“…a poor dried up land afflicted by fever and flies and fit only for a college of monks whose religious zeal might cope with the suffocating heat and musketos which admitted no moment of repose.”

Matthew Flinders describing northern Australia, The Northern Myth, p. 3.

Captain Matthew FlindersThe fever (more than one really – the NT was rife with malaria and dengue, among others, in early days) may have gone but the flies, the suffocating heat and the mosquitos are still pretty much as Flinders described them all those years ago.

Bruce Davidson’s book “The Northern Myth” was first published in 1965 and set out to dispel the then popular belief that tropical Australia could be easily transformed into a magical land of milk and honey from which boundless agricultural wealth for all would flow. Davidson’s book should be mandatory reading for any contemporary politician or self-professed land manager who puts “the north”, “water” and “broad-acre tropical agriculture” within a bull’s roar of each other.

At least one of Davidson’s predictions has become largely true. At page 287 he concluded that “the future still lies with large dry-land cattle properties operated by companies or individuals with adequate capital, which remain the only economic form of development possible in tropical Australia”.

Here I want to have a quick look at Chapter 1 of The Northern Myth, entitled “Motives and Objectives in Northern Australia”.

Davidson opens his book with look at some of the myths and ignorance that informed much of what passed for the minimal interest in the far-flung north to those living in the temperate south.

Davidson asks some uncomfortable questions that “few Australians have ever asked themselves”:

1 – Why should we develop Northern Australia?

2 – Why hasn’t it developed at the same rate as the southern half of the continent?

3 – Why is agricultural settlement considered the right sort of development?

4 – If agricultural development is desirable, has our approach to the problem been a sensible one?

Davidson then notes six motives that he says have dominated Australian thoughts on northern Australia:

1 – Unless the north is occupied by Australians it will be occupied by our neighbours iin southern and eastern Asia who have insufficient agricultural land.

2 – It is essential to have a large population in the north to defend the area.

3 – Valuable resources in the form of land, water and minerals which are close to large markets in Asia are being wasted.

4 – Agricultural development is essential in northern Australia to supply the undernourished regions of the world, particularly Asia, with food.

5 – Tropical crops could be produced in northern Australia as part of an import-saving campaign to preserve our balance of payments.

6 The north must be developed to raise the standard of living of the aboriginal.

Davidson says that the motive to populate the north to prevent an invasion from the north – use it or lose it – is the oldest suggestion and one that motivated much of the early activity in the north – but a motive that he no longer says applies. And he then methodically and forensically proceeds to banish the other motives as unfounded, the product of too-feverish political opportunism or a failure to appreciate and learn from the lessons of recent Asian and Australian history.

In relation to the suggestion that northern Australia should be developed because a large proposrtion of its population are aboriginal people whose standard of living needs to be raised to that of the rest of the Australian population, Davidson notes that this is, or was at 1965, the “least discussed reason for development.”

Davidson wrote The Northern Myth shortly before action by the Northern Australian Workers’ Union led to the Equal Pay Award in 1966 and almost immediately after that decision was handed down Aboriginal employment in the pastoral industry across the north plummeted – with many productive Aboriginal workers ejected from their homes on remote stations and drifting to an uncertain future of unemployment and poverty on the fringes of the town and cities across the north.

And Davidson’s book was written almost a decade before the establishment of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 of the Commonwealth which has resulted in the grant of over 40% of the Northern Territory land area to Aboriginal people.

Davidson’s assessment of the role of Aboriginal workers in the pastoral and other industries in northern Australia are still worth reading:

Aborigines are employed as a part-time labour force in the pastoral industry and this form of employment has probably retarded integration and raising of living standards. If the Aborigine is only to be used as a part-time labourer in any agricultural settlement, it is dountful if his situation would improve. The meat works in the north have never employed aborigines inside the meat-works even in semi-skilled occupations although Aboriginal labour could have been obtained at far lower cost than labour imported from southern Australia.

And Davidson provides an early example of an idea that has recently been revived in some quarters – that of assimilation (here referred to as ‘integration’) through internal Aboriginal migration:

It is possible that the standard of living of the Aborigines would rise faster and integration would take place at a greater rate if they were encouraged to migrate to the southern cities, where they would form a far smaller proportion of the total population and would have a far wider range of opportunities for education and employment.

With a prescient nod to more recent debates about development of the north, Davidson advises that any northern development cannot operate on the basis of an abundance of one or more particular resource but will need to be part of a matrix of physical financial and social resources and restates what should be an obvious point – that the north has to produce more, and do it more cheaply than southern areas:

Unless it can be established that a given combination of land, water, capital and labour in northern Australia would produce a larger output than the same combination of labour and capital with land in some other region of Australia or with some other natural resource, it cannot be said that land and water are being wasted in the north.

With limited labour and capital it is impossible to develop all our land.

Concluding Chapter 1 of The Northern Myth, Davidson, having dismissed social and defence reasons for northern development, refines his enquiries and the focus of the rest of his book:

…it is the purpose of this work to examine the last three premises…are resources in the form of land and water being wasted in northern Australia or, in other words, would their combination with labour and capital, using the best techniques known, yield an output of greater value that that of the resources used, or yield a greater output than the capital and labour employed would yield in some other use?

Similarly, comparisons between the cost of producing various products in northern and southern Australia can be made to discover where these crops could be produced most cheaply.

I’ll slowly work my way through the rest of Davidson’s book over the next few months. I’d really appreciate any comments or suggestions that you might have about Davidson’s ideas, the current debate and proposals for northern development and any other related issues.

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