Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has indicated he is ready for the Asian Century. If he wins in the federal poll this coming September, his coalition government will map out plans to fast-track the development of Australia’s northern regions- from Cairns in Queensland to Broome in Western Australia. This will lay the groundwork for linking Australia’s tropics to Asia. It will be Abbott’s priority in his first 12 months in office.
The Coalition’s 2030 Vision for Developing Northern Australia, which was released Friday, highlights his plans. Topping the list is to develop the long-standing dream of many free-market economists and politicians to transform Northern Australia into a food bowl which will feed not only Australians, but also neighbouring Asians.
Abbott said the coalition wants to “capitalise on Northern Australia’s existing strengths and natural advantages in agriculture”—along with energy development, tourism opportunities, education and health services. Noting the economic forecast in the region, he said:
With Asia’s real GDP expected to grow from US$27 trillion to US$67 trillion by 2030 and Northern Australia’s proximity to the tropical region, Northern Australia is well placed to capitalise on the significant economic, strategic and environmental macro-trends that will shape both the Asian and tropical regions.
The food bowl mega-dream will include premium produce which could help to double Australia’s agricultural output.
The resurrected food bowl plan, however, received criticism from environmental groups.
The Wilderness Society (WS), for one, says that similar projects in the past have failed. It said that while billion of dollars have been ploughed into large-scale irrigation projects, they were all doomed. Examples are the Humpty Doo in the Northern Territory and the Ord and Camballin in Western Australia.
The Society notes the Ord, the poster child of the northern food bowl, has “been a monumental flop.” It also said that in 2010, rice failed 12 months after being reintroduced in the Ord while the cotton industry collapsed after 12 years.
In 2007, former Samsung subsidiary Cheil Jedang shut down its unprofitable sugar mill. The Ord has now been given to a Chinese hotel developer for a “pittance in the vain hope he can succeed in the sugar business where the Korean food giant failed.”
Almost half the Ord is now planted with sandalwood for incense and perfume ‑ hardly useful for feeding Asia.
The Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce (NALWT) earlier released a sustainability report that finds no scientific evidence to support a food bowl vision for the north. The landscape is limited by poor soils, water availability and harsh climatic conditions.
The WS said recent research by the Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge group (TRaCK) at Charles Darwin University has backed up previous substantial analysis showing the case for a sustainable northern food bowl does not exist.
Northern Australia is a graveyard for failed agricultural projects. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the northern Australia food bowl fantasy.
Rob Law from Melbourne University earlier wrote in The Conversation that the nation’s psyche has been obsessed with the vision for Northern Australia’s food bowl. He notes it never left the minds of southern developers and politicians as well as other “visionaries.”
The vast scope of northern land covers the vast and intact savanna ecosystems across northern Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland.
The Institute of Public Affairs, a free-market economy think-tank, highlights “the north remains underdeveloped and it is fantastic that the Coalition is looking to unleash its potential.”
Law predicted that if a coalition government wins in the 2013 election, “it is likely a new battle will be played out on familiar ground.”
National Director of the Wilderness Society Lyndon Schneiders said Northern Australia needs new infrastructure and sustainable development opportunities but the north will never be the food bowl of the world, Asia or even Australia. He adds:
“This is bad policy, written with purely political objectives and dressed up as vision, with no costings and no hard commitments. The main point of this policy announcement seems to be currying favour with Australia’s richest person, Gina Reinhart, and to stem vote leak in northern Australia to the Katter Party and Clive Palmer’s United Party.”
Schneiders suggests that rather than pursuing the “northern myth,” the coalition should be looking at ways to increase support and productivity for sustainable agriculture in southern Australia.
The Society welcomes proposals to increase investment in tourism but questions how destroying the north’s greatest asset, its extraordinary wilderness environments, to make farmland, is compatible with realising its tourism potential, including recreational tourism such as fishing.