Northern Australia, the sequel: remaking an old policy classic

Darwin’s popular Mindil Beach. Andrew Campbell, CC BY-NC-ND

The resurfacing of the idea of developing northern Australia is akin to making a sequel for an old cinema classic. It evokes familiarity and the repackaging of tested and yet-to-be tested concepts. It also inspires hope that a fresh narrative and some special effects will deliver greater box-office success than last time.

The Coalition’s 2030 Vision for Developing Northern Australia was launched in 2013. That’s a year film critics described as one of remakes, sequels and reboots. As one Hollywood commentator noted of the year of repackaging old stories:

Remakes usually happen when Hollywood remembers that something old has probably been out of the limelight long enough … [and] because it’s not always a dumb idea to re-imagine something from the past with a contemporary spin.

Last week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott formally launched the process for the development and implementation of “Australia’s first Northern Australia White Paper”. This is intended to:

…set out a clear, well-defined and timely policy platform for promoting the development of Northern Australia … to capitalise on Northern Australia’s existing strengths and natural advantages in agriculture, cattle and energy as well as to seize opportunities in tourism, education and health services.

The White Paper process extends and incorporates what we might now see as the “prequel”: the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia chaired by far north Queensland Liberal MP Warren Entsch. The committee is scheduled to report to Parliament in July.

Karlu Karlu, or the Devils Marbles, south of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. Andrew Campbell, CC BY-NC-ND

Everything old is new again

While Australia has not officially had a Northern Australia White Paper before, the development of the region is a policy classic. Past prime ministers have rated it highly, declaring Northern Australian development to be “of immense strategic importance” (Stanley Bruce, 1926), “essential to future security” (John Curtin, 1944) and “necessary and urgent” (Gough Whitlam, 1969).

The first Commonwealth parliamentary inquiry into the development of northern Australia was held in 1912. This happened after the perceived lack of development achieved by South Australia in its northern territories led the Commonwealth to take over the NT in 1911.

As a nation, we remain unsettled by our perceived “undeveloped” north, lying only scantily clad with a sparse population of around one million people. It was vulnerable to invasion in World War II by conventional military forces. The region now lies exposed to an increasingly mobile global population of people and resources.

We are also acutely attuned to the fact that emerging strategic factors point towards the need for a defensive strategy that looks north and north-west (Defence White Paper 2013, p47). Our defence estate was established with a south and south-east disposition aligned with population and industry.

Fears of the strategic consequences of “uneven development”, heightened during the war years and post-war period, are reframed in the Coalition’s 2013 policy sequel:

No longer will Northern Australia be the last frontier: it is in fact the next frontier … Nevertheless, it remains underutilised relative to the rest of the country despite its natural, geographic and strategic assets.

Fishing on the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland. Andrew Campbell, CC BY-NC-ND

Can we learn from past mistakes?

We have decades of experience in developing Australia’s north, so it is crucial to ask what could make this latest process different. Most importantly, how could it produce better outcomes for the nation and for the diverse people, communities and environments of the north?

According to Faerye.net, a good sequel has five key ingredients: it expands the universe of the original, stays true to the original, deepens the characters, follows through (our emphasis), rewards the audience’s fidelity and surprises us.

With this in mind, there is cause for optimism this time.

The Northern Territory’s Chief Minister Adam Giles, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and federal MP Natasha Griggs in Darwin last week. AAP Image/Liam Carroll
Brahman cattle dominate the Northern Australian herd, which accounts for around half the Australian beef industry. Andrew Campbell, CC BY-NC-ND

Firstly, while the core narrative stays true to the original, the context has changed. Northern Australia, especially in the larger cities, is already experiencing economic and demographic transformation.

Energy, business, research, education, culture and health provision are undergoing innovative and often sector-leading changes. There is much more explicit recognition of the need to advance trade, cultural and investment links with our northern neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region.

It was good to see that the newly released terms of reference acknowledge the need to learn from past mistakes and to manage impediments to growth. This may be where the surprise element comes in, with flagged changes to regulatory frameworks and land access arrangements.

We hope that the accumulated science and wisdom in the 2009 Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce Report will not be overlooked. In particular, the Historical Perspectives chapter by Dr Garry Cook of CSIRO Darwin should be compulsory reading for parliamentarians and officials.

Where we might miss the plot

While the terms of reference mention extreme weather, they ignore rising sea levels and increasing heat stress that might constrain development.

Agricultural challenges have always been formidable in the north; climate change will amplify many of them.

On the other hand, planning for and responding to natural hazards may present an economic opportunity for the north to service huge needs in the Asia Pacific.

The jury is still out in terms of the deepening of characters, arguably the most important being the significant and growing Indigenous population of the north.

Indigenous people get a mention in the terms of reference in the context of impediments to growth and their participation in the economy. We would hope to see this duality overcome in the final policy script to achieve the effective engagement of Indigenous people, their knowledge, micro-economic enterprises and governance practices as a critical part of northern Australia’s story.

The are some encouraging signs on that front. The promise is there to “create the right conditions for private sector investment, innovation, enterprise growth and business formation (including in and for Indigenous communities)”.

There is also recognition of the need for critical economic and social infrastructure to support the region’s long-term growth. Explicit reference to social infrastructure is very welcome.

Young Indigenous dancers perform to Bunggul-style music at the 2013 Garma Festival in Arnhem Land. Youthu Yindi Foundation

A proper script can avoid a clanger

Of course, not all remakes and sequels are clangers. Revisiting classic policy can be very worthwhile.

Grey nomads visiting the Devils Marbles. Andrew Campbell, CC BY-NC-ND

There is undoubtedly much to be gained for Australia, in particular for one million or so residents already living in the north, especially if it does include a comprehensive, costed and time-bound implementation plan. These gains depend on a well-considered process that engages the locals and delivers a clear policy platform across four jurisdictions.

There is always the risk that this latest policy could become just another addition to the north’s colourful history of failed grand schemes, based on southern dreams and not enough hard reality. But if we get the script right this time, we do have a chance to make this sequel better than its many precursors.