The Federal Government’s National Food Plan green paper dismisses agricultural development in northern Australia. This is a case study in green ideology dressed up as expert advice.
The green paper finds “large-scale expansion of irrigated agriculture in northern Australia does not appear to be sustainable or feasible”.
The green paper rejects large-scale irrigated agriculture in northern Australia on the explicit authority of a 2009 report by the Northern Australia Land and Water taskforce.
Established by the Howard government in 2007, the taskforce’s original terms of reference were to identify ways agriculture could be expanded in northern Australia, including the Gulf Savannah region. The taskforce recognised that 65 per cent of Australia’s runoff occurred in far north Australia and coastal Queensland, indicating water is underutilised.
With a change of government in November 2007, the NALWT and its mission was changed to reflect the new government’s preferences. Under the Rudd government, members of the green lobby took hold of the taskforce, bringing their anti-development ideology with them.
One member was chosen from the World Wildlife Fund after public statements opposing the intensification of farming in the north. Prominent members of the Australian Conservation Foundation and Planet Ark were also added, one of whom previously argued “irrigated horticulture, intensification of beef production, expansion of mineral exploitation and clearing for forestry plantations is not compatible with protecting the most globally important values of the north – nature and culture.”
There’s a cynical aphorism in Australian politics that you should never hold an inquiry unless you already know the result. With new membership, the outlook of the taskforce changed dramatically. Rather than an investigation of how to increase agricultural output in northern Australia, the final report sought to lock northern Australia into a low-development future, effectively making it one big nature reserve.
The opportunity to show leadership and provide an outline for future growth was lost. Instead the report was negative, cautious, and emphasised arguments for minimal agricultural development.
In particular, opportunities for water storage through damming had no place in the report. The taskforce’s key scientific source, the CSIRO’s Northern Australia Sustainable Yields project, was told not to investigate the feasibility of new dams.
The CSIRO’s Richard Cresswell has said “at the time of the study, all jurisdictions (the West Australian, Queensland and Northern Territory governments) had a no-dams policy, and therefore we did not investigate the opportunities for dams in the north.”
Because these states were Labor at the time of the CSIRO study, Dr Cresswell said “we weren’t asked not to investigate them, but we were told it wasn’t necessary to investigate them”.
This goes to the authority of what has been presented as an independent scientific study. When a major element of irrigation planning is removed from scientific investigation for what seems to be political reasons, the report’s findings should be questioned.
Yet despite the NALWT report’s flaws, the National Food Plan bases its case against a northern foodbowl on it.
The green paper, following the NALWT report’s lead, cites lack of infrastructure in northern Australia as a reason agriculture can’t be expanded, ignoring that we are on the verge of major changes in global demand for food that will drive investment in agricultural infrastructure.
According to a 2010 OECD report, by 2020 more than half the world’s middle class will be in Asia and Asian consumers will account for more than 40 per cent of middle-class consumption.
There is also an increasingly wealthy Chinese upper class that strongly desires our high-quality goods. While these countries face the prospect of food stress, Australia is well-placed to take advantage of higher agricultural commodity prices and Asian capital.
At a recent In The Zone business round table attended by Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Perth business leaders, Citic Pacific Mining executive chairman Dongyi Hua highlighted these opportunities. Hua believes agriculture will drive the Australian economy as the mining construction boom has in recent years.
“Those top people, they never care about the price,” he said of wealthy Chinese consumers’ appetite for Australian beef.
To make the most of these opportunities, the anti-development ideology that has locked up large tracts of northern Australia must end so that we can overcome our irrational aversion to building new dams.