . is very difficult indeed.''
The government has attacked the Coalition's draft paper, which reportedly includes plans to divide the north into different tax zones and reallocate $800 million from the foreign aid budget to build a tropical health medical centre in far-north Queensland.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr on Thursday slammed the proposed cut to foreign aid, saying it would damage relations with countries such as Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.
Senator Carr said it would meant that causes such as polio, HIV and malaria would not get as much funding.
''This shows their recklessness on foreign policy,'' he told reporters in Canberra. ''It would damage Australia's standing in the world.''
He said that the draft Coalition plan was different from the government's plan to fund the cost of looking after refugees on Australian soil from the aid budget, at a cost of $375 million.
''What Tony Abbott's doing is radically different,'' he said.
Even more contentious in this election year are reports that western Sydney will lose some 20,000 public sector jobs to northern regions under the plan. With 10 western Sydney seats held by Labor within a margin of about 5 per cent, many say the election will be won or lost in that region.
Assistant Treasurer David Bradbury told Sky News the Coalition's northern plan would be ''hundreds of billions of dollars of white elephant infrastructure''.
Mr Bradbury, who represents Lindsay, a western Sydney seat Labor holds by only 1.1 per cent, said Mr Abbott's idea would result in ''gold plated footpaths in Karratha while people are stuck in traffic gridlock in Sydney''.
Greens leader Christine Milne also rejected the plan, saying it was a recycled idea from former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen and mining magnate Gina Rinehart.
She said it was an ''old frontiersman'' plan that didn't fit in with what the Australian economy needed, which was a transition out of a ''dig it up, cut it down and ship it away'' mentality.
''This is just Tony Abbott doing what Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Gina Rinehart want,'' Ms Milne said.
Asked about moves to help PNG develop clean energy in the plan, Ms Milne said: ''Does anyone really believe that?'', given it calls for $800 million to be cut from the foreign aid budget.
''How is it that Australian would even consider ripping out $800 million out of the foreign aid budget to facilitate Gina Rinehart?''
The idea of pumping life into barren central and northern Australia has a romantic and quixotic history.
A series of prominent Australians, known as ''water dreamers'' include Alfred Deakin, a father of Federation, and a bridge builder named John Bradfield who proposed turning Australia's lifeless centre into a ''place of flowers'' by diverting tropical rivers in North Queensland across the inland to Lake Eyre.
In 1981 Bob Katter, then Queensland Minister for Northern Development, promoted a watered-down version of Bradfield's plan. A more recent ''water dreamer'' is Sydney radio host Alan Jones, who told his listeners that the Clarence, Burdekin, Pioneer and Daly rivers could all be turned inland.
with AAP and Marija Taflaga