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In search of northern vision

By Graham Tupper - posted Monday, 2 September 2013

In the current election campaign, both the major parties have identified plans for Northern Australia as being an important part of their election platform. Remarkably, both visions have striking similarities, and either could have been penned by the mining industry. It is time our federal politicians looked beyond a quarry vision to ask where is the real economy of the north.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s latest proposal for ‘special economic zones’ in northern Australia bore a striking similarity to the Coalitions ‘Developing Northern Australia’ vision paper released in June this year. It also spoke of ‘personal tax incentives’ and ‘planning of economic zones’ around Darwin and Cairns/Townsville.

Rudd’s plan pledged to "work with business and other levels of government to help the region tap into the rapidly-growing markets of Asia. This is a key part of Labor’s plan to keep Australia’s economy strong by creating new jobs for the future as the decade-long China resources boom is coming to an end."


Again, the language bears a striking similarly to the Coalitions vision of the northern ‘food bowl’ supplying Asian markets into the future. Missing from both plans is proper recognition of the existing natural and cultural values of Australia’s north.

In fact, Northern Australia is currently home to world-renowned natural and cultural landscapes from Cape York to Uluru, from the Great Barrier Reef to the Kimberley. These are the very places that make the region attractive to a massive international tourism market.

When politicians talk about bold plans for the north, we must make sure they don’t repeat the mistakes of the south.

Short-term, blinkered thinking around the Murray-Darling Basin led to decades of strife as Australia had to manage dwindling water supplies during drought. This is only now being resolved, at a $13 billion expense to the taxpayer and ongoing pain to the environment.

Both parties are pushing the mirage of economic prosperity on the back of mass agricultural industrialisation, but Northern Australia’s soils and intermittent rainfall make it unsuitable as a ‘next frontier’ or a food bowl for Asia. 

A report from the Federal Government’s Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce – the most thorough review of the region’s water and soil science ever conducted – has confirmed Australia’s north is not vacant land and it should be actively managed for resilience and sustainability.


The report found that northern Australia’s soils are too infertile, rainfall unpredictable, geography unsuitable for large dams and evaporation rates are too high to support large-scale agriculture.

These findings have been backed up be leading regional academics, including Professor Andrew Campbell, Director of the Research School for the Environment and Livelihoods at Charles Darwin University in Darwin, who recently stated, “The idea that we'll be producing huge volumes of food to meet the 70 per cent increase in world food production that's required by 2050 from the soils and water resources of Northern Australia, I think that's misguided.”

It’s not a coincidence that most of Australia’s greatest natural treasures are to be found in the north. We need to safeguard the rivers, the delicate soils and natural carbon stores of northern Australia that will keep our country healthy in the long term and provide meaningful livelihoods to the Indigenous communities living in these parts of Australia.

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About the Author

Graham Tupper is the Australian Conservation Foundation's Northern Australia Project Manager.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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