Top End State of mind

The north's time has come and southerners should butt out if they don't want to genuinely contribute

THE federal government is busy writing a white paper for the development of northern Australia, but it should have started the process by asking whether the Top End should be declared a new State.

Northern Australia - the area north of the Tropic of Capricorn - covers almost half the continent, remains largely undeveloped and sprawls across the top of Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory.

Political decision-makers in Brisbane, Perth and Canberra are a long way from this vast region which receives 60 per cent of Australia's total rainfall, yet has a population of just one million.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and other senior ministers have been talking up the need for major infrastructure development (roads, rail, air and sea ports) and new investment in agriculture, mining and tourism to finally crack open the Top End's enormous potential for growth and exports to the booming Asian region.

Trade Minister Andrew Robb told a forum in Townsville earlier this year that billions of overseas dollars were ready to pour into the Top End. All that was missing was a list of major approved developments in which they could invest.

The summit was organised by the ADC Forum, a not-for-profit leadership group whose membership features the likes of Monash University's Professor Geoff Raby, James Cook University's Professor Sandra Harding, Admiral Chris Barrie (retired), former federal minister Larry Anthony, leading businessman Donald McGauchie, and former NFF president David Crombie.

It has now made a submission on northern development to the federal government. Among the key recommendations is the creation of a Northern Australian Authority with the powers to manage development "in a holistic way and provide the leadership to inspire a great outcome for all Australians".

The authority would no doubt be controlled by Canberra where most politicians, bureaucrats and commentators don't think much beyond the big population areas in the south.

A new State of Northern Australia headquartered in Darwin with the power to make major decisions on water use, building of infrastructure and approval of new developments would provide investor confidence and lay the groundwork for much-needed growth and wealth creation.

Aboriginal people in the north are ready to be partners in new developments as long as their voices are heard, their culture is respected and they share in the benefits. Not surprisingly, they are sick of living in poverty.

Included on the ADC Forum's wishlist for the north is a new mega city on the shores of Lake Argyle in the Kimberleys, where water certainly wouldn't be a problem, and a port for exporting produce without the need for ships to pass through the highly sensitive Great Barrier Reef.

The Kimberley features arguably the most enchanting landscape in Australia but most of its visitors are grey nomads from the south who migrate to the region in winter to lap up the warm sunshine in caravan parks or bush camps. Most don't spend much money at local restaurants, shops and tourist attractions.

The Top End needs its own government with one set of rules for development across the region and decision-makers on the ground who have the local knowledge, passion and commitment to drive sustainable growth and innovation.

The north's time has come and southerners should butt out if they don't want to genuinely contribute.

Vernon Graham

Vernon Graham

is the group editor of Fairfax Agricultural Media
A matter of opinionA selection of editorials from around the Fairfax Agricultural Media group covering the issues of the week.


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