The age of northern Australia

18 Jun, 2015 02:00 AM
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Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss. Photo: Graham Tidy
People have been talking about it for generations in the sense that it’s our last frontier
Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss. Photo: Graham Tidy

THE Abbott government’s Northern Development White Paper will outline a plan and funding for a dedicated agricultural research facility to pursue commercially-focused opportunities specific to the region’s needs.

The long-anticipated white paper will be unveiled at launches in Canberra today and in Cairns, Queensland, tomorrow, highlighting significant initiatives aimed at bolstering agricultural productivity, like water and transport infrastructure.

It’s understood the Cairns event will be attended by the document’s key proponents; Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss, Trade Minister Andrew Robb and Queensland LNP MP Warren Entsch.

Northern stakeholders, including those from the agricultural sector, will also attend the event to formalise the unveiling of the key strategic document’s broad-ranging contents.

May’s federal budget included funding for specific measures already announced for the northern white paper and the Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper, including $100 million for beef roads; additional drought support programs; enhanced tax depreciation measures for farmers, and $15.4m to support tropical medicine research.

It’s understood funding for other measures in the two papers was included in the budget’s contingency reserve funding program but specific details will only be released when the policy documents are unveiled.

It’s understood federal cabinet signed off on the northern white paper at Monday night’s meeting, which was considered a formality, after the paper recently passing the Abbott government’s expenditure review committee.

Reports have suggested the total spending program could be in the vicinity of $1.7 to $2 billion, significantly overshadowing Labor’s proposed vision for the farm sector during its last term in government.

The Commonwealth’s agricultural portfolio identified $30.9m in budget savings over four years in the recent budget, by cutting uncommitted funding for initiatives linked to the former Labor government’s National Food Plan.

Under Truss' watch

Mr Truss is also Infrastructure and Regional Development Minister in the Abbott government and will be responsible for overseeing the northern paper’s implementation.

He told Fairfax Media a $75m northern Australia co-operative research centre (CRC) would be announced by the government this week, which was good news for the farm sector.

He said the new CRC would partner with the private and public sector, to concentrate on agriculture and food and tropical health specific to the region.

“The tropics account now for 40 per cent of the world’s population and that’ll rise to 50 per cent by 2050,” he said.

“That means that northern Australia is uniquely placed, and the only developed country in the tropics, to be a global leader in areas like agricultural research and tropical agriculture, but also tropical medicine, education, tropical sciences and the like.

“We certainly want the north to be a focus for developing those skills as well.”

Northern agencies wait on news

Former National Farmers' Federation president David Crombie has been leading a bid to develop the northern Australia research centre and said he didn’t know what was due to be unveiled this week by the Abbott government - including the dollar figure - but would be in Cairns for Friday’s launch.

Mr Crombie said a bid team was established 18-months ago comprising representatives from the Northern Territory, Western Austrlaia and Queensland governments, the CSIRO, Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, the University of Queensland, James Cook University, Charles Darwin University and Ernst & Young.

He said the concept was originally named AgNorth but had expanded its focus and changed title to growNorth.

Mr Crombie said the research hub was aimed at attracting investment into agricultural programs linked to scientific data and co-ordinated with infrastructure development to serve the north’s broader needs and improve market outcomes.

“We’ve been encouraged by government to continue developing the program,” he said.

“It was put on hold three months ago for various reasons but we’re now waiting to see what the government announces.”

Science and Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane has told stakeholders that funding for the dedicated northern research facility was included in the recent federal budget.

However, he’s said exact structural details including the CRC’s location or locations, will only be unveiled at the Northern Development White Paper launch.

It’s understood funding will also be bolstered for improving the Office of Northern Australia Development which will have cross-jurisdictional powers between Western Australia, Queensland and the NT governments.

“There will be an Office of Northern Australia Development in Darwin and another in Townsville to help underpin this strategy which will be within my portfolio responsibility,” Mr Truss said.

Creating a Department of Northern Australian Development - based in Northern Australia - was the number one recommendation of the Pivot North report tabled in September last year.

The report was compiled by a cross-parliamentary joint select committee on northern Australia chaired by Mr Entsch.

“The committee believes that the development of northern Australia should remain the responsibility of the first ministers of the respective jurisdictions,” the report said.

“Within this context, the committee is of the view that the complex and demanding task of promoting the development of northern Australia requires the dedicated attention of a minister with their own department to co-ordinate and control government programs relating to northern development across a range of portfolios - in effect a ‘one-stop-shop’.”

Mr Truss said the $5b loan facility announced in the budget, to promote northern Australia infrastructure development, indicated that the northern white paper was a “very serious package, with the potential to leverage very substantial investment in infrastructure and facilities in the north”.

