The Abbott Government’s Green Paper on Developing Northern Australia, released last week week, is a mixture of grandiose plans for a new food bowl unsupported by scientific evidence, some useful policy drivers for building a more resilient economy in the north, and some glaring blind spots.
Usefully, the green paper acknowledges up front that Northern Australia’s unique environmental assets are found nowhere else on earth, and support a multi-billion dollar tourism industry.
In fact recent Tourism Australia research on international visitors reinforces this point, finding that Australia is ranked the world’s number one destination for world class beauty and natural environment.
So what are we talking about?
Stretching over 2,500 kilometres from the Kimberley in the west, through Kakadu in the Northern Territory and the Gulf of Carpentaria, to Cape York Peninsula in the east, northern Australia is home to some of the most ecologically intact natural landscapes left on the planet, fringed by World Heritage-listed reefs.
These landscapes form a sweep of forests, savannah woodlands and spinifex clad ranges, threaded by a mosaic of wetlands with meandering pristine rivers.
They are world renowned for their natural and cultural values and support thousands of livelihoods in land and sea management, particularly in rural and remote Indigenous communities.
The big blind spot in the Green Paper is a lack of attention to valuing and investing in environmental services and building an economy up north that keeps these stunning landscapes and rivers in good health.
These regions are worth our strongest efforts to protect and conserve it in line with the aspirations of Indigenous peoples who have been its custodians for tens of thousands of years.
Another blind spot is the focus on expanding fossil fuel energy development, mainly coal and gas, while paying lip service to a resource that the north has in abundance – sunshine!
Australia could become a world leader in the deployment of renewable energy to power rural and remote communities, increasing their self reliance.
With an even bigger vision we could also export electricity generated by solar energy into Asia as researchers Andrew Campbell, Andrew Blakers and Stuart Blanch have demonstrated in their proposal for an electricity interconnector from Northern Australia to Indonesia using the same technology as currently deployed under Bass Strait.
The grandiose plans that linger on the Green Paper around the notion of a new food bowl carry the huge risk of repeating the mistakes in the south, particularly in the case of the Murray Darling Basin, which is now costing taxpayers $13 billion to fix over the next decade.
The 2009 Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce report, based on extensive CSIRO water and soil science found that “contrary to popular belief, water resources in the north are neither unlimited, nor wasted. Equally, the potential for Northern Australia to become a ‘food bowl’ is not supported by evidence.”
This report spells out the reasons as to why big irrigated agriculture is not viable in the north – a long dry season, poor soils, massive evaporation rates, flat topography near the coast and long distances to markets.
We don’t need another study to tell us what we already know about large scale irrigated agriculture, but we do need investment in more water science and better water management in the north.
Northern Australia’s fishing industries should be nervous about the implications of moves toward development of river systems which disrupt the seasonal flows – the life blood of our northern landscapes – as the long term downstream ecological impacts could be devastating.
There is opportunity for the limited expansion of high value agriculture in the north where soils and reliable groundwater allow, along with better access to markets. But this needs to be guided by strong investment in water science and the economics of markets and supply chains.
The Green Paper usefully downplays expensive notions of special economic zones and instead identifies opportunities to expand the knowledge economy in education, training and tropical medicine.
There is scope to increase flexibility of land tenure and improve consistency, particularly for Indigenous communities. And there is a lot that can be done to improve coordination and governance across the north.
If the Green Paper process helps to deliver better infrastructure and improved land use planning these will be worthwhile outcomes.
Any vision for a better future for northern Australia needs to be founded on the principle that Indigenous communities have a key role to play and need to be in control.
In the last 10 years there has been a massive change in land tenure and land management in the north on the back of Native Title determinations and the declaration of huge new Indigenous Protected Area’s (IPA's) managed by a new generation of Indigenous rangers.
This is where a big opportunity lies – bringing the aspirations of Indigenous communities and others together.
Last month over 90 people gathered in Darwin from different sectors across the north – Indigenous organisations, tourism operators, farmers, ecologists, land managers, miners and regional development planners.
We discovered we had a lot in common in terms of long-term vision for the future of Northern Australia.
A guest of the roundtable was Harvey Locke, a recognised leader in the field of large-scale conservation from Canada.
Locke explained that a key part of real progress in conservation and compatible development is to bring multiple stakeholders together to focus on shared vision and values.
The “we not me” approach.
Having just been in Kakadu, he observed that “this part of the world is exceptional by any measure. We know that efforts to do large scale conservation require multi-stakeholder engagement involving people from a wide range of points of view and perspectives, from Indigenous people through to cattle ranchers, through to people with industrial interests, through to conservationists”.
The test of the Green Paper process, and of the federal government, is whether or not it is willing to listen to a range of different stakeholders to address the blind spots, dismiss the grandiose and destructive development ideas, and focus on advancing the policy drivers and the need to keep the country healthy, which underpin a shared vision for the future of the north.
* Graham Tupper is Northern Australia Project Manager for the Australian Conservation Foundation
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