18 June 2015
Joe Kelly & Brendan Nicholson
Tony Abbott’s plan to harness the economic potential of northern Australia will see hundreds of millions of dollars poured into vital water infrastructure, revive the debate over dam construction and test the business case for the expansion of the Ord irrigation scheme.
The government white paper on the development of northern Australia, to be announced today by the Prime Minister, contains a commitment to a $200 million water infrastructure development fund and a feasibility analysis for the Nullinga Dam near Cairns.
The proposal will capture the keen interest of senior members of the Chinese government fresh from signing a free-trade deal with Australia and examining agricultural opportunities to the north.
The white paper will test the business interest in expanding the Ord irrigation scheme into the Northern Territory by committing the government to a new land-use suitability study. Early indications suggest a $200m government contribution could leverage between $2 billion and $3bn in private-sector investment.
One prospect is the $1.45bn Project Sea Dragon, which aims to breed up to 100 million juvenile prawns a week and which could make Australia a global leader in the aquaculture prawn sector.
The white paper contains other new commitments, including a $600m package to improve roads and a commitment to upgrade airstrips in places such as Kununurra in Western Australia, where the airport is too small to handle 737s. An upgrade could open up new Asian markets to local producers.
It also proposes measures to better support native title bodies to realise their potential and negotiate more efficiently with business. “We will drive down the costs of operating in the north for business; making it a more attractive place to invest and work,” Mr Abbott said. “By making the right regulations and infrastructure investments, we can encourage jobs and tackle the costs of living far from major cities.”
Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb has driven the push to unlock the economic potential of Australia’s north and has negotiated free-trade deals with Korea, Japan and China.
China hopes its deal will make it easier for Chinese businessmen to invest in the Abbott government’s plans to increase agricultural development in the nation’s north and to export food to China.
“Many businesses in China have strong interest in making investments in Australia,” said Chinese Vice-Minister of Commerce Wang Shouwen.
The white paper proposes a $75m co-operative research centre on the development of northern Australia to help transform it into a business, trade and investment gateway to Asia and the Pacific.
The feasibility study for the Nullinga Dam is likely to canvass innovative financing mechanisms such as the use of a “water presage” option to help cover construction costs.
The proposal may also reignite the debate over dam construction, with the Cairns Chamber of Commerce and a regional advocacy organisation, Advance Cairns, pushing for building to start after estimating the cost of the project at $586 million.
This clashes with the March water security strategy by the Cairns regional council suggesting the dam should be considered as part of a longer-term strategy.
Courtesy of The Australian