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February 20th 2013 print

Merv Bendle

The noxious weeds in our food bowl

Australia's capacity to feed the world has never been greater, but tapping that potential means first rejecting a green-taped distaste for development that has become official policy in all but name


Australia has a potentially massive role to play over the next century in the production of food for an increasingly desperate world. However, it faces two challenges, one economic and financial, the other cultural and political. It is the latter that I will focus on here. I argue that to achieve its potential Australia must reject environmental extremism and re-affirm its national identity as a frontier society, i.e., one engaged on a nation-building project on a continental scale, and prepared systematically to harness natural and human resources to develop a thriving liberal-democratic society.


The frontier now lies in the North, as proponents of visionary projects like the Bradfield Scheme to harness the water resources of North Queensland have known for decades. As I noted in an article on the approaching demographic crisis (“How Civilisations Die", Quadrant, April, 2012):

“Quite apart from the resources boom and the need to upgrade Australia’s infrastructure on a national scale, there are also major opportunities for development in northern Australia, capitalising on its vast fertile lands and the gigantic rainfall that the region enjoys but which remains largely unharvested, for consumption, irrigation, and diversion into the Murray-Darling system, and for other purposes including hydro-electricity. Visions of Australia serving as the “food bowl of Asia” have a great deal to commend them, especially while the world passes through the demographic catastrophe that appears certain to occur later this century.”

Fortunately, there is a growing recognition of this opportunity. As a recent newspaper article observes: “Globally, food demand is expected to grow by 60% by 2050 [and] few countries are better placed to meet this demand than Australia [which faces] a $1.7 trillion export opportunity.”  This has led to a major conference, The Global Food Forum, attended by industry and government leaders, to be held in Melbourne on April 18.

As the article notes, a major challenge to be faced is “how to find the additional $1 trillion dollars of capital” that will be required to get this gigantic undertaking off the ground. Fortunately, there is a vast amount of capital available, with a subsequent report indicating that “there are trillions of dollars building up in money markets looking for decent investments”, with Canadian pension funds, which presently control $1 trillion, interested in the proposal.

Unfortunately, there is another large obstacle that must be confronted if Australia is to achieve its destiny in this critical period of global history. This is the ongoing cultural and political crisis arising out of the ongoing culture wars over Australia’s national identity.

Put simply, will Australia be able to return to the self-confident and optimistic frontier society ethos and nation-building activism that was sustained for nearly two centuries into the 1980s, and was exemplified by the Snowy Mountains Scheme? Or will it continue to decline into the depths of de-industrialisation, economic retrenchment, demographic torpor, self-hatred, and authoritarianism that has been so successfully promoted by the Greens, much of the ALP, and their academic and media supporters for the past 30 years?

Unfortunately, even a trillion dollars of capital will be of little use if the latter cultural tendency continues to dominate. Despite the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity nothing will happen if the cultural and political environment proves unfavorable to the types of massive economic and infrastructural development that will be required to realize the vision of Australia as a thriving and reliable producer of food on a global scale. Investors will quickly retreat once they realize  their projects will be slandered, stymied, strangled, and sabotaged by a well-resourced cadre of cosseted vandals (‘protestors’) supported and protected by an array of political, legal, judicial, academic, and media supporters, especially now that social media acts as a political megaphone for every extremist position.

Ominously, this is a country where a entire state was robbed in the 1980s of an economic future driven by renewable hydro-electric energy, reducing Tasmania to the status of a mendicant, welfare-state basket case with an ageing population and disappearing young people. Australia now is also a country where a major project like the proposed Traveston Dam in Queensland could be vetoed in 2009 by a federal environmental minister because of its alleged impact on “nationally listed species such as the Australian lungfish, the Mary River turtle and Mary River cod”.

This absurd but predictable decision not only robbed the Queensland people of a major piece of water storage and flood-mitigation infrastructure, it also led directly to the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars already been invested, while setting an appalling precedent. Why would investors want to have their time and money wasted in that sort of exercise, multiplied many times over? 

Therefore, if Australia is to play its role on the global stage in the 21st century  this cultural tide of anti-development sentiment must be turned back. This will be no small task, as the current situation has been several decades in the making. Nevertheless, it must be undertaken and the prospects are presently politically auspicious, with Coalition governments in the major states and a likely Coalition victory later this year at the federal level. If Australia is to realize its $1.7 trillion opportunity then there has to be the political will necessary to overthrow the cultural hegemony exercised over our national life by extreme environmentalism and the stifling complex of negativity that surrounds it.

However arduous, this goal can be achieved because there is a significant reserve of popular support for the frontier society, nation-building ethos that underpinned the economic development of Australia until the 1980s. A useful recent indicator of this support has been the generally favourable response to the leaked details of the options being explored by the Coalition water taskforce, including plans to build up to 100 dams designed to prevent floods, drive hydro-electric power stations, and provide irrigation for agricultural development capable of feeding 120 million people across the Asia-Pacific.

The popular response appears to have been overwhelmingly positive (unlike the inane response of the ALP). For example, in the letters section of the Herald Sun (15/2/2013), only one out of eleven letters published on the plan was opposed to it, with the overwhelming majority excited by the options discussed, referring approvingly to “nation-building”, “big ideas”, “sanity and logic”,  “tremendous future”, “long-term infrastructure”, etc.

Such sentiments reveal the depth to which many Australians (and probably the majority) are still sympathetic to the frontier ethos that played such a formative role in Australian history.    Like America, which has also suffered the impost of extreme environmentalism over the past forty years, Australia has been a frontier society for most of its history, undertaking massive economic and social development on a continental scale. For generations the opportunities this project offered attracted millions of settlers and immigrants determined to build their lives in Australia and to hand something on to their children. It is this nation-building spirit that explains the ease with which our society remains remarkably cohesive despite the fact that some 25 percent of its population is overseas-born.

The conflict between those Australians who identify with the nation-building frontier spirit and those who define themselves in opposition to its core values continued throughout the past century until the 1980s. At that point the latter forces achieved a major victory when the Hawke government capitulated to the extreme elements of the conservation movement and blocked the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam. As The Australian‘s  Nick Cater explains in “Damned if we don’t” , “the Franklin campaign ended dam building in Australia for 40 years”, entrenched environmental veto powers at all levels of government, and kick-started the rise of the Greens. Hawke’s capitulation marked the closure of the frontier in Australia and the end of the first epoch of nation-building.

Now, perhaps more than ever, it is the time to return resolutely to the fray, turning back those forces that want to turn Australia into Tasmania writ large, re-activating, re-embracing and forcefully promoting the frontier spirit that lies at the core of Australia’s national identity. Only in this way can we confront the colossal challenges and opportunities that the demographic revolution of the twenty-first century will place before us.