Letter from the North

April 2013

  • Alexander Downer

It’s a strange thing about Australians: they don’t have a strong sense of the sheer size of their country. Australia, for the record, is huge.

When you fly from Melbourne to Singapore you spend four hours just flying over central and then north-western Australia. Look out the window of the plane and marvel at the mile after mile of plains and deserts.

Yet for some reason Australians seem think we live in a country not much larger than England. Every time there is a proposal to develop a mine there are howls of outrage. A few dozen mines in a country of seven million square kilometres are hardly likely to cripple the country.

The same with tourist resorts. We have a coastline almost as long as the circumference of the earth! A few hundred kilometres of development is hardly destroying our coastal environment.

I was reminded of this when last month I took, of all things, a ship from Sydney to Darwin via Brisbane and Airlie Beach. It took eight days. That says a lot about the huge distance involved. The Queensland coast is remarkable for its length, its beauty and its surprising lack of population. You can sail for hours up the North Queensland coast without seeing any sign of human habitation. There are pristine beaches, picturesque coves, beautiful rain forests but not a soul in sight.

There was only one problem: the rain. February is the wet season in northern Australia and wet it was with a vengeance. But unlike southern Australia, the North has plenty of water.

Which brings me to my point: it’s one of the mysteries of Australia that over the centuries the population has gravitated to the south-eastern corner of the country, much of which is relatively dry. Settlers just haven’t taken to the north.

Some argue the reason is simple: the climate. Well, 240 million people live in nearby Indonesia, which on the whole has a rather similar climate to northern Australia. Six or so million people crowd into Papua New Guinea. Seventy million live in the tropical Philippines and so I could go on.

Mind you, Australia’s settlers have overwhelmingly come from north-western Europe. And you know what the Brits are like with weather. They want sun at any price. Southern Australia clearly suited them better than the north.

Then there’s the argument about the soil. Well, the soil may not be great in northern Australia but nor is it great anywhere in our ancient and very eroded continent. And despite our poor soils in the south, we’ve made a good fist of agriculture, to say the least. It’s hard to believe that tropical agriculture can flourish in South East Asia but we just can’t make it happen in Australia. Well, some bold entrepreneurial farmers have made a go of it.

Which brings me to the next problem: infrastructure. Okay, you can grow tropical crops in northern Australia but you can’t get the produce to market. I guess in the 19th century that was true of the whole country! But it is, in any case, true of the north now and that is why governments, Federal, State and Territory, should look at innovative ways of funding infrastructure in the north.

But before we are able to develop northern Australia we need the leadership to make it a priority. Since there are more votes, apparently, in Rooty Hill than northern Australia, it’s tempting for the political class to ignore the north.

There are a couple of reasons why they are wrong. For a start, the north does have huge economic potential in terms of minerals, gas, agriculture and tourism. If we want Australia to continue to be a growing, evolving and progressive country, we need to use the north more than we do.

Secondly, our obsession with the south-eastern corner of the country has led to significant problems with congestion, infrastructure and the environment – and all that despite the huge size of the country. If our population is to continue to grow, then at least some of that growth should be in the north.

But how to do it? Well, immigration could help. We should be telling potential investors from Asia they will get fast track approvals if they sink money in the north and we’ll let them move there as residents as well. And there may be a case for providing financial incentives to investors in the north. After all, the more they choke up the south-east, the greater the costs to governments of servicing those people.

And there’s one more point. It is a very long way from south-eastern Australia to Asia. That distance makes Australia seem remote from its region. It takes as long to fly from Singapore to Sydney as it does Singapore to Athens. But from northern Australia it’s a hop, step and a jump. Australia’s tyranny of distance will turn into a proximity of opportunity to one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

This debate is a debate we have to have.

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