Article – It’s time to rethink the great north growth strategy

7 November 2013
Su McCluskey
Financial Review

It’s time to rethink the great north growth strategyRemote regions of northern Australia will only get the jump on economic growth if they have the same basic conditions as in other parts of the country. Photo: Peter Braig

After 50 years of the same debates and disappointments on northern Australian development, it’s time for something different. Our next national strategy must be about more than mines, dams and development dreams.There are no silver bullets, but there is significant opportunity.
The first thing we need to do is put aside the platitudes we have heard over and over again. Yes, most of Australia’s rain does fall in northern Australia and yes, northern Australia is geographically close to Asia, but neither of these factors alone will guarantee any development in the future.
For too long, the debate about northern Australia has been stuck at this level; been marooned between unrealistic dreams of the blooming desert and the reality of achieving sustained economic development in remote, tropical areas of the country.
As with any regional issue, the challenge of revolutionising the north is complex, and spans government domains and bureaucratic silos. But a new paper released by the Regional Australia Institute provides a way of understanding and engaging with this challenge and its complexity.
While infrastructure, health and education emerge as the most serious bottlenecks to growth, the strategies for improving them, and to what end, will be as inherently different as the regions themselves. We can begin to think of the change needed in three parts.
The first is to recognise the big opportunities we have in our northern cities. Townsville, Cairns, Darwin, Mackay and Rockhampton do not share many of the constraints we associate with northern Australia. They are underpinned by a mixture of industries and are large enough to have their own momentum and development opportunities.
While ensuring capacity for growth through basic infrastructure and connections to markets will be important, so too is thinking big about the strategic advantages of these cities that often fly under the radar, such as tropical knowledge and associated services.
Given the opportunity, these assets – combined with world class skills and the entrepreneurship of local leaders – can secure the future for these cities and enable them to grow through engagement with Asia and the world.
Beyond these larger cities are a diverse group of isolated mining, tourism and agriculture hubs that have grown rapidly, but are challenged by narrow industry bases. Diversification into other economic opportunities is an option here. Another strategy is to take northern Australian businesses with specialist skill sets and grow their footprint in Australia and overseas.
For the very remote regions, we must get the basic conditions taken for granted elsewhere. A skilled and healthy workforce, power, water and the ability to use land for sustainable development opportunities where they exist, are fundamental challenges.We need new ideas and a long-term commitment to bring real change here.
We must also recognise conventional regional development strategies designed by the government or economic development experts are unlikely to succeed in the most remote communities. Enabling and incentivising local initiatives, and allowing locals to take responsibility for resources and their future, is essential to build the capacity for development and break the cycle of enormous public investment for little or no outcomes in local well-being and opportunity.
The proposed white paper on northern Australia should provide a unique opportunity to do this in the coming 12 months. But if we want a different result from the past, we also need to change the tone and focus of the debate.
Let’s seize this period as an opportunity to give the people who live in communities across northern Australia the space to craft their own future and leave the old debates in the past where they belong.
Courtesy of the Financial Review