18 June 2015
Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb believes the prospects for developing northern Australia have never been brighter.
The Federal Government unveiled its long-awaited White Paper for northern Australian development on Thursday, including $1.2 billion in Commonwealth funding for everything from roads and water infrastructure to tropical medicine.
Mr Robb said the potential of northern Australia had been obvious for some time, but had been left untapped because it had not previously been economically viable to pursue.
“It costs a lot of money to get things away in the north, and there’s just never been a market that’s had the capacity to pay the premium prices for food, services, resources and energy, that’s within our proximity, in our part of the world,” he said.
“Now we’re on the cusp of an economic revolution going on around us, in China, in Vietnam, in Indonesia, which will be in the top four or five countries, economically, in the world within 15 to 20 years. And of course India, which is repeating the China experience in my view.
“The north’s time has come, there is a market for what we can produce, and it’s at a level which will justify investment – a huge investment.”
Foreign investment to play central role in northern development dream
The government is candid that private investment, and foreign investment in particular, will be crucial to realising its plan for northern Australia.
Foreign investment in Australian farmland and agribusinesses is controversial in the community.
This week, Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce made headlines for confirming he would support banning foreign state-owned enterprises from buying Australian farms. His Queensland LNP colleague George Christensen went further on Wednesday night, calling for a ban on foreign state-owned enterprises buying any part of Australian agriculture.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he would “dispute the contention” that his government was divided on foreign investment, and said he was not concerned that the “lively discussions” that took place within the Coalition about that or any other issue might deter foreign investors from coming to Australia.
“What the Coalition, all absolutely support an Australia which is open for business, an Australia which is open for foreign investment – but it does need to be the right foreign investment,” Mr Abbott said, noting the increased Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) scrutiny his government has introduced for sales of farmland and agribusinesses to foreign private companies.
The FIRB has always been required to scrutinise all sales to foreign state-owned companies.
“Interestingly, notwithstanding all of this, there was a massive increase in foreign investment in Australia in the last year,” Mr Abbott said.
“That’s because people overseas realise that this is a very good place to invest.”
Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals’ leader Warren Truss said there was “very little contention about greenfield developments of the scale”, the White Paper proposed.
“People welcome that kind of new development which simply otherwise wouldn’t happen,” he said.
Labor, Greens concerned with the detail
Labor’s agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said the Federal Government’s own policies would act as a deterrent to foreign investors, saying Mr Abbott “should be very concerned” about that possibility.
“He surely knows that in a market where the competition for global capital is intense, he is ending all the wrong messages to those thinking about investing in Australia,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.
“He’s not properly resourcing the FIRB to match the additional work he’s providing it. We’re just going to have a long queue of people paying big application fees to get approval to invest in Australia, and it’s going to cause investors to look elsewhere.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said Labor welcomed the release of the White Paper, which the Coalition originally promised would be delivered within its first 12 months in government.
He said the Opposition would study the document to “assess its merits”, but hoped it could work with the government on northern Australian development.
“I want to have a look at what money is real, what money is new and not rebadged from other programs,” he said.
“Big questions remain about what money will be available, whether it will be well spent, and whether the strategy is a sound one. We’ll wait and see.”
But the Greens northern Australia spokeswoman, West Australian Senator Rachel Siewert, blasted the White Paper.
She said development in the region “must be innovative, sustainable and in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.
“This thriving region is like nowhere else in the world and maintains a diverse and resilient economy. It is a shame the Prime Minister can only see dollar signs for the area,” Senator Siewert said in a statement.
“Minister Robb said today, ‘if it’s done properly, there will be no environmental impact’. It remains to be seen how the large-scale clearing of native vegetation as well as large-scale development won’t have an environmental impact on the region.
“We must develop responsibly and consider a conservation and hybrid economy that captures a carbon economy, ecotourism, a renewable energy hubs, services and supporting the existing robust small enterprise economy of horticulture and agriculture industries already thriving in the area.”
Important to ensure the White Paper is acted upon: PM Abbott
The government’s White Paper is the latest in a long succession of proposals for northern development.
Previous reports have often found that dreams of major irrigation development, in particular, were simply not economically viable or environmentally sustainable.
Asked why his plan would succeed where others have failed, Mr Abbott said: “The world is changing all the time”.
“Technology is improving, new markets are opening up,” he said.
“We’ve seen a spectacular explosion of wealth, spectacular growth of the Asian middle class, and this is the foundation of the much expanded prospects for northern Australia that we want to make maximal advantage of.”
Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce pointed to genetic modifications to cotton, which had allowed that crop to be grown in new areas.
“It gave the capacity to deal with pests such as heliothis moths, which meant we had a lot of areas that came into production,” Mr Joyce said, noting that average Australian cotton yields had doubled since he first started as an accountant before entering politics.
“Which of course means that you’re doubling the efficiency of water use as well,” he said.
“We are a smart nation, we have new technology, and we should not scare ourselves out of taking the next step.”
The Prime Minister said it was important that his government’s White Paper “doesn’t become yet another government report that gathers dust on shelves, that this white paper is not just a series of good ideas and spending commitments, but really is a blueprint for a generation of development in northern Australia”.
To achieve that, Mr Abbott has directed the Deputy Prime Minister to deliver an annual progress report on northern development to Federal Parliament.
Mr Abbott said he would also continue strategic consultations with the premiers of Queensland and Western Australia and the NT chief minister as part of the COAG process.
A parliamentary committee on northern development chaired by Queensland LNP MP Warren Entsch would continue as a standing committee, and a new Coalition implementation committee would be established, chaired by Senator Ian Macdonald, to “ensure that ministers and officials are kept up to the mark”, Mr Abbott said.
Courtesy of ABC Rural