The case for Top End development

In the middle of the election campaign last month one of the news releases I received came from the CSIRO announcing it was about to issue the findings of an independent inquiry it had commissioned into bullying within the organisation. My heart sank to learn that yet another government instrumentality had wasted good money investigating this pseudo-problem. Bullying is the most recent fashionable issue decreed by progressive leftists desperate for provocative subjects to satisfy their compulsive zeal for reform. The CSIRO was once a rigorously scientific organisation that would have turned up its nose at this kind of thing. But under the Rudd–Gillard government and its appointee, chief executive Megan Clark, it has adopted progressivism with gusto. In the last few years we have published a number of articles in Quadrant magazine and Quadrant Online outlining CSIRO lapses, especially on climate change. The most comical or perhaps depressing example, depending on your view, was Christopher Akehurst’s exposé in our January-February 2012 edition of the organisation’s indigenous protocol advising its scientists when occupying new laboratories or attending CSIRO-sponsored conferences to conduct smoking ceremonies to ward off evil spirits.

However, if the Coalition wins the federal election on September 7, there is likely to be a clash of wills between the government and the CSIRO over the direction it has been taking. Although it has not had a great deal of publicity in the election campaign, one of the centrepieces of the Coalition’s program for government is to put a major effort into developing Australia’s north. In June this year, Liberal frontbencher Andrew Robb, released a forty-six-page paper, 2030 Vision for Developing Northern Australia, outlining the potential of this under-populated and under-used region. Describing the plan as “a vision for Australias future, to inspire optimism and hope with big ideas”, Robb listed six principal objectives:

  • Develop a food bowl that could double Australia’s agricultural output.
  • Expand the tourist economy in the north to two million tourists annually.
  • Build an energy export industry worth $150 billion and see major increases to resource exports.
  • Establish world-class medical centres.
  • Create an education hub with world-class vocational and higher education campuses.
  • Expand Australia’s export of technical skills related to resources and agriculture.

Robb, who has been responsible for this proposal for some years now, said the first step would be a White Paper on northern development to be produced within twelve months of the Coalition assuming government.

Within days of his announcement, the website The Conversation, which is funded by the CSIRO and twenty-three Australian universities, published an article in response. When The Conversation was set up last year, it justified the considerable public funding it received on the desirability of communicating scientific and academic findings to an intelligent public audience. However, in this case, the article was no more than a political hatchet job. The author, David Adamson, a researcher in natural resources at the University of Queensland, felt no need for academic understatement: 

As I look at [news] coverage of the plan I wonder, does the media have the memory of a pot-smoking goldfish? The argument that we should develop northern Australia is based on rent seeking, opportunism, romanticism and an ability to ignore countless studies stating the national economic, social and environmental folly of such an exercise. 

Despite the “countless” studies Adamson claimed had been made, he cited very few in support. The first was Bruce Davidson’s 1965 book The Northern Myth, which argued the soils in the north were too poor to sustain much agriculture and, anyway, it would always be much cheaper to grow food closer to its markets in the more populated southern half of the continent. Davidson’s book made a big impact in its day but now, forty-eight years later, most readers would believe the ground has since shifted so far that its case could hardly remain conclusive.

Adamson’s second source was a study by the CSIRO in 2009 titled The Northern Australia Land and Water Science Review. Adamson said this study not only confirmed Davidson’s conclusions but also highlighted reasons why investment in such a process would be reckless: 

The soils are still poor. They easily erode. At best you could create a patchwork mosaic of cropping (assuming that those crops would at some point be washed away). A mosaic pattern like this in the vastness of the north would be incredibly expensive to subsidise; it would make subsidies for the car industry look sound.

This kind of talk makes it look as if the CSIRO study was focused on land use and economics. However, it too was a highly political artefact. As its editors openly acknowledged, it was not just a land and water science review, nor was it really about “northern development”, it was a study of the prospects for “sustainable northern development”. Indeed, its editors crowed about its status: 

This report is unique because it is a scientific analysis of the opportunities for and impacts of development in northern Australia that takes into account contemporary societys values. The analysis is not restricted to gigalitres of water, hectares of land or tonnes or dollars of production. For example, it is also concerned with equity in decision making, the health of land, river and sea environments, Indigenous livelihoods, security, infrastructure and social wellbeing.

Here, “contemporary society’s values” and “equity in decision making” should be read as euphemisms for Green politics and Aboriginal activism. Its editors admit it is different from other reports to government on northern Australia because of the primacy it gives to the environment and traditional Aboriginal customs.

The environment as a key water user
Life in northern Australia is extraordinarily dependent on the region’s high natural values and intact landscapes. Development can directly reduce these values by depleting water, reducing water quality or by changing the natural flow of water in the landscape; all of which impact the animals and plants that live on the land and in the seas and rivers of the north.


Customary management, Indigenous livelihoods and water resource planning
Indigenous livelihoods are heavily reliant on water-dependent natural resources, which intersect and support its [sic] customary, state and market sectors. Indigenous people in northern Australia comprise a third of the north’s population. Clarity of water rights in northern Australia affects Indigenous people’s access to water and commercial opportunities, and could impact future unresolved Native Title claims.


