The Empty Promise Of Northern Australia


Recent weeks saw some excitement around a draft Coalition discussion paper, "Developing Northern Australia — a 2030 vision", from which the Opposition quickly disassociated itself, making it clear that the document contained ideas rather than policies.

As the ABC reported, the paper proposed developing "key urban zones", within northern WA, Queensland and the Northern Territory, increasing populations through immigration policies, relocation allowances, and personal income tax incentives. The paper also characterised the northern parts of the continent as the "last frontier", a region with "tremendous potential".

As many pointed out, there were obvious similarities between the document as reported and the proposals long pushed by Australians for Northern Development and Economic Vision, whose most famous member is Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart.

Beyond this focus, it is useful to listen to the echoes of our past in the language still being used to describe "the north". The use of the term "frontier", for instance, may well seem bizarre in 2013; notwithstanding the ongoing impacts of dispossession on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, Australia surely entered the postcolonial era some time ago. Behind these kinds of phrases, though, lies the nation’s long and complicated relationship with its northern regions.

As Mungo MacCallum noted recently, the pull to develop "the north" predated federation and remains an idea that "refused to die". MacCallum noted that this impulse originated partly in the old and adaptable "fear that if we didn’t do something about the largely empty lands above the Tropic of Capricorn, then the Yellow Peril, or perhaps the Red Menace — well anyway, the Asian Hordes — drawn down the map by the inexorable force of gravity, would come and do it for us".

Fears of attack were not unfounded — recall that Japan bombed Darwin 64 times between 1942 and 1943 — but a sense of unease continued during peacetime. In 1965, public intellectual Donald Horne discerned an "anxiety … that Australia will not really have staked its claim to the ‘continent’ until it does something about the north".

By the 70s the north was seen less as a source of vulnerability and more as a rich quarry. Japan was viewed as a key economic partner and major market for iron ore, instead of a threat. As The Age commented in 1975, it was "impossible to discuss seriously Australian mineral and energy policies without reference to Japan". The mineral wealth lying under some particular tracts of northern soil seemed for many to be the "something" to which Horne referred, as well as answering what was seen as the nation’s pressing need to grow, industrialise and develop.

Hopes were high. In 1968 the Minister for National Development, David Fairbairn — the name of whose portfolio was indicative of government priorities — waxed poetic: "Every Australian has a stake in Northern Development … [the]northern half of the continent is like a giant stirring from a long sleep, flexing muscles and beginning to move".

As with other resource-rich states, the Australian political economy has been shaped by what has been termed the ideology of development — the overwhelming drive to promote industry growth, particularly in sectors such as forestry, mining and petroleum.

The academic EJ Harman wrote in 1982 that in Western Australia development ideology informed "all aspects of political life", and indeed this drive has been particularly strong in WA and Queensland as well as in the Northern Territory. Harman noted that the "importance of development hinges on the benefits it is assumed to provide" and that there was "a tendency for state politicians to assume development is a good thing, and to resort to emotively charged generalisations in describing it".

The sense that Australia had to develop had both practical and ephemeral origins: it stemmed both from economic imperatives as well as a sense that the young country needed to prove itself. The Institute for Public Affairs argued in 1964 that "[e]conomic growth is of special importance in a country … striving to develop its resources and to expand its population as rapidly as possible".

There was also an impetus, as writer Peter Rogers noted sarcastically in his 1973 book The Industrialists and the Aborigines, to "fill in some of the embarrassing blank geographical spaces which few countries have nowadays".

The upper third of the continent’s land mass was often seen as just so much blankness, given that Indigenous perspectives were not often acknowledged in public debate about land use. Indeed, as Harman noted, the ideology of the development in WA carried "with it the notions of opening up the frontier and civilising the north". MacCallum’s reference to the "largely empty lands above the Tropic of Capricorn" evokes an attitude which has not entirely disappeared.

Visions of northern development may now include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but they are still occasionally left out of the picture altogether. Consider a 2012 speech in which Gina Rinehart described Australia’s north-west as "where my pioneering family descendants settled in the 1860s to become the first white settlers … It was an inhospitable, remote and rugged country forming a very tough life for the first settlers, far from civilisation, medical care, supplies and my family descendants had to ‘make do or do without’". She noted that "[t]oday of course … much has changed with the progress brought by the mining industry".

The fact that not all of the lands above the 26th parallel are mineral rich is often omitted in discussions of "the north". Further, the rather narrow view of development as building and mining which dominates the public conversation overlooks other possibilities.

In particular, as economist Jon Altman has noted, much political commentary on "Indigenous development" presupposes that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people must join the mainstream or the real economy, ignoring what Altman terms a "hybrid economy" characterised by a mixture of market-based and traditional activities. In somewhat similar vein, in her 2011 Quarterly Essay Fair Share, Judith Brett suggested that different developmental paths for rural Australia have often been overlooked, contending for instance that the "the National Party has shown little interest in promoting environmental stewardship as a way of supplementing farmers’ incomes".

The north has long been a kind of screen on which political actors project their own visions — whether of a new Israel, a rich food bowl or a free market haven. More specific questions were raised in "Cancer of the bush or salvation for our cities?", the report of a parliamentary Inquiry into the use of fly-in, fly-out workforce practices in regional Australia. Is rural Australia to be reduced to a place the rest of us enter to make money, if at all, then quickly leave behind?

In a recent discussion of some of the failings of the media, Tim Dunlop noted that "Tony Abbott is berated for playing small-target politics but is then mocked for even thinking about plans to develop new cities in northern Australia".

Whatever one might think of the merits of these plans, there is a conversation well worth having about regional and remote areas both above and below the 26th parallel. The old drive for "northern development" has not disappeared; deeper questions around the form such development might take merit exploration.

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