Article – Time is ripe to transform the sparse north into a tropical powerhouse

6 November 2015
Andrew Robb & Josh Frydenberg
The Australian

A showcase of multi-billion-dollar projects, designed to unlock northern Australia’s huge potential, will be displayed to some of the world’s major investors in Darwin this weekend.
The Northern Australia Investment Forum that we are hosting, in conjunction with the governments of the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia, will attract 350 senior executives and investors.
Of these, 250 will be from 20 countries or representing international firms with an Australian presence.
On the investment agenda will be agribusiness, aquaculture, tourism, resources and energy, infrastructure, tropical medicine, innovation and education. These reflect key areas of strength across northern Australia.
The region comprises only 5 per cent of our nation’s population yet 40 per cent of our land mass. It is endowed with 17 million hectares of arable soil and receives 60 per cent of the nation’s rainfall, yet we use and capture less than 2 per cent of it. It accounts for 90 per cent of our nation’s gas reserves, as well as truly world-class tourist attractions. The north is also home to three top universities that have a strong track record in driving innovation.
If this is not enough, it is also at the gateway of the burgeoning middle classes of the Asia-Pacific. In fact, Darwin is closer to Singapore than it is to Sydney.
The primary role of government is to put in place the best possible policy settings that will enable people and business to flourish. This is what drives innovation, growth and new job opportunities. Recognising the region’s potential, the government produced the first white paper for Northern Australia. With more than 50 policy measures across 15 commonwealth agencies, it’s a blueprint for reform with a vision well into the future.
The centrepiece of the white paper is the $5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. Operating as a concessional loan program, it leverages the commonwealth balance sheet and seeks to partner with state and territory governments and the private sector to build key economic infrastructure. Water, energy, communications and transport, be it road, rail, airports or ports, are the key areas of focus.
Not in any way looking to crowd out the private sector, the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility aims to facilitate the construction of key infrastructure that would not otherwise have taken place at this time, but once up and running with the assistance of the loans will invite further investment and ultimately create many jobs and economic growth.
We are also encouraging universities and other sources of innovation and learning to expand across the north. Tropical medicine is a good example of how the north can develop its own unique commercial profile.
The region is located at the intersection of two great areas of economic and population growth, Asia and the tropics. Australia has a rare place as one of the few developed countries in the tropical zone, where half the world’s population will reside by 2050.
Our renowned medical researchers are in a perfect position to solve many of the health issues found in tropical areas, and thereby reduce the economic cost associated with diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. One federal government initiative is the $8.5 million Australian Tropical Medicine Commer­cialisation Grants Program to help commercialise Australian research, creating new tropical medicines.
In addition, the pursuit of policies to increase land-use flexibility will allow the development of new industries, such as the first commercial crop of pharmaceutical-grade opium poppies in the Northern Territory.
Finally, trade barriers also are being lifted for northern Australian businesses. We have concluded free trade agreements with Japan, South Korea and China, and last month negotiations were concluded on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, the biggest global trade deal in 20 years. The 12-country TPP, covering 40 per cent of world gross domestic product, will deliver enormous benefits to northern Australia as its businesses, farmers, manufacturers and service providers tap new opportunities in the Asia-Pacific.
All these trade deals form part of the government’s micro-economic reform strategy to diversify our economy in this critical post-mining boom period. They remove trade barriers, increase economic integration and encourage the movement of people, capital, goods and services. They also strengthen regional stability. Taken together, these overarching developments can help make our vision of development in the north a reality.
In our numerous visits to the cities and communities in our north, we have met the most remarkable people: entrepreneurial, hardworking and ambitious for the future. They range from the small start-ups such as the Humpty Doo Barramundi farm in the Northern Territory — which 20 years ago produced less than 6kg of fish a week, to now selling 30,000kg a week to the markets in Australia’s south — to the nation’s most expensive construction site, the $70bn Gorgon liquefied natural gas facility off the coast of Western Australia.
The world is awash with money looking for a good home and our north presents some excellent prospects in a region that is dripping with unfulfilled promise.
Andrew Robb is Trade and Investment Minister and Josh Frydenberg is Resources, Energy and Northern Australia Minister.
Courtesy of the Australian
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