I recently attended the ‘Developing Northern Australia’ Conference in Darwin which brought together people from government, industry, community groups and investors to discuss the issues and opportunities for development of Northern Australia. It was one of the most engaging and interesting conferences I’ve been to for awhile and it was great to meet such a wide variety of people.
Geographically Northern Australia is positioned at the centre for global growth over the coming decades with 40% of the world’s population (and 60% of children) expected to be living the in tropics by 2030. While growth in China may have slowed from its astronomical levels the sheer size of population and desire for higher living standards means that it is still a source of major economic growth and demand.
Former Victorian Premier and now national chair of the Australia-China Business Council, John Brumby noted that growth in China is equal to a new economy the size of New Zealand appearing every 90 to 100 days. An example of the impact of this growth is seen in the advent of ‘Singles Day’. Couples get Valentines Day, parents get Mothers/Fathers Day, seeing a gap Chinese retailers decided there should be a day in which singles get to celebrate by buying themselves a present. In the first year over $15.6 BILLION worth of sales were generated by this event. Not a bad day by any standards J.
The key challenges which emerged from the discussions included the need for greater engagement with Aboriginal people and women and efficient targeting of funding to a variety of projects at different scales.
Aboriginal people control 40% of the land in Northern Australia and account for 60% of the population yet many feel that they were not properly consulted in the development of the North Australia White Paper. Peter Yu from the Nyamba Buru Yawuru Aboriginal Corporation spoke of his concern that the White Paper was still stuck in a paradigm of extracting natural resources from remote areas to support southern development while ignoring the need for land tenure reform and structural issues which restrict indigenous development.
From my recent experiences working in indigenous communities and with indigenous pastoral stations I agree with Peter that a much more serious conversation needs to happen. I certainly don’t have all the answers but tip toeing around issues such as education levels, health and economic opportunities does not help and it would appear that some of the major barriers come from the very institutions and structures which have been established with the intention of supporting indigenous culture and development.
The need for greater engagement with women was also highlighted at the end of the conference when I noted that despite a fair representation of women amongst the speakers and delegates there was not a single female session chair. A fact that was not lost on other delegates.
On a positive note there were many presentations about opportunities for new agricultural industries including coffee, tropical wheat, soy, rice, seafood and ethanol to support US Defence renewable energy targets. It did appear to me that there was a slightly negative view towards further growth in the pastoral industry, at least from the non-ag attendees who saw more opportunities in carbon offsets and conservation. Perhaps this is a good message for the pastoral industry to review not only our place in the economy and how we can contribute to growth but also how that story is communicated to others.
Other recommendations from the conference included the development of a ‘Northern Australia Energy Strategy’ to align with the White Paper, the need for much improved telecommunications infrastructure and the need to integrate tourism opportunities and challenges into every facet of the development discussion.
One final point I picked up and support is the need to ensure we don’t develop an ‘us and them’ mentality with southern Australia. Rather northern Australian needs to demonstrate to our southern friends the opportunities for them in engaging with the north.