Book Review – Northern Australia: Task for a Nation

2 May 2014
Kerriann Lock
Australian Institute of Political Science (1954). Northern Australia: Task for a Nation. (Sydney : Angus and Robertson).
Sixty years ago, Australians were thinking about northern development and how this might best be achieved. Northern Australia: Task for a Nation documents the issues and recommendations arising from discussions between stakeholders at the time.
In his introduction to the book, Norman Cowper acknowledges the task ahead is not an easy one, but still possible providing agricultural and mining sectors are adequately supported by government policy. Regional towns and services centred on these industries can then flourish and attract a growing population. In Cowper’s view, people are needed to defend the North and fully exploit its potential:
“The discoveries of uranium and oil made it more than ever necessary to have a population to defend the North…Australia could not justify her retention of it unless she exploited to the full its mineral resources and its capacity for food production. Our failure in this part of our continent seemed a national reproach which we should do our utmost to remove.”
Following this introduction, there is an in-depth discussion between experts on the challenges to northern development, along with possible solutions.
M.A. Mawby lists an impressive range of minerals and their various locations across the North. Although he is unaware of subsequent discoveries such as iron ore deposits in the Pilbara, it is clear that multiple mining opportunities already exist in the region.
The main obstacles to exploiting these opportunities are deficient infrastructure (making the transport of products to export markets costly) and the difficulty of attracting workers to places which are isolated, poorly serviced, and adversely affected by climate.
According to Mawby, greater incentives must be applied if companies and employees are to feel adequately compensated for the challenges faced in the North. The reward for investing their time, energy, and capital into the region must outweigh that obtainable in the more favoured southern areas.
With this in mind, he suggests the following incentives:

  • Taxation concessions for companies – to ensure enough profit is made to cover expenditure on site development, plant, employee benefits, exploration, etc.
  • Taxation concessions for residents – to compensate for the disadvantages of living in the North
  • Company provision of quality employee accommodation – to attract permanent, long-term residents and their families
  • Long-term mining leases and renewals of 20 years or more, plus exclusive mining rights
  • Technical assistance from the government, such as fully-funded surveys and research (including aerial photographic coverage)

He adds that these incentives will also lure overseas investors and encourage skilled immigration.
A number of contributors acknowledge the impact climate has on agricultural endeavours in the North. Rainfall is unpredictable, livestock are vulnerable to the high summer temperatures, and the quality of arable land varies widely.
Like the mining industry, the agricultural sector suffers from poor infrastructure (particularly railways for transporting stock and water supply for crops), as well as a labour shortage.
J.W. Fletcher recommends the following solutions:

  • CSIRO research into crops and livestock breeds especially suited to northern conditions, with the subsequent introduction of these crops and breeds into the region
  • Employment of more indigenous people, particularly stockmen – “If it were not for them the industry would cease to function,” he says
  • Relaxation of immigration policies to allow greater employment of skilled workers from overseas
  • Taxation concessions for farmers and residents – to counter additional costs and limited access to facilities experienced by those living in the North
  • Permanent water supply via dams and/or irrigation
  • Assistance with managing tick infestations
  • Improved rail facilities and infrastructure
  • Re-assessment of land tenure and leasing practices
  • Policy making and implementation at a regional level rather than centred on Canberra, as the latter does not always have a clear understanding of the relevant issues

These suggestions are supported by other contributors such as C.R. Lambert, J.N. Nelson and P.J. Skerman, who goes on to discuss a variety of crops and pastures that could be grown in the area (sugar, rice, cotton, tropical fruit and so on), together with the most suitable regions for each. Skerman concludes thus:
“Every inducement must be given to encourage settlement of farmers and graziers, and provision made for general amenities and education to attract labour into the area. Generous tax concessions would promote capital investment.”
All contributors to Northern Australia: Task for a Nation see the imperative in developing the North, with particular emphasis on growing the mining and agricultural industries. The difficulty of attracting capital and promoting settlement within the region is acknowledged. Nevertheless, there is optimism that much can be achieved if various recommendations are acted upon – particularly improvements to infrastructure and the introduction of tax concessions.
As A.G. Lowndes states in conclusion, “surely the task of statesmanship is to provide the incentives and opportunities for which individuals will take the risks and face the difficulties.”
It is perhaps surprising that a book published sixty years ago should still resonate with a 2014 audience. Yet, in the context of the public hearings currently being held by the JSCNA, and the upcoming federal white paper on northern development, the discussions and recommendations within Northern Australia: Task for a Nation appear more relevant than ever.
Kerriann Lock