Learning from the mistakes of the south in the northern development push
Disagreements between interests groups on northern development strategies and lack of local buy-in are the biggest risks to the government’s northern agenda.
A diversity of views will be essential to progressing the northern development agenda.
The presence of sceptics about development in the debate is critical for generating a productive discussion about the opportunities and challenges of large-scale development.
Like the Murray-Darling Basin and Tasmanian Forests, northern Australian development is fundamentally a discussion about how to best manage Australia’s abundant and unique environmental resources.
For any northern development agenda to succeed, disagreements between industry, environment, community and Indigenous groups about what should be developed and how in northern Australia must be resolved.
Left unresolved, these disagreements will likely tear any future plan apart, before the hot weather and long distances even get a chance to make things hard.
This is also one area where national political and policy leadership can have a big impact.
Reasons to fight
There are some serious reasons why different interests in the northern debate will be up for a fight if the new vision is seen as favouring particular points of view.
With the Great Barrier Reef, vast tropical savannah and world heritage rainforest, the north is home to many of our most unique and precious environments.
Environment Centre NT is seeking a science-based network of marine parks, stronger action to cut sewage and port pollution, and a ban on seabed mining. It is also actively opposing the granting of new water licences in the Daly River and is concerned about the pressure of future agricultural development.
But, sustainable access to natural resources is essential for the mining, agricultural and tourism industries to develop.
According to the Minerals Council of Australia around 43 per cent of Northern Australia is considered to offer prospects for minerals exploration. Already, almost half of Australia’s mineral projects at an exploration stage (734) are located in northern Australia.
The Etheridge Integrated Agricultural Project is seeking to develop 50,000ha of irrigated cropping land. This project alone would expand the area of irrigated land in the north by 32 per cent.
Two massive new resort developments are vying for the next phase of tourism development in Cairns.
Indigenous people have lived on land in the north for thousands of years and are fighting to get it back. At a national level, 443 applications for native title remained unresolved at the end of 2011. Current maps provided by the Native Title Tribunal indicate that, as of March 2014, more than half of the claims in northern Australia are as yet unresolved.
The Cape York Institute is now seeking resource assessments to identify development opportunities on indigenous land. The Northern Land Council has withdrawn its nomination of Muckaty Station as a potential site for a nuclear waste dump due to disagreements amongst claimants.
Larger towns and cities will also need space and resources to grow.
Karratha in Western Australia is seeking to become a city of 50,000 people but does not yet have secure access to the land or water this population would demand.
Each group of interests has significant aspirations for the north, but not all of these aspirations can co-exist.
The foundations for serious, on-going conflict are in place.
Engaging in national reforms with this level of conflict potential is not new for Australia.
There are two examples from the south in particular that leaders of the northern development agenda should take note of in developing their plans.
Firstly the Murray-Darling basin planning process.
Led by government using standard stakeholder engagement processes, a draft plan was developed to reflect what legislation is required but without community buy-in. The public burning of the plan at subsequent community consultations spelled the end of that initial vision of change. While we have grinded to an outcome of sorts, the process has never really recovered and the vision of change is still far from being achieved or owned by the people of the Murray-Darling.
The second is the most recent Tasmanian Forests Agreement.
Led not by government, but by key interests on both sides of the forestry issue, this process brokered a landmark deal. But bipartisan political support has proved elusive. The election of the new government in Tasmania with an agenda against the agreement and the strong backing of people in regional communities has cruelled what looked to be a landmark solution.
While neither of these examples provide the template for northern development, they have fundamentally shifted the ground. Old-style development or conservation agendas that bulldoze over other interests are not viable. Active resolution of issues between opposing interests must now be at the heart of big development or conservation agendas in Australia.
The other key lesson from both of these experiences has been the failure to bring local communities along with the process.
Compromise solutions that are negotiated behind closed doors and then announced lack the legitimacy to stick. They are vulnerable to the mobilisation of communities against them. The north, which has always felt itself captive to the interests and agendas of the south, is a place where local community dissent could readily stifle both the development and conservation momentums.
But, if these processes in the Murray-Darling and Tasmania had brought in local communities more effectively from the start, then we may be talking about some landmark changes in these regions and looking forward to the environmental, economic and social benefits to come.
Reasons to talk
Reconciling diverse interests and developing a broadly shared narrative for the future should be the foundation of this next northern development agenda.
Fortunately there are many reasons for different interests in northern Australia to talk.
Currently, everyone involved in northern Australia lacks certainty about the future. No northern development agenda has had the outcomes we hoped for in the past. We must do something new and move beyond the hyperbole of polemic positions if we are to get a better result.
The opportunity to extend formal conservation so that more of the savannah is protected, so Indigenous people can control the development of their land and so industry can access new resources is equally uncertain. New development processes and initiatives could help resolve this.
The aim of Commonwealth government processes should be to build certainty and the foundations of lasting agreement about the future.
The Murray Darling experience tells us that the standard government approaches to these issues will not work on their own. The Tasmanian experience tells us that agreements between key interest groups can be made but are not enough to resolve issues in the long term without bipartisan support.
The northern development agenda offers a third time lucky opportunity to get a new model on the table. It’s time for the north to step up and lead the south on this one.
Download a copy of the RAI’s report on Northern Australia, Rethinking the future of northern Australia: More than mines, dams and development dreams here.