Saturday, June 20, 2015

A note on the Northern Australia White Paper

The Australian Government's White Paper on Northern Australia is quite complex. It has the usual weaknesses of modern Government policy papers such as the use of the word "will" when "should" would have been more appropriate, as well as that constant tendency to repackage existing initiatives that seem vaguely relevant. All that said, it has a fair bit of substance, enough to allow me to actually engage with it.

Geographical Diversity

Northern Australia is very diverse. It is not an entity, simply a territory created by a line drawn on the map. While the White Paper does recognise that diversity, I'm not sure that it properly understand that it is dealing with an artificial entity. To my mind, the Paper suffers to a degree from a failure to recognise geography.

Indigenous Issues

A significant proportion of the paper focuses on Aboriginal land rights issues. Bob Gosford provides a comment on this. While I have been working in the NSW Aboriginal policy space, I lack the on-ground knowledge to be able to comment properly

I note that the Paper appears to make no reference to the Torres Strait, to Torres Strait Islanders nor, indeed, to Papua New Guinea. There is an apparent myopia here.


So far as North Queensland is concerned,
PNG is the closest country. What happens in PNG will affect North Queensland in ways that we cannot see yet. Inevitably, there will be greater flows of trade, of people, and possibly of disease between the two areas.

Just to put a number on this, PNG's population is projected to exceed 13 million by 2050.That's small in the global sweep, but quite large relative to North Queensland. Cairns is only an hour an a half flight from Port Moresby.

Irrigation and Agribusiness

The level of hype often associated with develop the North is largely missing from this Paper.Pest, soils and transport costs have always been the killer here. What we can say with a degree of certainty is that there is scope for expanding irrigation, but that it's likely to be quite slow. Not sure how water trading will help. This comes into its own when a market is there.

I am unable to make a judgment on how the proposals will help the live meat trade, beyond noting that improved infrastructure will help. Ditto, I think, so far as aquaculture is concerned. Here, intuitively, there is scope if the markets are there.

With agriculture, it comes back to markets. The local markets will grow, the southern markets will grow, while access to Indonesia will improve and the market there grow as incomes rise.However, this brings in another point.

Relations with Neighboring Countries.

There is a certain tension in the White Paper on relations with surrounding countries and especially relations with Indonesia. Access to close markets is played up as a positive, but this is somewhat disconnected with current policies. No doubt that will pass.

Roads, Rail and Other Infrastructure

Investment in transport and communications infrastructure will clearly help. Here I would make two points. It is not clear to me how the concessional loan fund will work at this point. I'm not saying it won't work, just that I don't know how.The second is the impact of improved intra-Northern Australia links. I'm not saying anything profound here, just curious.

My feeling is that as intra-Northern communications improves, Darwin's economic reach will spread. Connected, I also think that it will encourage flows of goods and especially people in ways we cannot see now.


I would expect external tourism to grow regardless of the White paper. This is likely to benefit Darwin most of all as an entry point. If we look at Jakarta as a destination, there are (I think) presently no direct flights from Broome, Cairns or Townsville. Actually, I'm not sure there are any from Darwin! I thought that there were.

I selected Jakarta because it is a major port in a large population country adjacent to much of Northern Australia. I had not expected the connections to be so sparse. Still, I don't think that it affects my point.

Education and Science

I would expect some gains here flowing from higher investment in research and in education promotion. I'm not sure, however, how much this will pay back in real gains. I can see, for example, Charles Darwin gaining from student numbers simply because it is close to parts of Indonesia. I t is harder to see James Cook gaining.


Then White Paper does deal with certain migration issues including tourist and short term work arrangements. However, there is no reference to broader migration issues such as PNG migration into North Queensland or Indonesian migration into the Northern territory. I would have thought that this would follow from closer links and especially Indonesia and the Northern Territory.

The Dynamics of it all

The dynamics of this type of initiative interests me. Now here I'm simply not sure.Assume that the White Paper delivers on its objectives. We are going to have a bigger North, but it won't be a single North despite the growing inter-connections. My feeling is that we are, in fact, going to have three Norths reflecting current boundaries and differing geographies - a Kimberley North, a Darwin and southern NT North and a Far North Queensland North, each very different. And the winner is? - Darwin. What do you think? .      




Anonymous said...

The Kimberly settlement is based on non-renewable resources - there's not much other reason to be there and so I don't expect it to endure the way our capitals have.

I am more bullish than you about Far North Queensland - there is enough abundance there for tourism including eco-tourism, food production, and sustainable logging. The mineral wealth is a temporary but substantial bonus. Put that together with the growth of excellent universities in the region and you have a great recipe for success. At the moment tourism is limited by Cairns Airport which should be our nation's next major project.

Jim Belshaw said...

Not sure on the Kimberley, anon. The capitals endure because of their capital functions and center of coms etc. The Kimberley economic base is more than resources. I think a university would help. Actually, I agree with you on Far North Queensland. Just think that it sits outside the frame used in the White Paper.

Winton Bates said...

The absence of discussion of links to PNG is indeed strange (although people in PNG would also consider it be strange to see it under the heading of indigenous issues).

Randy McDonald said...

The Canadian far north differs from the Australian in that it is much less accessible. Darwin is well placed to be an intermediary between southern Austraia and Southeast Asia, but what can Iqaluit connect to?

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Winton. They would indeed. I have added PNG as a new heading.

Good morning, Randy. Following your comment, I spent an enjoyable half hour refreshing my memory of the Canadian Far North. Knew quite a lot about it as a child. What, indeed, can Iqaluit connect to?!

I don't think that Darwin's intermediary role should be overstated so far as southern Australia is concerned. The main land link is the Adelaide-Darwin railway. Despite prognostications that it would never make money and indeed early financial troubles,it now seems to be doing okay. In most cases it is easier for the Southern cities to by-pass Darwin.

Darwin's population is still quite small - c150,000. The total NT population is only 250,000. Like the early days of Iqaluit if on a far larger scale, Darwin's growth has been helped by its strategic location and consequent military spending. This will continue. Mining will continue to be important.

Compounding is central to Darwin's future growth, compounding so far as population is concerned, compounding in cumulative investment. Despite the hype, its not going to be the gateway to Asia, simply an increasingly important regional center. Here its position does help, for their will be growing interconnection between Darwin and places that are a 2-3 hour plane journey away. So Darwin's footprint will spread.