Bush Matters Op-Ed – “Transforming the north”

26 June 2015

Above the Tropic of Capricorn, the environment is one of extremes.

It’s an area where seasonal and unreliable rainfall can still convert a dry creek into a major stormwater drain within a few hours and lush tropical rainforest can yield to semi-desert within a few hundred kilometres.

Its townships have recorded some of the highest mean daily temperatures anywhere on earth.

Throughout most of its history, northern Australia has been seen as a ‘difficult’ frontier region.

With few exceptions, northern pastoral and mineral resources have been exploitable only under conditions of greater relative hardship compared to the rest of the nation.

It is therefore of little surprise that northern Australia has not been the favoured settlement space for Australia’s predominantly European descendent population.

The economy of northern Australia has typically been dependent on the south.

There remains a transient labour force, which is controlled from the southern capitals and even overseas.

Young people comprise the largest age-group of the northern work force.

Whether it is completing a diesel fitter apprenticeship in the mines, working as a ringer on a station or as a trainee nurse or doctor, northern Australia has often been an ideal environment for young people to ‘cut their teeth’ in their chosen industry.

But by the time these young professionals have mastered the basics of their trade, they are often forced to leave the north and relocate if they want to be employed in managerial and more senior positions.

Countless families have travelled north over the decades in hope of improving their fortunes. Many have been forced to return south when their luck ran short.

Other proud communities of families across these areas have endured the droughts, the fires, the rising dollars and the falling commodity prices and have continued to push onwards because they are survivors.

These families now form the backbone of the northern communities.

Remote in distance and often in psychology from more than 95 per cent of Australians, two-fifths of the land area of our continent lies north of the Tropic of Capricorn.

Long before Federation, northern Australia has been perceived as a dangerous geographical vacuum close to populous Asia and has long tugged at the national conscience as territory that requires development.

But whereas once long ago the Federal Government held Royal Commissions and endless debates on how develop the north in order to protect a “White Australia” from Asian threats, we are now making furious steps to realise the true economic potential of the north to capitalise on the benefits of the growing wealth across Asia.

The unveiling of the White Paper for Northern Australia last week is the latest in a series of steps towards reversing years of public policy deficiency and harnessing the true potential of the region.

After decades of rural jobs being sacrificed to satisfy the trendy philosophies of greenies and the armchair environmentalists this Federal Government is taking steps to return some political power back to the farmer and country communities.

From agriculture, mining, tourism to international business, this white paper represents the most comprehensive attempt yet to work through the development possibilities of the north.

I would encourage everyone to look over the range of projects the government is investing in across northern Australia.

The need to focus on the north is clear and justified.

Australia’s north is unique in the developed world. It sits at the base of the great regions of global economic and population growth.

Our major northern centres operate in similar time zones to the most dynamic economies in Asia and are within three to five hours flying time.

Our north is fast developing as a trade gateway for all of Australia. We have growing port developments as Gladstone, Townsville, Karumba, Darwin and Broome.

Many other advanced economies around the world can only dream of possessing such an expansive, untapped landmass that sits at the foot on the greatest economic development in human history.

But for too long business and household living costs have been much higher than they should be in the north, and much higher relative to the rest of Australia and many other developed economies.

High business costs discourage investment, while high living costs can discourage settling in the north.

Government investment in roads, dams, rail and ports is an important first step to encouraging private enterprise to start businesses, employ people and contribute to northern economies.

In the earliest days of our nation, one British Lieutenant-Governor was heard to say that “this barren and forbidding country will not be able to maintain itself for 100 years.”

Defying these cynics and naysayers, the story of Australian economic development is the story of families battling poor soil, a lack of water supply and difficult, thickly scrubbed landscape to carve out a future.

The Federal Government has now opened a new and exciting chapter as Australia looks north towards building wealth and prosperity in this 21st Century.

The plan is bold, but no less bold than the other great steps forward our nation has committed to in past generations.

This White Paper has been developed to stand the test of time — we hope to ensure it is the first, and last, White Paper for the north.

Because the time has begun to finally transform the north into the powerhouse it should be.