Great open spaces of northern Australia are again calling southern politicians full of big ideas and little understanding of the land.
GO NORTH and open up our underdeveloped tracts of land that lie, waiting, pregnant with possibility.
Build us a foodbowl, centres of industry and excellence; secure our vast and gaping northern borders and put the stamp of man and progress on the closest thing the world has left to terra nullius.
It is about time we had a dollop of this vision thing, and we got it this month with Tony Abbott’s plan to develop – yea, verily, to bring civilisation to – the empty north. After all, no one has ever thought of doing this before.
The Coalition’s Developing Northern Australia policy envisages said foodbowl to be enabled by a network of new dams and large scale land clearing, assisted by more streamlined regulations when it comes to areas such as green tape and land access. To riff Sarah Palin for a moment, bulldoze, baby, bulldoze.
It paints a picture of a population boom, new energy opportunities in areas such as gas, education and health innovation and exports and more tourists than you could poke a Chinesemade souvenir message stick at.
All that is missing at this point is talk of a multi-function polis, or perhaps a space base. And if Abbott got Queensland Premier Campbell Newman in on the act we could also probably add a couple of casinos to the development list.
Also notable in its absence was the Bradfield Water scheme, but perhaps Bob Katter was on the phone while the Coalition was drafting its northern exposure policy. Actually it’s not really a policy as such, but more a promise to release a White Paper discussing possible policy options some time late in 2014, assuming an election win in September.
Still, in flesh on the bones policy detail terms, even hardened cynics would have to concede it is a step up from “stop the boats” and “axe the tax”.
It also very closely mirrors the vision for northern Australian development as espoused by iron ore gadzillionaire Gina Rinehart.
It doesn’t though, at least at this point, appear to embrace her call (and one included in an earlier, draft Coalition policy paper) for a special low-tax economic zone, one which could presumably declare statehood and then promptly secede in the event Australians ever decided to elect another Labor government. Details, details.
And it will be interesting to read how some of these details are tackled in the event we do get to see the promised White Paper.
How, for example, does clearing vast tracts of land for agricultural purposes fit with the Coalition’s “Direct Action” climate change policy which in large part hopes to reduce greenhouse emissions by better land management?
Or is it the case that once you pass the Tropic of Capricorn we can declare climate change as “crap”? How do the traditional owners feel about squillions of hectares of savanna being opened up to tractors and irrigation ditches?
As Dr Stuart Blanch, Director of the Northern Territory’s Environment Centre put it recently, while the north needs development, it must be balanced and that “the north is a graveyard for failed agricultural projects inspired by `visionary’ southern politicians.”
This dates back to the 19th century, and indeed the concerns of 100 years ago when prime minister Stanley Bruce declared that “the empty north is of immense strategic importance, and self-preservation demands that we devise means for introducing population into that vacant area”. This he saw as vital to the preservation of White Australia. The White Australia bit may have changed (stopping the boats aside) but little else has. As CSIRO ecologist Dr Garry Cook wrote in a 2009 analysis of northern Australian development:
“More than a century of agricultural research in northern Australia has shown that there are real and substantial resource limitations that affect the region. The climate is hot and alternates seasonally between arid and very wet. Unlike southern Australia, arable soils do not occur in large contiguous areas, but are interspersed with large areas of land suitable only for grazing. The low fertility of soils and the high risks of climatic adversity are major constraints to crop production.”
In looking at the history of development, Cook concludes, in part, that: “Political imperatives from southern Australia have long driven the push for agricultural development of the north.”
These imperatives have created pressures to ignore industries and people that inhabited the north and serve the vision of an imaginary well-tended landscape, densely settled with farmers.
Most attempted development, he notes, would not have occurred in the absence of subsidies. But at least Gina, and her mates at the otherwise free-market Institute of Public Affairs, think it’s a top idea. As for me, I’m headin’ north. Just wait a minute while I pack the carpet bags.