Interview – Abbott Govt urged to move on northern Australia development

7 November 2013
Tony Eastley
ABC Radio
It’s been the great hope for decades that somehow, someone or something will tap the huge potential in Northern Australia. The Regional Australia Institute has released a new report on the area’s potential and it wants the Abbott government to stick to its commitment to produce a White Paper which will examine northern development.

TONY EASTLEY: It’s been the great hope for decades – that somehow, someone or something will bring together and develop for the nation the vast potential of northern Australia.
It’s now the turn of the Abbott Government and the Regional Australia Institute wants it to get on with the business as soon as possible, and that includes delivering on its promise to produce a white paper on northern Australian development.
Su McCluskey is the chief executive of the Regional Australia Institute which is releasing its own report this morning and which is calling on the Abbott Government to keep the ball rolling.
Su McCluskey, let’s start at the beginning. Do you come at this report from the premise that northern development is a good thing?
SU MCCLUSKEY: Yes, we certainly do. There is great potential in northern Australia and of course, it’s been a topic of fierce debate and policy interests for many years. We really want to change the tone and focus of the debate and take a fresh approach and that’s what we feel we’ve done with this paper.
TONY EASTLEY: Well, what’s been done in the past? Has it been on the right track?
SU MCCLUSKEY: Look, I think we’ve done some very good things in the past. But what we’ve got to understand is there is no single silver bullet. There is not one solution. So just coming up with the fact that we might be able to put in one piece of infrastructure and that will actually make a difference to the whole of northern Australia, I don’t think really that’s the case.
We can look at the northern cities of northern Australia, your Darwin, Townsville, Cairns, Mackay and Rockhampton for example, and they actually are doing quite well and they don’t share many of the constraints that are usually associated with northern Australia. You know, they’ve got a good mixture of industries, they are quite diverse and they’ve got a good capacity for growth.
Then we’ve got the isolated industry hubs and they’re the sort of regions such as Mt Isa, Karratha, Katherine for example. And they have more challenges because they have narrow industry bases. You know, they have either got mining, agriculture or tourism. And what they need to do is look to diversify into other economic opportunities.
And then we have the very remote regions and of course the solutions for those very remote regions are very different from those city areas. And certainly just getting the basic conditions in place that are taken for granted elsewhere is a challenge in itself.
TONY EASTLEY: Well, I can’t help but feel that, you know, those areas that you described of course they include WA, Northern Territory and Queensland and then you’ve got the Federal Government’s role in all of those areas as well. Is it too big a task to ask all of those disparate governments to handle?
SU MCCLUSKEY: It’s quite clear that this is a very complex task but it’s something that we really can embrace. There are terrific opportunities.
And of course if we look at this being more about place based solutions, so actual solutions that work at the local and regional level, there are opportunities across those three states to actually be able to work at that state and local level.
And you know, we have seen two of those states put in for example Royalty for Regions programs that are really starting to redress those infrastructure bottlenecks.
TONY EASTLEY: Are you confident that this report by the Regional Australia Institute isn’t just another series of motherhood statements about what we’d like to do with northern Australia?
SU MCCLUSKEY: No, I’m confident it’s not that. And I’m confident because the work that we’ve done in developing our competitiveness index has drawn on robust data to be able to provide a starting point to understand the differences in these regions, so we have a sound evidence base. And we’re not necessarily putting forward solutions.
TONY EASTLEY: Haven’t we had that base before though and that sound evidence? I think that’s been said before.
SU MCCLUSKEY: We’ve certainly had the evidence that has existed but in pockets. We haven’t actually brought it together and provided a clear picture of the regions and also the diversity of the regions. This isn’t about a national approach, a top down approach that says we think this is the answer for you in northern Australia. This is about saying this is what the data says, now let’s get a better understanding about it and let’s encourage people who live and work in those areas to have a say in their future and have more of those specific solutions that hopefully can make a difference.
TONY EASTLEY: Chief executive of the Regional Australia Institute, Su McCluskey.
Courtesy of ABC Radio