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The white paper on developing northern Australia outlines a solid vision - now for action. Andrew Campbell, Author provided

Is the white paper a game-changer for northern Australia?

The White Paper on Developing Northern Australia released by the Prime Minister yesterday represents the most comprehensive attempt yet to think through the development possibilities of the north.

For me, there are two big tensions in this whole exercise. How they play out will determine whether it represents a genuine paradigm shift in the development of the north, or yet another case of southern Australia focusing ephemeral attention on the quirky distant north, throwing some money at it, and then lamenting failed projects down the track.

The first is the tension between developing a northern economy based primarily on export commodities, versus one based around distinctive environment, demography, knowledge and services.

The second is the perennial struggle associated with trying to achieve long-term objectives with short-term funding and even shorter electoral cycles.

The White Paper and its implementation could reduce the dependence of the northern economy on boom-bust commodity markets, complementing primary industries with high value exports of knowledge and services.

This will be more likely if the participating governments — and industry, community and Indigenous leaders — are able to work together patiently within a bipartisan long-term governance framework, insulated and inoculated against the myopia and rancid partisanship of quotidian politics.

Darwin - northern outpost of a vast, thinly populated continent, or southern knowledge hub for the fastest growing region on earth? Andrew Campbell, Author provided

New money, old and new ideas

The White Paper itself is a useful introduction to the unique characteristics of Australia’s north, and compendium of existing government programs and activities, sprinkled with new initiatives and spending commitments.

There is both “new money” (in Canberra parlance) and a reasonably comprehensive commitment to microeconomic reform to facilitate private sector investment, lubricated by a A$5 b concessional loan scheme.

The Abbott government has been very upfront since the launch of its 2030 Vision document prior to the 2013 election about its determination to develop the north, defined primarily in economic terms. Success is seen mostly in terms of private sector industry development and export income.

There is considerable emphasis in the White Paper (echoed by the Prime Minister and Ministers Joyce and Truss at the launch of the paper) on the need to develop the primary industries of northern Australia – agriculture, horticulture, fisheries and aquaculture, minerals and energy.

However it was heartening to hear Trade Minister Andrew Robb in particular emphasise the potential for northern Australia to be exporting high value services such as tropical medicine, international education, disaster risk reduction and response, tourism, defence services and biosecurity.

Andrew Robb pointed out this morning that northern Australia sits at the intersection of the tropics and Asia, by far the fastest growing region in the world. The emphasis in the White Paper on helping northern Australian organisations and businesses to develop and consolidate durable partnerships within this dynamic region is welcome.

In the cultures of our region, such partnerships take time.

The infrastructure discussion in the White Paper is mostly focused on “hard” infrastructure like roads, pipelines, dams and ports, rather than “soft” infrastructure like education and health services, or developing governance and economic models that work for remote Indigenous communities. Improving Indigenous governance is crucial, but successful models are unlikely to look like conventional corporate structures in Sydney, Canberra or Melbourne.

Cattle remain symbolic in the coalition’s northern vision. Andrew Campbell

The principles set out in the White Paper about appropriate cost-benefit analysis are sound. It will be interesting to see if they are followed in practice.

Minister Robb at this morning’s launch was at pains to highlight the special environmental values of the north, and that developments would be managed to avoid or minimise negative environmental impacts.

Some responses were predictable, with the Greens summarising it as presaging ‘environmental destruction and economic white elephants’ and the NFF welcoming it.

Oddly, the excellent work done by the North Australian Land and Water Task Force and its underlying study of the best available science is not referenced. The White Paper reiterates the government’s commitment to a one-stop shop for environmental assessments and approvals, which essentially means the Commonwealth accrediting state and territory processes. All well and good, but such processes often leave much to be desired.

Indigenous rangers - a case in point

From an environmental perspective, it was pleasing for me to see explicit mention of Indigenous ranger programs, savanna burning initiatives, and joint management of national parks and other reserves, in addition to Indigenous Protected Areas.

The White Paper heralds a A$12.4m boost for Indigenous Ranger groups (for biosecurity work), which will undoubtedly be welcomed by the groups concerned. Ministers love announcing funding for ranger programs.

Indigenous ranger programs provide a classic window into northern development challenges. Ranger jobs are highly respected and prized within Indigenous communities, because they get people out on country, doing valuable skilled work with appropriate training and equipment. They are usually seasonal in nature and the better programs enable rangers to participate in cultural activities such as “ceremony business”.

They are highly relevant and useful across fields as diverse as fire, pests and weed management, sea country management, biodiversity, biosecurity, tourism, disaster risk reduction and response, and border security.

Fire management is critical across the north and Indigenous rangers play an important role. Andrew Campbell, Author provided

However grants for ranger groups are usually short term (three years if you’re lucky), and they do not invest sufficiently in the underlying infrastructure of governance, administration, training and career paths. Ideally, Indigenous people should see ranger work as a long-term profession within which future leaders can be developed, which is not the case now.

In the absence of a complementary long-term investment in “soft infrastructure” of governance, training and support, we won’t see ranger programs reach their potential to provide a critical plank in the structures needed to ensure meaningful engagement of Indigenous people in northern development.

I believe we urgently need such an investment. It should be bipartisan, long-term (multi-decadal) and of course it should be managed and led by Indigenous organisations, in partnership with appropriate supporting agencies.

Similar lessons apply across other aspects of northern development.

From commodities to knowledge and services

Tourism is properly mentioned as an industry development priority, with significant emphasis on facilitating and increasing visitor numbers from China and India. However there is room for deeper analysis of the values and services that are likely to attract and reward such tourists, and how best they can be ensured well into the future.

While improving roads, airports and ports will obviously boost tourism, there is an obvious tension between the “wild, rugged and empty” appeal of the outback, and the dams and other developments envisaged in the White Paper.

The provision of A$75m for a new Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Developing Northern Australia is a great initiative (noting my vested interest). The White Paper does a good job setting out some of the crucial knowledge gaps that need to be tackled if new developments are to be founded on good science, and if the risks of new developments in unique and challenging environmental and climatic conditions are to be well-managed.

The CRC model is a proven framework for productive partnerships between science and industry in solving applied research problems. Our science expertise across the north is world-class (world leading in a tropical context in several fields), but we are spread thinly across a vast landscape and it is important that we work cooperatively to make the best use of existing and new resources.

Northern Australia is closer to Asian markets, trade partners and distribution hubs such as Singapore. Andrew Campbell

Implementation will be critical

As with most areas of government policy, policy intent is one thing, legislative and programmatic content is another, and program implementation is another thing entirely. Poor implementation has undermined many a worthy program (think roof insulation).

Indigenous engagement in northern development is a case in point. The White Paper places considerable emphasis on land tenure and speeding up native title processes to facilitate investment and development. There are many references to the potential benefits for Indigenous people through such reforms, which have been “cautiously welcomed” by Indigenous leaders.

Much will depend on how this is implemented.

If it is done in a spirit of partnership, with Indigenous people as influential shareholders, it will be more likely to succeed. But if native title is framed as a barrier to be overcome — a constraint to development — rather than as a framework within which meaningful negotiations can (and already do) take place, then this is likely to hold up rather than facilitate development.

Overall, and acknowledging the government’s unashamedly pro-development bent, the White Paper launched by the PM today provides a sound framework.

If it serves to both strengthen and broaden the base of northern economies, and if its bipartisan and long-term aspirations are realised, it will have made an important, valuable contribution.

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