AFTER more than a year in the making, the Northern Development White Paper was unveiled this week, promising to "unlock" the potential of Australia's under-utilised north.
It has already been both lauded and lambasted, and it is with some trepidation that I wade into the commentary. There is no doubt that the immediate response should applaud the considerable allocation of resources to the region in a document that certainly has merit on a range of issues and economic levels.
“The Paper does demonstrate recognition of the importance of the agricultural sector to the economic prosperity of the nation ...”
There is no doubt that the North remains underdeveloped and I certainly don’t begrudge them the opportunity to benefit from increased investment.
Initially I was also pleased that the Paper does demonstrate an apparent recognition of the importance of the agricultural sector to the economic prosperity of the nation. It's encouraging that there was also a recognition of the considerable benefits that could flow out of the social infrastructure following the economic stimulation of the region.
But it is at this stage I start to lose some of the optimism that should naturally flow from the White Paper. As that optimism is eroded by nagging doubt of previous hollow political posturing I feel myself dreading what is likely to happen next.
So I will once again don my black hat and look at the glaring inconsistencies between the Government’s latest announcement and commitment to the north and the rest of the country.
The Government is spruiking the agricultural potential of the north and in particular the opportunity for considerable irrigation development. This is of course true given the fact that we only harvest about 1 per cent of the annual runoff in the north.
However, there are considerable problems in terms of the latent fertility of tropical soils, the comparatively fragile ecosystems, the intensity of weather systems and frequency of extreme weather events.
“Meanwhile, we have shut down Murray-Darling Basin agricultural production (with) a politically driven plan based on highly suspect environmental science ...”
Meanwhile, we have shut down a huge percentage of the Murray-Darling Basin’s agricultural production by implementing a politically driven plan based on highly suspect environmental science that has been repeatedly debunked by credible and evidence based scientific review.
Since its inception, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has cost over $4 billion in lost production and more than 14,000 jobs. I am not even going to guess at the economic loss in the region due to devaluation and destruction of agricultural infrastructure, let alone the losses in the pre- and post-farmgate sectors.
Within the existing agricultural areas south of the line dealt with in the Northern White Paper, there are significant areas of agricultural land that remain underdeveloped. Many are bogged in ridiculous state-based legislation. Indeed the original land clearing restrictions imposed in NSW and Queensland were imposed under GST duress by the Howard Government to meet Kyoto commitments.
“There is a great risk that the hype is intended largely to distract from structural problems in Australian agriculture ...”
There is a great risk that the hype around the Northern Development White Paper is intended largely to distract the broader population away from the existing structural problems in Australian agriculture.
Indeed, it is a worrying circumstance that will see billions of dollars potentially poured into the extension of intensive agriculture without first ensuring that the industries are in fact economically sustainable in the first place.
There is also a great risk that the primary beneficiaries of northern development will be corporate entities, generally foreign-owned, who have patient funds and do not carry the kind of mortgage default risk that Australian farmers are forced to carry.
These developments may indeed provide some increase in employment, which would be welcome. However, the majority of the profit and wealth that should belong to future Australians will be shipped offshore.
Meanwhile the existing farmers below the 'line' remain in limbo. Producers who have experienced three - and in some cases four - seasons of unmanageable weather conditions are deemed not worth saving in this document.
Beyond the glaring hypocrisy, the reality is that the White Paper now needs broad and enduring support to ensure the ambitious targets can be met.
This means enduring political commitment no only between sides of government, but also between all levels of government. Similarly it will require cross-sectoral support and commitment from and for all stakeholders, especially indigenous stakeholders. On current records this kind of accord seems highly unlikely.
“My nagging doubt is that this document is more about being seen to do something, than it is about actually doing something ...”
My nagging doubt is that this document is - yet again - more about being seen to do something, than it is about actually doing something. It will be easy for the petty political blame game to absolve the Government from any real responsibility when the on-ground targets fall short.
Overall I remain torn about the Northern White Paper. I am unsure if we should judge it on face value and see it as an omen of change, or if we should look at the glaring hypocrisy between its rationale and espoused objectives and comparative political disdain afforded to the existing agricultural sector.
Sadly, my instinct and experience tell me not to trust the political system to be left to its own devices - and my confidence in the politicians who are supposed to be on “our side” remains at rock bottom.