The push to develop Northern Australia as the ‘next frontier’ risks failure and a legacy of environmental and social damage.
THE COALITION HAS released its “2030 Vision for Developing Northern Australia” paper (pdf), a collection of grandiose economic visions for the north that immediately won the praise of Gina Rinehart and her IPA-linked lobby group Australians for Northern Development and Economic Vision. Rinehart’s support was not a surprise given the massive industrialisation and development plans on top of the “personal and business tax incentives” will no doubt add up to future profits for mining magnates if advanced.
Yet the Coalition’s northern vision seems very far removed from reality in the communities and the environment in this part of the country. Just a few weeks ago, I awoke before sunrise in my swag beside the Gilbert River in Queensland’s Gulf country and got a sense the tired futility of bold plans for the north which speak to political imperatives rather than on-ground realities and northern aspirations. This beautiful country is not a ‘frontier’ at the behest of federal politicians; much of the land is spoken for.
From Cape York to the Kimberley, Northern Australia is one of the last great bastions of biodiversity left in the world. It also has vibrant and diverse cultures, communities and economies that continue to be overlooked in the ongoing cycle of policy development for the north by the south.
The Coalition’s 2030 Vision for the north seeks to unlock an imaginary potential of an allegedly over-regulated landscape through agriculture, tourism and mining. However, the vision document is more notable for what it fails to recognise.
There is absolutely no mention of the natural environment, the wildlife extinction crisis sweeping the north or biodiversity in general. There is no mention of the livelihoods (particularly Indigenous livelihoods) established around cultural and natural resource management and the extensive land and sea enterprises. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is no mention of the internationally recognised carbon sequestration projects operating through Arnhem Land and expanding into the Kimberley and Cape York. The value of World Heritage listing to tourism is largely ignored.
The vision document speaks instead of doubling Australia’s agricultural production. Yet it is hard to imagine how this can be done without significant environmental harm to rivers, woodlands and marine systems. Failed projects like the Ord Irrigation Scheme are dressed up as opportunities.
The paper sets the 2030 goal of 2 million international visitors to the North, yet North Queensland already attracts almost 1.5 million. These visitors are not coming here to see mass industrialisation — they are attracted to the region for its iconic beauty resulting from the protection and World Heritage listing of both the Wet Tropics rainforests and the Great Barrier Reef. Talk of a new frontier employs the language of conquest of the very elements of the natural environment that are the North’s current draw card.
Once again policies are being developed and promises are being made without a solid grounding in scientific evidence. The Federal Government’s Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce — the most thorough review of the region’s water and soil science ever conducted — has confirmed Australia’s north is not vacant land and it should be actively managed for resilience and sustainability.
The Taskforce found Northern Australia’s soils are too infertile, rainfall unpredictable, geography unsuitable for large dams and evaporation rates are too high to support large scale agriculture. “Contrary to popular belief, water resources in the north are neither unlimited, nor wasted,” the report stated. “Equally, the potential for northern Australia to become a ‘food bowl’ is not supported by evidence.”
On a recent road trip across the north, I spoke with a range of people including traditional owners, CEOs and mayors who see some opportunity for limited agricultural development — but see no reality in the idea of doubling our export earning as Asia’s foodbowl.
It seems that in drafting its 2030 vision, the Coalition seems to have been consulting more with the likes of Gina Rinehart than the people and communities who actually live here.
Originally published on the ABC’s Environment page.