“Hopefully that will provide the necessary impetus to grow the economy,” he said.

Mr Truss said the $100m for beef roads would extend the cattle trading season by having a sealed road network that “touches” more of the industry and enhances its capacity to service abattoirs and export markets.

But he said the northern white paper program would include “substantial investments in roads and other infrastructure”.

“We will be looking for the States to partner with us in those projects because most of the road involved are state or territory roads,” he said.

“That’ll make a real difference to transport capabilities in the region.

Big package for big region

Mr Truss said the northern white paper was a clear sign the Abbott government was serious about agriculture and northern development.

“This is a big package and a clear demonstration of a determination to put in place measures which will help the north achieve its potential,” he said.

“People have been talking about it for generations in the sense that it’s our last frontier, but this is a real action plan to make a difference.”

Mr Truss said the agriculture white paper and the government’s dams white paper were both due for release shortly and would contain spending items and policy commitments that would also benefit the north.

But he said in releasing the northern white paper, the government would be talking about its commitment to water conservation in the region, funding to develop some of the proposed dams proposals and also capital commitment to support projects that are shovel ready, or near to it.

Mr Truss said the northern white paper would include funds to look at the feasibility of infrastructure projects like upgrading the Townsville to Mt Isa rail line and whether the Mt Isa to Tennant Creek line is viable.

“Those kinds of big infrastructure projects we’re interested in and of course the $5 billion financing facility may well enable some of those new facilities, pipelines, power stations etcetera to be built in the north,” he said.

The native title question

Mr Truss said one of the biggest barriers to northern development was land title and security of title.

He said the government wanted to sort out the native title claims within a decade and look at ways to give investors the kind of land title security they’re looking for with freehold or long-term leases.

That approach also applies to Aboriginal communities, he said, to roll-out their townships with similar certainty.

“We certainly need to have business-friendly land tenure arrangements and that kind of background is important,” he said.

“There’s also initiatives into relation to workforce skills, seasonal worker programs and the like.”

Mr Truss said at least half the Abbott government cabinet was engaged in the northern white paper’s implementation as they held responsibilities that linked with its specific programs.

“It has really been a very co-operative and supportive whole of government exercise; there’s a deep commitment to it, led by the Prime Minister,” he said.

“The Treasurer has been demonstrating his support for the north by being a regular visitor.

“He’s also been supportive by putting together a significant amount of money for this project, and of course agriculture and environment and other departments, including my own transport department, are deeply involved in making sure we’ve got the services and infrastructure to make this work.”

It’s understood the Northern Development White Paper will also look at other infrastructure needs, including the adequacy of airport infrastructure, which has the capacity to fly perishable agricultural produce into key export markets for high returns.

Mr Robb said northern Australia had “enormous untapped potential” and made up around half of the nation’s land mass but is only populated by around one million people.

“It’s a region where 60 per cent of water falls, but we capture and use just two per cent of it,” he said.

“It’s also an area that the CSIRO estimates is made up of close to 17 million hectares of arable land that is suitable for a range of purposes, so the opportunities for sustainable growth and expansion are there for the taking.

“The white paper will set out a comprehensive strategic framework to help guide further development, which is good for growth and jobs in our rural and regional communities.”

Northern ag CRC recommendation

Mr Entsch’s committee report also recommended the Australian Government support the creation of a northern agriculture CRC involving all three universities substantially based in the region.

“The committee is of the view that a CRC for northern agriculture would provide a focus point for the research necessary to exploit the enormous potential for agricultural development that exists in Australia’s north, facilitating research on crops, soils, water, climate and potential innovation - whether in new industries or in promoting new varieties and practices in existing industries,” it said.

“The CRC would focus on products for export to the growing Asian market, promote coherent agricultural development across the north, and support the development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, allowing them to develop their land resources for economic gain.”

Funding for enhanced biosecurity controls and border surveillance and protection measures are also set to be revealed when the northern white paper is released.

FarmOnline
Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Date: Newest first | Oldest first

READER COMMENTS

Qlander
18/06/2015 7:32:51 AM

Step one - Forget about everything else for the moment, and put another zero on the road spending.
Hilda Hereford
18/06/2015 11:15:57 AM

In view that government owns most of the land in northern Australia, it is right that they fund all this because private enterprise would be stupid to develop someone else's property when the land they farm is government leasehold and can be reclaimed along with any developments in the longer term by the government.
John Hine
28/06/2015 6:12:34 PM

What isnt mentioned is how to cope with the insects, birds and mammals (wallabies etc) that memory tells me was the killer with previous attempts. 'Traditional' crops may not work (sandalwood is now the main crop for the Ord) and this may well be an area for big players, leaving little room for Australian farmers unless they get much better organised.

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