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Northern Australia should have a say in its own future

Northern futures, northern voices: It seems everyone has ideas about how Australia’s north could be better, but most of those ideas come from the south. In this six-part weekly series, developed by the…

Let’s look at ways to shift some power to northern decision makers. Michael and Daphne Oliver

Northern futures, northern voices: It seems everyone has ideas about how Australia’s north could be better, but most of those ideas come from the south. In this six-part weekly series, developed by the Northern Research Futures Collaborative Research Network and The Conversation, northern researchers lay out their own plans for a feasible, sustainable future.

Recently, Australia’s north has featured front-and-centre in national debates about the country’s future; the election campaign will likely see more claims about what the north can do for the country.

Some cast it as the frontier saviour, a source of bold new resource and agricultural developments both real and imagined. Others dream of securing the north’s expansive landscapes as iconic wilderness.

Northern policy has long been a source of conflict. Debates have raged about the success or otherwise of government interventions in indigenous communities. Quick-draw policy responses on complex issues like the live cattle trade have devastated many communities. Additionally, media images of coast-bound refugees keep the north’s strategic importance centre-stage, raising unresolved tensions about our Asian-Pacific relationships.

Those debates are often crafted by, and for, a southern audience. In my view, we will continue to repeat the mistakes of the past until we rethink governance of northern Australia. Governance is not sexy, but it’s fundamental to making things happen. As a regional water official at a Mekong Basin workshop in northern Thailand recently stated, governance is “how society shares power, benefit and risk”.

The north needs a say too

In the 1930s, Australian treasurer Ted Theodore was calling for northern separatism; few suggest that now. But many in the north would argue there are major flaws in the south’s contribution to our governance and that major policy decisions are often made in the interest of a southern electorate.

The north is different to the south in many ways. It has a low population and institutional capacity. Land tenure is largely public rather than private. It is primarily an indigenous domain. It has enormous mineral and soil wealth, but resource limitations and a vastly different climate. Much of it is closer to populous Asia-Pacific capitals than to Perth, Brisbane or Canberra.

Northerners don’t want separatism, but they do want a genuine dialogue between northern and southern Australia; one focused on how the nation as a whole might secure better northern governance. Australian and state and territory governments should negotiate big policy decisions in the north and manage government policy and programs in radically different ways.

This could emerge through a stronger northern Australian policy and delivery architecture integrated into COAG.

But to work, this kind of architecture must be powerfully engaged with a cohesive and strong pan-tropical alliance of northern Australia’s sectoral interests. It would have to include traditional owners, local government, industry, human service and conservation. Such an approach must also be independently informed by the north’s research institutions.

Problems that need attention

There are land use and tenure conflicts across the north (the dispute over what to do with Cape York is just one example), and we need innovation to solve them. This requires a long-term, cohesive and regionally driven approach to land use and infrastructure planning.

We also need a more consistent approach to negotiating major project development, to build the long-term foundations for regional community development.

Alongside this, we have an opportunity to create a northern-specific ecosystem services economy - an economy that benefits from conservation. We could deliver land owners real economic benefit for managing extensive landscapes better.

Despite the Intervention, the fundamental (top down) model of both local government and indigenous community development has not changed much in 30 years. These approaches disempower and deliver stop-start progress. Fragmented, welfare-oriented, inflexible and annualised government programs simply do not build lasting human capacity.

Finally, to shift the whole economy from an historically boom-bust cycle, the nation must build a tropical knowledge economy. This could underpin productivity in existing industries (minerals, energy, agriculture, fishing, tourism) and help us think about export opportunities right across the globe’s tropical latitudes. This will rely on Australia investing in tropical knowledge development (such as tropical health, agriculture, environmental and disaster management, design and energy) within the north, brokered into the wider tropical region through long term partnerships, trade and innovation clusters and foreign investment.

A smart north is good for all Australians

A progressive and productive northern Australia, with a strong identity and great lifestyle, tightly integrated with its Asia-Pacific neighbours, should attract a diversity of people (with a wide skills base) interested in playing a strategic role in the Asian Century.

We can transform our reputation from the wild frontier on the northern margin of a vast empty continent, to a naturally blessed region providing high-value knowledge-based services in the south of a dynamic, rapidly growing region of 500 million people.

This is indeed about how society shares power, benefit and risk.

If we don’t get the governance right, we run big risks: we’ll entrench a boom/bust economy, whole regions of multi-generational disadvantage and degradation of the nation’s cultural and environmental jewels.

If we can more equitably share power and benefit across the north, we can capture opportunities that may hold the keys to the whole nation’s future.

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16 Comments sorted by

  1. Dale Bloom


    I live in Nth Australia, and I have a small hobby, in that I ask long term residents if life is better now in their town than it was 20-30 years ago.

    There has been the same answer amongst everyone I have asked to date (100 % agreement) that life is not better now than what it was 20-30 years ago.

    I don’t think this is their nostalgia for the past, but they are simply stating fact; life is not better now than it was 20-30 years ago.

    So if plans for Nth Australia are a continuation of the same, then life in Nth Australia is not going to get any better.

    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dr Dale points out that to date, decisions about Northern Australia have been made in Southern Australia by people who are largely clueless about it, and who are accountable primarily to other Southerners - hence his call for Northerners to have more autonomy.

