Article – Northern food bowl vision stirs political stew

27 November 2013
ABC News
Visions of a northern Australian ‘food bowl’ and growing mining sector to supply Asian markets are causing a stew in the Northern Territory.
Primary industries Minister Willem Westra Van Holthe has attacked a prominent environment group and its director for “misleading” the public over controversial mining and food development plans.
In the Legislative Assembly last night, he condemned the Northern Territory Environment Centre and launched a personal attack on its director, Dr Stuart Blanch.
Mr Westra Van Holthe told the parliament that Mr Blanch’s criticism of government plans to develop a food bowl for Asia were based on inaccurate comparisons to horticulture experiences in the Murray Darling region of south-eastern Australia.
He also said the Environment Centre was misleading Indigenous communities over the implications of mining exploration permits.
“We …condemn organisations like the Environment Centre using the Aboriginal people …to legitimise their misinformation,” he said.
“As a government that is as pro-development as we are, we certainly do not want misinformation to foil and spoil the opportunities for the oil and gas sector.” However, the government is also facing division from within its own ranks about agriculture and mining visions for the future in the Territory.
Mr Westra Van Holthe’s speech was followed by questions from Country Liberals bush MLAs, Alison Anderson and Larissa Lee.
Both said they wanted Indigenous water reserves to be established to ensure Aboriginal communities are not left behind in future plans.
In a passionate speech, Ms Lee said the Government plan could not go forward unless it took Indigenous people with it.
“If we do not have strategic Indigenous water reserves, then Aboriginal land owners will be land rich and dirt poor, and we will also be water poor,” she said. “That is depriving them of substantial economic opportunities into the future.”
Dr Stuart Blanch, Northern Territory Environment Centre Director, and Independent MLA Gerry Wood supported their calls for the return of the scrapped strategic Indigenous water reserves system.
He said the Government taking water rights away from Indigenous people would affect their economic development.
“There are obviously a number people on the Government side who do not support Government policy on this matter,” he said.
“I think the Government should be listening very carefully to the people out there.” Today, the NT Environment Centre’s Mr Blanch attacked Mr Westra Van Holthe for basing his criticism on an “inaccurate” comparison to horticulture in the Murray Darling region.
“Frankly, they are not listening to groups like AFANT, the Northern Land Council, NAILSMA, traditional owners …the Northern Territory Farmers Association, even some of the cattlemen down in the Douglas Daly, and the Environment Centre,” he said.
“I am not going to respond to those personal attacks; that is part of the job. But, in terms of the policy and the science, I will absolutely be very clear: the Government is heading down the wrong path.” Dr Blanch says he has been repeating information given to him by people in Government who cannot speak out because their jobs would be at risk.
“I do not respond to this sort of personal attack,” he said.
Dr Blanch pointed out that he is a river scientist, had worked in the Murray Darling region for a decade and did his PhD on the River Murray.
He has worked in northern Australian for eight years.
He says water from some Territory aquifers is being being over-allocated or is in the process of being over-allocated.
Courtesy of the ABC