I have been a voter since 1952 and, at every election since then, there has been someone, either a Prime Minister or an Opposition Leader or an aspiring MP, who has seriously threatened to develop Northern Australia.
Sadly, I still wait with fervent hope for a leader to appear who will actually do it. For the past sixty years it has simply been an exercise in vote gathering.
The prime reason for nothing happening is that politicians always call for private investors, especially ones from overseas, to step forward and take the risks involved. For reasons that no politician can adequately explain, no government has ever offered to be the primary investor in a significant development project anywhere in the north of our continent. This raises the question as to why anyone should invest when governments don’t think its worth a go.
I cheered John Howard when he loaned government funds to enable the Adelaide Darwin Railway to be built, but the loan was a small one of the very minimum required for a very shaky start to be made. The consortium that built the track had no margin for error and so they inevitably went broke. This further deterred private investors from punting more capital on the North.
Nevertheless, Howard deserves praise as he was the first and only Prime Minister who honoured the commitment made to build the railway as a basis of Federation in 1901. At that time, South Australia had refused to sign up to the Federation of Australian States unless an irrevocable commitment was made to immediately commence building it. For almost a century, the other States persistently ratted on the deal. This tells us a lot the integrity of political promises, a fact that is not lost on private investors.
Right now, the Turnbull Government has done the right thing by establishing a Fund to invest in Northern Development, but it is only a lender of last resort after a private investor has conclusively proved that it has tried all other financial options and been refused. This takes years to achieve and comes at great cost. We need a Fund that leads from the front.
All future governments are likely to be just as reluctant to invest tax payer funds in the North, but they must eventually face the fact that no one will pioneer a new industry in this remote part of our continent until there is adequate transport, energy and water provided by governments at an economical cost.
For example, a great start would be to immediately build a Northern Transcontinental Railway of Standard Gauge from Townsville to Wyndham as a Public Private Partnership owning 50% each.
This will mean rebuilding the narrow gauge Townsville/Mt Isa track as standard gauge, then constructing a new track across the Barkly Tableland to Tennant Creek to the huge benefit of the cattle industry there. Additionally, it provides rail access to both Darwin and Adelaide at that point.
The prime piece of the grand vision will be to build a railway from Tennant Creek across the Tamani Desert to the Kimberley, the Cinderella of the nation, thereby giving it rail access to the rest of the continent, something that should have been done a century or more ago.
A wise government would then add real lustre to the vision by building a railway from Cloncurry to a new port on the Gulf of Carpentaria located where the deepest water is.
In my wildest dreams, I can actually see a government also building a standard gauge track from there up to Cape York.
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