      I moved from NSW to Townsville nearly 2 decades ago, and subsequently moved half way back, to Maryborough; as it tuns out, Maryborough's latitude is approximately that of Australia's geographic centre.

      I'd like to see greater regional…

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    2. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      You could and ought to ask people of Sydney or Melbourne Dale, perhaps Perth and Brisbane too.
      I think it was when I was about 18 and Berwick about 50km. to Melbourne's east was still a country village complete with a garden bungalow shed that was their Cider Bar, about ten different varieties in plastic jerry can style containers with a tap and you did not need to much of it at about 10% alc. content.
      A few years later and I wised up and got the hell out of what I even thought of then as the big…

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    3. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to David Arthur

      You might have some Pleasant dreams David but sometimes too much info is just too much!

    4. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Greg North

      Thanks for taking the time to read it all Mr North.

      My reason for going to such length was to illustrate that the notion is practicable, that the major reason it may not happen is complacency. State boundaries are, after all, arbitrary lines on maps.

      That they are also immutable, uncrossable boundaries to the minds of many people is a much larger obstacle.

    5. Decortes Fleur

      Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

      In reply to David Arthur

      United States of Australia.
      Enjoyed reading this
      It is a realistic appraisal of the divide and a better 'fix' than a newman government pursing a 'one stop shop' along the valuable catchment for Great Artesian Basin in QLD - currently under consideration for new coal seam gas and other mining projects which could poison flows of fresh water into the wetlands and the Great Artesian Basin for EVER.
      Do we have a Great Artesian Basin Authority?
      In hard times Australia needs the waters flowing into the Great Artesian Basin and in flood times PERIL presents to let a chemical fracking model alter drinking water quality.

      EROSION of the Sandstone Aquifer by infiltration of chemicals does not seem like a Model For Success.
      Allan Dale's next instalment is eagerly awaited.

    6. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Greg North

      With the Murray-Darling Basin separated out into a couple of new States, NSW would largely consist of Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong.

    7. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Greg North

      It is possible that people elsewhere also believe life was better 20 to 30 years ago.

      A study by researchers from the University of Canberra found life worldwide peaked in 1978, and has gone downhill ever since.

      The research involved using the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), as opposed to Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

      I get the felling plans for northern Australia involve GDP only.

  2. Garry Baker


    But Tony Abbott has a plan for the north. He wants to turn it into Asia's food bowl. Indeed, the plan suggests he want to sell it to Asia, and then let them carry out the detail, and also carry the risk. As a result there should be a massive influx of people wanting to work the bowl, mostly 457 workers though, but they will create a demand for walled cities to house and feed them, along with a renewed tourist industry to keep them occupied during their fortnightly, half day off.

    Intrinsically the plan must be a good one, because it was hatched in Canberra.

    1. Garry Baker


      In reply to Greg North

      Hi Greg.. yes, I've read their vision. But as suggested in a previous article here - no corporation in Australia would be touched by it.

      As stated- The source is Luke Mathews, an agri-commodity strategist with the Commonwealth Bank - and since they advise clients in real world terms - who have their own real world finances to support these innovations, then one can rightly be confident in their due diligence processes. Given that its hard cash we speak of. Whereas Abbott, well he never bothered…

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  3. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Allan, you obviously have northern interests at heart and in deed the north of Australia is greatly different to where most people live in Australia, most possibly never travelling too much out of their home states let alone to the far north.
    However, we ought to be wary about needing to re-invent too much.
    Certainly as with any locations, the ideal would be to engage with the locals as much as possible and for investors to ascertain what issues need to be addressed to enhance best outcomes…

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  4. Paddy Mohan

    studying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advocacy

    Live in Darwin.

    I agree, southerners are key decision makers for the North. Most of the people living down south often forget that we exist! Even in the news, they only feature southern WA, Vic, NSW, SA, Tas, southern QLD and no mention of Kimberley, whole of NT and far-north QLD. And southerners never take us seriously and all they know of north is that there are lot of crocodiles and Indigenous communities and mining in the Pilbara.

    So how can we influence policy and decision-making? As mentioned in the article, one way is to form a network of strong advocacy groups across northern Australia. But being a minority, we'll always have to fight, cant have it easy!

  5. Decortes Fleur

    Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

    So many tropical a view.

    "What to do with Cape York?"

    "A vast empty land"
    "on the northern margins of a vast empty land".

    Allan Dale's contribution is vivid poetry.
    It seeks to remind us of the 'UNLOCKED POTENTIAL' available under a DIMINISHED Law circumstance.
    Terra Nullius: was overturned by the High Court in its 1993 Mabo decision.
    Aboriginal Land Rights Act Northern Territory (1976) reviewed in 1999 presaging a Northern Territory Intervention 'land tenure' is not questioned…

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  6. Gordon Angus Mackinlay

    Clinical Psychologist

    Perhaps the concept of Capricornia should be revisited.

    N QLD, the NT and North WA under one jurisdiction, rather than just the original intention of N QLD. The Governments in Perth and Brisbane are out of touch with their North, the Territory is just too vast for its current population.

    Create a new state with its southern border being from the west the Great Sandy, across the Simpson Desert and up east through the Diamantina country.

    A vast land under one jurisdiction that can comprehend the problems of North of the Tropic of Capricorn. Having its capital in Alice Springs, having a superior climate to Darwin or Townsville, and central to the region, yet still close enough to the Southern and National Capitals.

    Just a thought. Yours, Mackinlay.