White Paper on Developing Northern Australia – a response to the editorial in The Australian on Monday, January 20, 2020

The Northern Australia White Paper released by the Abbott Government in 2015 has failed, not because the Commonwealth hasn’t been able to facilitate its plan, but because its premise stems from a 20th century understanding of the old economy. Basing development aspirations for the North on assumptions that an economy driven by mines, fossil fuel extraction and vast agricultural projects will trickle down, without checking the evidence to see whether and how local communities and the natural environment would really benefit, is symptomatic of a refusal to accept that the world has changed drastically over the past 60 years.

$2 billion has been pumped into the Ord irrigation project in Kununurra, and the return on public investment between 1959 and 1991 was 17 cents per dollar spent as stated in a Hassall and Associates report; nevertheless, the Barnett-Grylls Government sank a whopping $334 million into Stage 2 (a $114 million blowout) according to the WA Auditor General’s 2016 report into the Ord-East Kimberley Development. That’s nearly $6 million per job created; surely Minister Canavan is not advocating for more of the same? The North as an ‘enormous food bowl’ is a myth, plain to see for everyone who visits the Ord, where the biggest crop by area is sandalwood and all hopes of success now rest on unproven GM cotton, neither of which is food.

Another myth about the North is that environmental protection laws, more commonly referred to as ‘green tape’ by those who want them gone, are a significant barrier to development. On the contrary, the most significant barriers to agricultural development are distance from markets, cost of production, insect plagues and harsh conditions such as sporadic torrential rain, poor soils and baking heat. Not one mine has been stopped by environmental laws.

Over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. Cities continue to grow, agriculture continues to expand. Should places like the Kimberley, with the world’s most spectacular intact coastline ($25k per head for a 10-day cruise), a vast tropical savannah that stores millions of tonnes of carbon and holds countless species in abundance, be sacrificed to the old economy? This is what the full implementation of the Northern Australia White Paper would do.

What we need in the North is a new White Paper based on what the people who live here need in order to prosper, not what Canberra-based politicians and global corporations crave. For too long the North has been treated like a vassal state and has benefited distant, mostly overseas, shareholders at the expense of local communities. The Northern Territory is a classic example – an economic model based on extraction and expansionism – where massive fossil fuel development has decimated a thriving tourism sector, driving small businesses to the wall, while social inequality is rising.

It’s time for a White Paper that recognises the value of the North’s unspoilt landscapes, the world’s oldest living cultures, a natural environment still unsurpassed globally, despite many threats. The tired old-economy approach to development won’t cut it. If the people of this country truly want prosperity for Northern Australia and places like the Kimberley, then we need to be visionary. We need to take a much more sophisticated approach to integrating the skills and knowledge of all segments of the community, with full respect for the region’s natural environment and landscapes, into planning for the Kimberley’s economy.

We can develop the North without wrecking it, but it needs smart thinking, collaboration around a common goal and a government that gets it – more of the same will send us backwards. It’s time for a new White Paper that recognises the comparative advantage of the natural and cultural heritage of the North in the modern global economy, and makes provision for that heritage to be protected.

Martin Pritchard, Executive Director of Broome based conservation group Environs Kimberley.

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