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Developments take a tricky turn up north

The chairman has left, the redundancy bill is heading northwards and the Commonwealth Ombudsman has taken an interest, so there should be a lot of questions for the federal government’s $5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility at a Senate estimates hearing on Thursday night.

The development financier provides loans to infrastructure projects in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia and is in the process of renewal, with legislation aimed at extending its lifespan and broadening its ability to fund job creation.

But the Cairns-based organisation has hit heavy seas.

Founding board director Barry Coulter is just the latest to leave. The former Northern Territory deputy chief minister signalled his pride in facilitating loans for the Humpty Doo Barramundi farm but felt it was time to do other things.

A sentiment shared, it seems, by departing chairman Khory McCormick.

While the lawyer is praised by his firm, Holding Redlich, as a “market leader in the field of dispute and conflict resolution both nationally and internationally”, Minister for Northern Australia Keith Pitt managed only a cursory 24 words thanking Mr McCormick for his work at the bottom of his press release announcing the departure.

In contrast, the release sang the praises of former investment banker Justin Mannolini, now interim chair, over three lengthy paragraphs.

Happily, Minister Pitt was more forthcoming when contacted by CBD, revealing that it was McCormick’s decision to go. “Mr McCormick has led the NAIF since its inception five years ago and I thank him for the role he has played in the NAIF committing close to $3 billion worth of loans to drive economic activity in the north,” Pitt said.

It’s not only board members leaving. Executives Peter Ross and Tim Hallam left late last year, while Patrick Leung left last month. Staff churn is partly responsible for the soaring cost of “employee benefits” (including but not limited to redundancy payments), which shot up by $1m in the last budget.

And mystery surrounds why the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman included the infrastructure facility in its annual report in an appendix listing organisations that had prompted a “public interest disclosure” from a whistleblower.

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