PRIME Minister Tony Abbott has pledged $1.2 billion in new money for roads and dams and relaxed visa requirements for backpackers and tourists as part of a package announced on Thursday in a bid to unlock the "economic powerhouse" in the north.
China has backed the deal saying its trade arrangement with Australia will facilitate Chinese investment in farms and infrastructure in the region which is attempting to become part of Asia's food bowl.
Despite fears the new money, along with the $5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund, will result in taxpayer money being used to build "white elephant" projects, Mr Abbott said greater economic activity in the top half of Australia would help drive national growth.
"If the north does well, our country does well," Mr Abbott said in Canberra on Thursday. "Northern Australia can grasp its full potential and become an economic powerhouse within our great country. We will drive down the costs of operating in the north for business, making it a more attractive place to invest and work."
Feds play it safe
Although there was a push by some regional MPs to establish a regional tax zone - and a few kooky ideas such as a taxpayer-funded abattoir and re-opening a casino on Christmas Island to attract investment to the region - the federal government has played it safe with the latest plan. At its heart is a bold ambition to increase the population of the northern parts of Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory from one million people now to up to five million people by 2060.
"It is not the Commonwealth government's role to direct, or be the principal financier of, development," the white paper said.
"Business is far better placed to understand the risks and rewards from northern economic development."
Under the 20-year plan, the federal government will allocate $200 million for water storage, including $5 million for a feasibility study into the Nullinga Dam near Cairns and another $5 million for a detailed examination of land-use sustainability for the third stage of the Ord project.
There will be a further $15 million for water resource assessments of the Mitchell River (Queensland), West Kimberley (Western Australia) and the Darwin region.
There was also a $600 million roads package to improve key transport hubs in the far north, $100 million to improve cattle supply chains and almost $40 million to upgrade air-strips and subsidise air services.
Other aspects include a major northern investment forum in Darwin targeted at international investors, $75m for a co-operative research centre on developing northern Australia, $15.3m for tropical health projects and $12.4m for indigenous rangers.
Deputy Prime Minister and Infrastructure Minister Warren Truss said the Coalition would also attempt to cut red tape to encourage businesses to invest in the north. It also wants to accelerate pastoral lease reform to allow farmers to undertake more activities on their properties as well as overhaul native title leases so indigenous people can undertake more business.
There will also be schemes to help attract workers to the regions. Overseas working holiday makers will have their visas extended for one year if they are employed in northern Australia. The three-year multiple entry visa will also be extended to 10 years in a bid to promote tourists, especially from China.
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said he looked forward to working with the federal government to develop an aviation strategy to open up northern Australia to fast-growing Asian markets.
Chinese Vice Minister of Commerce Wang Shouwen said Beijing saw opportunities in Australia's north, primarily in agriculture, food processing and infrastructure.