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Northern development plan shows Australia’s fraught vision of our tropics

An historian reading the government White Paper on developing northern Australia will realise we’re actually heading all the way back to the 1890s. andrew matthews/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Northern development plan shows Australia’s fraught vision of our tropics

An historian reading the government White Paper on developing northern Australia will realise we’re actually heading all the way back to the 1890s. andrew matthews/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Australia is a big blank map, and the whole people is constantly sitting over it like a committee, trying to work out the ways to fill it in.

Written as long ago as 1911, the words of journalist C.E.W. Bean, later inventor of the Anzac legend, haunted me as I read Our North, Our Future, the federal government’s White Paper on developing northern Australia, released on June 17, 2015.

For more than 100 years, white Australians have rallied to cries of northern development, obsessively figuring out how to fill in the country north of Capricorn lest Asians should come and take it or Aborigines reclaim it.

Indeed, the first medical research organisation, the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine (AITM), was set up in Townsville in the decade after federation in order to ascertain whether a working white race might be implanted across our tropical territory. Or whether moist heat would sap the vitality and mentality of whites, and tropical germs destroy them.

One of its later directors, Raphael Cilento, a very proud white man and anti-Semite, spent his career in “the struggle to establish a tropical consciousness in Australia” — as he put it in the Queensland school text he wrote with Clem Lack, Triumph in the Tropics.

A veritable goldmine

Consistent with the barrage of tropical boosterism, the current government wants yet again to unlock the potential of the North and settle millions of productive citizens above Capricorn. Only it’s inclined now to bang on about fostering a multi-racial economic powerhouse rather than making the world safe for virile white labourers.

Thus the government is planning, inaptly, to use “Australia Unlimited branding to showcase investor ready projects and specific northern opportunities” — surely unaware that novelist E.J. Brady, who coined the term Australia Unlimited, hoped the Australian tropics would be purely white and free of pesky Aborigines and Chinese.

Indeed, “unlimited for whom?” is always an apposite question in the history of Australian nationalism.

As an historian of medicine, I found the White Paper’s emphasis on tropical health particularly intriguing. A Tropical Health Strategy is a key part of this ambitious plan to develop what may be called Capricornia (following the lead of novelist Xavier Herbert).

Our North, Our Future suggests two compelling reasons for building expertise in tropical medicine. Investment in research into “tropical” diseases, such as dengue fever, malaria, melioidosis, Australian bat lyssavirus, Hendra virus, Nipah virus, chikungunya, Murray Valley encephalitis, multidrug-resistant tuberculosis and “other emerging pathogens” would, the report says, make Australia “a leading hub for the development of tropical medicine”.

The federal government has allocated A$6.9 million for basic research on such “priority diseases” — many of them dubiously tropical, but obviously worth treating all the same. And found a further A$8.5 million to “commercialise research in new tropical therapeutics and diagnostics”.

Understandably, Louis Schofield, the director of the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine, a reinvention of the AITM (but note the tactful insertion of health), has welcomed the investment.

“By promoting commercialisation and the creation of science/industry networks,” Professor Schofield announced, “this funding initiative plays to Australia’s scientific strengths in the future economy of the Pacific Rim.”

Pharmaceutical cashcow

The government’s obsession with commercial opportunities in alleviating tropical disease is revealing. Certainly, it fits with technocratic, disease-centred, top-down programs of global health organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“In calling the world’s researchers to develop innovative solutions to ‘the most critical challenges in global health’,” writes public health researcher Anne-Emanuelle Birn in The Lancet, “the Gates Foundation has turned to a narrowly conceived understanding of health as product of technical interventions divorced from economic, social, and political contexts.”

But Australia’s Tropical Health Strategy goes further, hoping to profit from such technical fixes. This reveals a sort of cargo-cult mentality: build the laboratories and commercial medical technologies will pile up, solving the problems of global disease and making us rich as well.

In an influential 2010 article, anthropologist Andrew Lakoff describes “two regimes of global health”: what drives global health, he argues, is either concern with biosecurity, with emerging disease threats, or the humanitarian engagement of organisations like Médecins sans Frontières, which seeks to relieve suffering.

Naively, Lakoff failed to account for the “vision” of money-rubbing Australian politicians who imagine tropical medicine simply as a cash cow — or should that be a cash mosquito?

Biosecurity fears

Biosecurity is not forgotten, of course — how could it be in contemporary Australia? Apart from lucrative returns, the other main reason we should invest in tropical medicine, according to the White Paper, is to safeguard the nation from the threat of introduced diseases and pests.

Of course, this is an old saw, dating back to the first AITM: we must be vigilant against foreign bugs and the foreigners who spread them. We are told that “the Asia-Pacific region is a global epicentre for emerging infectious diseases and drug resistance”.

We are reminded that “the North’s proximity to our international neighbours, extensive coastline and sparse population makes it particularly vulnerable to biosecurity threats”.

Almost 100 years ago, Anton Breinl, the first director of the AITM, assured nationalist politicians that there was nothing inherently pathogenic in the tropics for whites. Rather, they must protect vulnerable Europeans from coloured races on the margins of Australia who had a proclivity for carrying germs especially noxious to white people. This was the medical rationale for immigration restriction.

The authors of this White Paper still seem to assume that disease comes from outside our borders, even if many of their “priority diseases”, such as Hendra, are in fact vernacular phenomena, genuine little Aussie battler viruses.

Now, I’m not denying there are frightening diseases emerging beyond our borders — just that in focusing exclusively on foreign threats we unrealistically limit the epidemiological palette. Evidently, in the biosecurity industry it’s hard to break such disabling xenophobic habits.

The power of medicine

If the White Paper is a reliable guide, tropical medicine is more important than ever in northern development. It has a timeworn contribution to make in securing us against disease threats, and an increasing role to play in generating pharmaceutical products and profits.

The authors express a touching confidence in tropical medicine, a faith in its efficacy that would have embarrassed even Breinl and Cilento. Indeed, so effective is modern tropical medicine that we can now allow those supposedly dodgy, previously disease-dealing foreigners within our borders to labour in the tropics.

Thus the White Paper recommends Designated Area Migration Agreements (DAMA) to permit foreign skilled and semi-skilled workers into a few northern zones. It promotes the Seasonal Worker Programme for labourers from the Pacific Islands and Timor Leste, as well as a new pilot program for workers from Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu.

A few pages earlier, these people and the places they come from were stigmatised as biosecurity risks, but presumably our tropical medicine industry can render them secure. Once used to justify keeping Asians and Pacific Islanders out of Australia, tropical medicine will now be employed to bring them in “safely”.

Too often, members of the infamous leftie lynch mob and other vaguely ABC-types protest that prime minister Tony Abbott is taking us back to the 1950s. But any Australian historian reading this White Paper will realise we’re actually heading all the way back to the 1890s, before federation, when unbridled capitalism and various forms of indentured labour were developing our North.

“Whose North?” we should ask, “whose triumph?”