This is a guest post by Glenn Morrison that was first published 1 May 2015 by Rural Weekly NT
Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles wants to unlock the North to boost Australia’s wealth (Rural Weekly NT April 17). As the member for the Central Australian electorate of Braitling well knows, this particular Myth of The North is an old one.
The story goes like this: The top half of Australia holds vast resources and unlimited potential wealth that must be developed at all costs. Central Australia lies on the southernmost fringe of the North, usually defined as everything above the Tropic of Capricorn.
Nevertheless, Centralians are as keen as any to be included in federal momentum for the North’s development, and any ‘wealth’ that might follow.
But they would do well to pause for breath. As a mythology, the North has roots deep in the nineteenth century. It was at least partly responsible for fuelling a race to the Top End between ill-fated explorers Burke and Wills and the intrepid party of John McDouall Stuart, the first European to cross Central Australia in 1860.
The British had established an outpost at Port Essington in 1835, mainly because it was feared the North might be occupied by the French. However, no-one had yet managed to reach the north from the south.
Starting from Melbourne, Burke came to within a few kilometres of the Gulf of Carpentaria in early 1861. Turned back by mangroves, many in the party did not survive the return journey.
The determined Stuart finally bathed in northern waters in July 1862, cementing his place in Australian history. Stuart even survived the return to Adelaide, but his health was ruined and, returning to London, he died just three years later. His legacy spoke however, of a vast northern potential and various dreams to tap this perceived wealth have been floated ever since.
And, like their explorer forebears, generations of Australians were prepared to overlook the real cost of developing the north in favour of realising the dream.
In 1926 Australian Prime Minister Stanley Bruce declared developing the North to be of “immense strategic importance.” John Curtin dubbed it “essential to future security” in 1944, and in 1969 Gough Whitlam described it as “necessary and urgent.”
Some projects were even built, such as the Ord River scheme, which as later tagged Australia’s biggest white elephant.
In fact, reports this week reveal yet another stumbling block for the beleaguered Ord, as plans for a Chinese company to kickstart the Stage Two Ord Irrigation Scheme were put on hold. Development of the 6000ha Knox Plains site by Shanghai Zhongfu-owned Kimberley Agricultural Investment is in doubt after conditions imposed by the federal Department of Environment proved onerous.
But such difficulties are nothing new for the Ord: Displaced Aborigines have watched crop after crop fail on the rich plains surrounding.
Nevertheless, the North still looms large in the imaginations of Australians and their politicians.
After all, it covers almost one fifth of the continent, with only about 68,000 hectares used for agriculture, of which some 30,000 hectares are irrigated. While covering 17% of Australia’s footprint however, the North accommodates less than 1% of its population.
A northern development white paper launched in 2013 set out the federal position on the North ahead of a 2014 green paper outlining possible activities. Prime Minister Tony Abbott makes clear the federal government’s philosophical stance in the white paper’s opening lines: “No longer will Northern Australia be the last frontier: it is in fact the next frontier . . . ”
On cue, the report emphasises the natural, geographic and strategic assets of the north while declaring them to be underutilised.
Launching the white paper, Mr Abbott called upon the national imagination to exploit the North’s enormous agricultural potential with its “bountiful supply of water.” He stood on the wall of Australia’s largest dam to announce a future ruled by irrigation and the development of gas, mining and agribusiness.
Maybe Mr Abbott has not read Xavier Herbert.
“The blunny place is always either a desert or a lake,” wrote the Australian author in his novel Capricornia. “Rabbits’ve got more sense than them blowbags that write in the Southern papers.”
Herbert’s sentiments regarding the tenuous balance of ecologies at large in the North were published in 1937, and are borne out in later studies.
For the idea of the North becoming the food bowl of Asia is now largely debunked.
An often-quoted piece of research is The Northern Myth: A Study of the Physical and Economic Limits to Agricultural and Pastoral Development in Tropical Australia, by B.R Davidson Published in 1965, Davidson assembled the best Australian research of the day. He concluded the idea to develop the North was “a platitude uncritically accepted by many Australians.”
Except for the existing pastoral industry, the development case was a bad one, Davidson writes.
Now, I hear you: Davidson’s work is more than 50 years old. And I might agree, if it weren’t for the fact that his findings have been reinforced again and again by independent studies since.
For example, a 2009 CSIRO review recognizes the same challenges as Davidson: poor and vulnerable soils, and a highly variable climate.
Another study limits irrigation capacity to between 20,000 and 40,000 developable hectares based on potentially available groundwater.
Reluctant as conservative governments are to admit it, a further constraint now looms: climate change. Perhaps the greatest challenge of all however, is governance itself.
As the Northern Futures Collaborative Research Network suggests in a recent report, three big influences shaping Australia today collide here in the North.
The first is Big Development, characterised by the drive to build major infrastructure projects, including dams and agricultural development, mining and gas.
The second is Big Conservation, which tends to think of the North as untouched wilderness, a pristine ecology requiring preservation.
The third is policy that seeks to promote indigenous well-being.
Our problem, the report authors suggest, is that we tend to consider each of these influences in isolation. Anyone actually living in the North, however, knows these three influences are inseparable.
Instead of adopting Big Development in isolation as their default option, perhaps Abbott and Giles might do better to find where the three shaping influences intersect.
Stuart, and Burke and Wills would certainly have relished knowing the lie of the land in the 1860s.
Some 150 years later, there is no excuse to act as if we do not know a little of this already.
It would be a crying shame if we didn’t avoid the mistakes of our forefathers in our own race to conquer the North.
Glenn Morrison is a journalist, author and musician living in Alice Springs. He came to Central Australia in 1998 to play at the opening of a new pub and decided to stay.
Glenn has been writing about the region ever since and has won several major awards for his work. He recently finished a PhD in cultural studies at Macquarie University entitled Songlines and Fault Lines: Six Walks that Shaped a Nation, which he is busy turning it into a book.