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The shipping news: the north’s new frontier is a complex place

In Darwin Harbour, high-tech gas extraction vessels fight for space with navy ships, Indigenous supply barges and tourist cruise boats. thinboyfatter/Flickr

The shipping news: the north’s new frontier is a complex place

**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. This is the last of our weekly series, developed by the Northern Research Futures Collaborative Research Network and The Conversation, looking at northern researchers’ plans for a feasible, sustainable future.

As we in the north wait to see how the Coalition’s 2030 Vision for Northern Australia translates into a policy White Paper, it’s interesting to ponder why northern Australia so captured the political imagination of our southern political leaders in the recent federal election.

It could be politics – the changing rural Indigenous voting patterns witnessed in the 2012 Northern Territory Election signalling an emergent, numerically small but symbolically important, political force in our north.

It could be economics – the recognition of the importance of our extractive economies in a fragile global economic environment. Or a growing military and strategic importance as the balance of global power moves inextricably to Asia.

Is it timing – reflecting our country’s new-found interest in creating a narrative that sees Australia as part of Asia? Is it fear – the perennial sub-text of concern generated by the world’s most populous Muslim nation at our doorstep?

Is it shame – that 40% of the Indigenous population lives below the poverty line in Third World conditions?

Is it simply geography – the northern border that we desire to control but that has proven persistently porous to new arrivals, especially those who come by boat? Or is it the problem we settler Australians have had since our arrival with “empty” or “underutilised” country that generates a desire to populate and render it productive?

These imperatives all seem to combine to drive us to create a new northern myth – not the “last frontier” but “the new frontier”.

The contemporary frontier

Darwin is arguably - in population, ambiance and connectivity - Australia’s only Asian city. The north is an extremely complex contemporary frontier, rarely matching up with the stereotypes held by those in the south.

For many Indigenous communities the north remains a colonial frontier – defined as a problem requiring “intervention”, as my colleague Joe Morrison has noted in an earlier article in this series. For irregular maritime arrivals, classed as unlawful non-citizens, the north is a penal colony. And for the growing number of fly-in-fly-out workers (FIFOs) it is the site of a cargo cult of high paid employment.

The “shipping news” on Darwin Harbour exemplifies this picture of northern complexity. Every few days, huge ships ferry liquefied natural gas to Asia. They vie for dominance with massive, high-tech naval vessels, most regularly US but intermittently French or Japanese. Between them, a constant stream of barges crosses the harbour to ferry shift workers to expanding natural gas shipping facilities, being built to supply Tokyo for the next 40 years. They also dwarf the longer-term constant – the barges that set out for the northern reaches, delivering goods to remote Indigenous communities.

Customs boats engaged in border protection keep irregular schedules; when not fishing for “boat people” they seem, curiously, to anchor in the harbour’s best fishing channels. On a small creek off the eastern side of the harbour, plumes of black smoke mark the swift destruction of “illegal” vessels.

To ensure this dark side of the frontier does not erode our capacity for enjoyment, this activity is offset by cruise ships, large, small and expensively private. During the dry season, daily cruises head west like clockwork, to introduce visitors to the spectacular site of sunset over coastal wilderness.

All are strange companions to the live cattle ships that retrace ancient trade routes to Indonesia.

The Darwin “shipping news” speaks of a north that is intimately connected through trade to Asia, through strategic ties to important military allies, to the increasing global movement of goods and people. A constant is the reminder of links to northern Indigenous communities – communities, once part of regional trade routes, whom settler Australians have rendered dependent.

Getting the new frontier right

The Coalition’s 2030 Vision for Developing Northern Australia sees the main task of government as creating “the right climate and environment to encourage the establishment of viable enterprises, not to direct or to be the principal financier of development”.

There is an implicit understanding throughout the green paper that development requires infrastructure. This will be privately funded, or funded through international capital.

But there is a parallel need in the north that is arguably of equivalent importance in “creating the right climate” – the need for the best and most sophisticated governance structures, and policies underpinned by evidence that will sustain this fragile environment.

Good governance does not simply default to the power of global capital. Good governance enables the input of, and negotiation with, small populations and remote, and at times divided, Indigenous communities. Good governance recognises the value of diversity and the value of the north’s proud non-conformity.

Evidence-based policy will prevent us repeating the mistakes of our history of colonisation.

It’s a pity 2030 is so far away!

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