CANBERRA OBSERVED News Weekly
Northern dream creeps slightly nearer to reality
, July 4, 2015
“The North’s time has come” was how a bullish Trade Minister Andrew Robb described the recent release of the Federal Government’s long-awaited white paper on northern Australia.
The policy paper is a “roadmap” for development of the still largely untapped northern third of the continent, the part closest to the most dynamic, fastest-growing and most prospective block of countries in the world.
“Now we’re on the cusp of an economic revolution going on around us, in China, in Vietnam, in Indonesia, which will be in the top four or five countries, economically, in the world within 15 to 20 years. And of course India, which is repeating the China experience in my view.
“It costs a lot of money to get things away in the north, and there’s just never been a market that’s had the capacity to pay the premium prices for food, services, resources and energy, that’s within our proximity, in our part of the world,” Mr Robb said.
The white paper was developed by Mr Robb together with Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals Leader Warren Truss. Both have been keen to emphasise the importance of developing primary industries such as agriculture, horticulture, fisheries and aquaculture, minerals and energy.
Mr Robb has played to Australia’s strength in the white paper by pushing our expertise in tropical medicine, international education, disaster risk reduction and response, tourism, defence services and biosecurity.
The reality is that the policy document would have been much bigger had the Abbott Government had the budgetary capacity to go further. Scarred by early mistakes and leadership concerns, the Abbott Government has also developed a cautiousness about its forward-looking policy initiatives, including initiatives on tax and the federation, which are also to be the subjects of policy white papers.
Mr Robb himself wanted to go much further in the policy settings, including, for example, introducing a northern Australia “open skies” policy that would have deregulated aviation in the northern part of the nation. However, the proposal was headed off by fierce lobbying from airlines and Nationals ministers, particularly Mr Truss, who is responsible for transport.
Australia’s north is sparsely populated – just 1 million of its 23 million population live there. The potential for the region is vast. But while the region is underpopulated, it also is vulnerable to the long-term strategic ambitions of other countries.
Funding attached to the policy paper is “just” $1.2 billion, but there is also a $5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility that provides concessional finance for infrastructure projects.
It includes $600 million to improve key roads, $100 million for so-called “beef roads” to move cattle to ports, and funding for rail and ports.
The white paper covers six key areas: simpler land arrangements to support investment; developing water resources; growing the north as a business, trade and investment gateway; investing in infrastructure to lower business and household costs; reducing barriers to employing people; and improving governance.
The Government will also partner with the Northern Territory Government to establish a “single point of entry” in Darwin to streamline regulatory processes and cut red tape for major investors.
Other initiatives aim to lighten the regulatory burden by streamlining and simplifying cultural heritage, fisheries, and wildlife trade regulations, and supporting northern industries including fisheries and crocodile trade.
Specific initiatives include reducing native title costs and delays, and permitting Indigenous Australians to borrow against or lease out exclusive native title land.
There is also a $200 million Water Infrastructure Development Fund, providing up to $5 million for a feasibility analysis for the Nullinga Dam near Cairns, and up to $5 million for a detailed examination of land-use suitability for Ord Stage 3. There will also be $15 million for water resource assessments of the Mitchell River (Queensland), West Kimberley (Western Australia) and Darwin region (Northern Territory).
What is missing from the white paper is provision for long-term, large-scale infrastructure projects. With no money to invest and an aversion to borrowing – even for long-term projects – it seems the Government views the paper as more about getting the policy settings and the policy direction right. The reality is that billions would have been spent on water infrastructure if the government were really serious.
The dream of developing Australia’s north has been a decades-long saga, with intermittent projects such as that on the Ord River, but with no comprehensive and long-term plan.
This latest contribution is an important though regrettably modest contribution to the fulfilment of that dream.