This emphasis is not surprising since among the report’s several authors were Jon Altman and Patrick Dodson, two of the principal apologists for the disastrous Homelands policy that produced the remote Aboriginal communities of northern Australia which continue to blight the lives of their inhabitants today

In other words, while the CSIRO’s 2009 report does contain some scientific findings, it is far from a dispassionate account. Rather than objectively assessing the prospects for northern development, it is more a political document lobbying against northern development unless it is limited to “sustainable development”—which really means no development at all.

In saying this, I have no hesitation in acknowledging that, in this case, Quadrant is not a dispassionate observer either. In the last two years we have led two issues of the magazine with articles that lend support, either directly or indirectly, to the proposal that Andrew Robb has endorsed.

The lead article in our issue of December 2011 by Patrick Morgan titled “The Geo-Political Case for a Big Australia” was the revival of an idea that had been often expressed by politicians in Australia from Federation until quite recent times: how can such a small population defend a whole continent? We had an enormous land space, vast mineral resources, and under-utilised fertile land, Morgan said, in a region lacking these. After the Second World War and the prospect of invasion by Japan, our largely empty and undeveloped northern borders suddenly entered the Australian psyche as the source of national vulnerability. “Our primal worry,” Morgan wrote, “is that as a small, undefended European population holding a large and valuable land near Asia, we are vulnerable and could one day be swallowed up.” This long remained our great existential fear, barely expressed because it was too close to the bone. In the immediate postwar political environment, it produced a consensus that Australia should increase its population rapidly through immigration.

However, by the time of the 2010 election campaign, Morgan noted that our stretched resources and often gridlocked urban highways led both major parties to adopt a preference for a Small Australia by restricting immigration. This represented, he said, an unholy conjunction of interests between suburban isolationists and environmental minimalists. The Greens claimed that 15 to 20 million people was the maximum we could sustain here for environmental reasons. Morgan criticised this view as narcissistic, insular, selfish and narrow. He argued our geo-political situation meant we should welcome the creation of a Big Australia, with a population of at least 35 million and beyond.

We can at the moment determine whom we will let into this country, as John Howard said, but we will only retain this ability if we manage the situation adroitly. Playing up the isolationist sentiment by rigidly keeping people out means others will vote with their feet and take that decision from us.

In our edition of May 2013, Mervyn Bendle’s article “Remaking Australia as a Frontier Society” described our under-used agricultural lands in the north and our proximity to Asia not as sources of vulnerability but as the basis of a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Echoing a number of points that appear in Andrew Robb’s articles and position paper, Bendle said Australia was well-placed to become a major food supplier in a world whose population was projected to exceed 9 billion by 2050. Global food supply would have to increase by between 60 per cent and 100 per cent by mid-century. Most of this demand would come from Asia, especially from a rapidly growing middle class whose evolving tastes and consumption patterns would respond to the produce of a sophisticated agricultural industry of the kind Australia was capable of developing. Bendle wrote:

Australia has a potentially major role to play in meeting this challenge, capitalising on its geographical position, expanding its agricultural sector, improving its crop yields and productivity, adopting new technologies, developing its infrastructure, and bringing virgin lands under cultivation. It is in the unique position of being a developed economy that nonetheless possesses large-scale, under-utilised land and water resources located in northern Australia in close proximity to these emerging markets.

At the economic level, Bendle said, the prospect of this scenario being realised was positive. It would be a major task to mobilise the trillion dollars in finance required but there were vast sums available internationally, and foreign investors, pension funds, international corporations and foreign governments were already buying Australian land to capitalise on the projected demand.

The major barriers to its success were the deeply entrenched anti-development forces that dominated our cultural and political environment. Radical environmentalists had enjoyed a free ride for decades, shutting down many worthwhile projects and strangling many others with “green tape”. International investors, Bendle observed, would quickly retreat once they saw their complex, capital-intensive projects slandered, suffocated and sabotaged by what he called “a well-resourced cadre of cosseted vandals, aided and protected by an array of political, legal, judicial, academic and media supporters”.

In response, he said Australia needed to reaffirm its national identity as a frontier society, ready to engage in nation-building projects on a continental scale. “This is a battle that must be won in the realm of culture,” Bendle wrote, “and it can be no more ignored than the financial or physical infrastructure requirements of this gigantic project can be ignored.”

One of the pejorative terms used by David Adamson to put down this vision was “romantic”. Indeed, the title of his article in The Conversation was “Romancing the North: The Food Bowl Furphy”. Well, yes, I admit the prospect envisioned here is indeed romantic. In fact, I would go further and say there is a touch of the heroic about it. Of course, as everyone in the inner suburbs knows, Yes, Minister’s Sir Humphrey has consigned the adjective “heroic” to the realm of irony from where it must not be retrieved. To use it frankly today is to display your innocence. But I still remember the 1950s when schoolboys of my generation openly admired the heroism not only of our fathers who fought in the war, but also of those responsible for the big projects of postwar construction, in particular the engineers of the Snowy Mountains Scheme and the scientists of the CSIRO, who were certainly heroes to us then. With a population of only 7 million at the time, those Australians succeeded in making their vision real. Now might well be a good time to try the same again.

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