Article – Opinion “Abbott’s new frontier: vision versus reality” – The Age26 June 2013
So far, the federal Opposition’s election policies have been based more on crystal ball-gazing than hard actualities. Not counting the Coalition’s vapid plan for Australia’s “directions, values and priorities”, launched by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott in late January, policies have been few and far between.
In April, the Coalition announced a disappointingly short-sighted plan for the national broadband network. The following month came a cautious, yet welcome, workplace policy that offered minor reforms in lieu of a proposed Productivity Commission inquiry and public debate on any major changes, which would be taken to the 2016 election (assuming a Coalition win in September).
Now Mr Abbott has set his sights on turbo-charging development in the upper reaches of this continent, but once again detail is lacking. Mr Abbott describes northern Australia as not our last frontier but our next frontier; he sees it as being afflicted by “ongoing development deadlock” because of the lack of infrastructure and supportive investment.
Mr Abbott says that, if elected, a Coalition government would produce within 12 months a discussion paper on how best to develop the “enormous potential” of the vast region, focusing on agricultural development, tourism, water development and energy exports. As well, there is likely to be an announcement soon about the Coalition’s proposal to upgrade Queensland’s coastal Bruce Highway.
The development plan has been cautiously welcomed by farming and industry groups, although they, too, want more detail – and they want funding commitments. As might be expected, the proposal, vague as it is, has been embraced by the three conservative leaders in the region: the premiers of Queensland and West Australia, Campbell Newman and Colin Barnett, and Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles.
Big questions remain. One of the pivotal aspects of the proposal is to do away with what the Coalition says is too much regulation, which it claims deters investment.
The Age, however, is concerned about any proposal that would run roughshod over indigenous communities, or that would eliminate essential checks and balances that might otherwise ensure that this region, which contains some of the most sensitive environmental and cultural areas of our country, is not destroyed in a maelstrom of new development.
Mr Abbott has mused about offering tax incentives to lure people to the region. Are tax differentials fair or desirable? It may even hit legal hurdles under section 99 of the Constitution. Luring people north to Darwin, Cairns, Karratha or Townsville is all very well, but there must be an enduring aspect to whatever development is approved so that the transition is not one that lasts a few years but generations.
The remaking of the north of Australia requires clear and cogent analysis of the needs of the constituents as well as the needs of the rest of our nation. It cannot be done in isolation.