Kakadu National Park in the Top End will get a significant funding boost no matter which political party is in power after this year’s federal election.
But Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who has pledged $220 million for the World Heritage-listed site if Labor wins government this year, says his party’s funds will help “rescue” the park far quicker than the government would.
“Kakadu doesn’t have 10 years to wait,” Mr Shorten told reporters on Monday in local town Jabiru, flanked by traditional owners and other Labor figures including Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner.
“What we’re going to do is put more of the money we’re promising in our first couple of years, from our first budget, because Kakadu and Jabiru need rescuing now, not in 10 years time.”
Mr Shorten’s visit to Jabiru follows Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s, who on Sunday announced a $216 million package to improve roads and tourist facilities.
The prime minister’s trip was organised after his office learned of Labor’s plans.
Labor’s funding includes $100 million to upgrade four key access roads, allowing for year-round access to key tourist destinations closed during the wet season, shutting out tourists.
A $25 million new visitor centre is planned for Jabiru, which is struggling as the nearby uranium mine winds down.
Both parties’ packages aim to arrest a decline in tourist numbers, which have fallen from 300,000 a year in the late 1980s when Crocodile Dundee was filmed there to about 185,000.
Tourism accounts for about 10 per cent of gross regional product in the NT.
Mr Shorten says tourism and the environment of Kakadu have been neglected for too long and he doesn’t mind if the government wants to pick up Labor’s ideas.
“They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” Mr Shorten said.
I don’t worry about the politics, I worry about the ideas.”
Kakadu is about one-third the size of Tasmania, boasting ancient rock art and rich flora and fauna.
However, the infrastructure is tired and there is criticism about how the park is joint-managed by the Mirarr Aboriginal traditional owners and the Parks Australia federal agency.
Visitors complain about difficulty accessing much of Kakadu, including the regular closure of roads after they spent thousands of dollars to get there.
Unlike Uluru, there are no direct commercial flights to the park.
“This is an incredibly sacred peace of ground in Australia, Kakadu is an icon in so many senses,” Mr Morrison said on Sunday.
“It is a living ground of 60,000 years of the world’s oldest living civilisation, when visitors come here from all around the world I think that just blows them away.”
A $446 million master plan for Jabiru was released last year by the NT government, which was seeking federal help.