It’s no secret that plans to develop Australia’s north have been underfoot for decades. Yes, some positive advancements have been made “up north”, but there is more we can be and should be doing to make it a reality sooner, says David Singleton.
Australia is rare, in a global context. Expansion in significant areas of a country is not a luxury afforded to many nations across the globe when availability of land or economic opportunity are considered.
But Australia has land and plenty of it. Abundant arable soil, and endowed with energy and minerals. And we have economic prosperity.
Combine the two and developing Australia’s north seems a no brainer. It’s a vision that seems both achievable and would be of enormous value for Australian communities and industries, and also in encouraging regional trade and investment with Asia.
It’s not a new idea though.
Australian writer Gerald “GM” Glaskin wrote:
“The North is a country in itself, a third of the size of the United States – three times the size as Texas. It is a land that has slept through the centuries, but can sleep no more … It is stirring now – stirring and waiting for man to be sufficiently civilized, sufficiently knowledgeable, to make it his own.”
He wrote this in 1960.
So why, over half a century later, are we still talking about it and not yet taking advantage of these opportunities?
Fifty plus years on and the reasons why the idea has merit haven’t changed – there are massive opportunities for food and agribusiness, resources and energy, tourism and hospitality, tropical health and medical research and international education.
Fifty plus years on and the challenges remain the same too. Granted, they are complex, but we now need to take the conversations and turn them into action, real and tangible infrastructure, jobs, tourism, industry.
And this was the message sent out loud and clear by community leaders and industry heavyweights at a recent three-day forum on developing Australia’s north.
The Australian Davos Connection’s Northern development summit, held in Townsville in June 2014, looked at what we can do now and which early wins would get the development process rolling.
At the summit, Andrew Robb, Federal Minister for Trade and Investment noted that development has started, but we need to now take it to a new level.
“The North has done some notable stirring in the Pilbara and elsewhere, but there are signs of a further major awakening; a growing realisation of the emerging opportunities on offer,” he said.
We have massive projected population growth in the region, and have many opportunities with all that comes from such growth. Robb pointed out that with the population of the Asia Pacific Region set to blow from 600 million to more than three billion over the next 20 to 30 years, Australia’s north could meet the resulting food and energy needs.
We have an abundance of land. According to the CSIRO there is up to 17 million hectares of arable soil in the north, potentially suitable for a variety of agriculture and horticulture.
“It demonstrates the sheer scale of opportunity…. there is an abundance of reliable water that we have the know-how to manage efficiently.” Said Robb, referring to an estimated 152,000 GL in total surface water run-off across the north, around 60 per cent of the water that falls in Australia. Currently we capture just two per cent of it.
We have an abundance of energy and minerals. The region is home to 90 per cent of Australia’s gas reserves and regions such as the Pilbara, Gladstone and Mackay have developed rapidly by leveraging their natural resources.
So, we have the business case, we have the land and the resources… but do we have the people to make this happen? Do we have the population in the north to generate and justify development?
Here lies a major challenge for Australia. How do we make this happen? And who would be involved?
With only 10 per cent of Australia’s future infrastructure investment going north, how do we put such investment on the nation building agenda?
Making this a topic for the national and international agenda is integral to taking development of the north to a new level.
Creating a win/win for all Australian residents is essential in closing the population gap between Australia’s north and southern regions.
Over the years we have seen positive developments such as the granting of diversification permits, where land-owners can do more under their pastoral leases than just graze cattle. Numerous stations are now maximizing the productive potential of their land and venturing into agriculture to grow crops like sweet corn, potatoes and melons.
To take development to that new level, we need people from other parts of Australia to head north to build infrastructure, to work and to study.
We could make development viable by offering incentives for people to work in the north. Let’s think outside the box and offer recent university graduates a reduction in their HELP debt in exchange for moving to the north and working for a specified amount of time.
Let’s make housing costs in the north what they ought to be. As part of the win/win focus we need to be able to find a way to make housing value in the north realistic without devaluing housing values in other parts of the country.
With all these ideas, we need to ensure though, that ‘people from the south’ don’t feel as though they are losing out by developing Australia’s northern areas.
We also need to ensure opportunities are created for Australia’s Indigenous communities across all areas from tourism, resources and energy, agriculture, agribusiness, aquaculture, water infrastructure, and all of the infrastructure and services that will support development. These opportunities must be created, while respecting indigenous heritage and culture.
Discussions will continue, but we must begin to implement some real and tangible solutions now if we are to help unlock the enormous potential of the north and create a more balanced Australia.