We need a smarter debate on developing northern Australia

Northern futures, northern voices: It seems everyone has ideas about how Australia’s north could be better, but most of those ideas come from the south. In this six-part weekly series, developed by the Northern Research Futures Collaborative Research Network and The Conversation, northern researchers lay out their own plans for a feasible, sustainable future.

The Coalition’s 2030 Vision for Developing Northern Australia invokes romantic notions of Australia’s pioneering past, describing the north as no longer the “last frontier” but the “next frontier”.

Calls for a northern food bowl to double Australia’s food production appear to resonate with both major parties. And both seem sympathetic to new irrigation schemes fed from dams and groundwater pumping.

Labor is already investing in a A$10M North Queensland Irrigated Agriculture Strategy in the Flinders and Gilbert River catchments of the Gulf of Carpentaria. The Queensland Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry wants to support investment and overcome technical barriers to production.

AACo (Australia’s largest agriculture company) has a licence in the Flinders River but claims that it won’t be planting on its properties until further water is released. Cotton Australia sees room for industry expansion on the Flinders, assuming improved transport infrastructure and eventually a cotton gin. Integrated Food Energy Development has options over land to grow 50,000 hectares of sugar cane in the existing Gilbert River Farming District.

The Queensland Government announced in July 2012 a release of 80,000 and 15,000 megalitres of water reserved for new irrigation developments in the Flinders and Gilbert Catchments respectively. In May 2013 the Minister for Natural Resources and Mines announced the successful tenderers, and indicated that no further water releases will be undertaken until a CSIRO assessment is completed this December.

Irrigation promises a lot, but is yet to deliver in the north

These developments could be seen as a resurfacing of the “northern myth” — a term coined by agricultural economist Bruce Davidson in his seminal (and much ignored) 1965 book “The Northern Myth: a study of the physical and economic limits to agricultural and pastoral development in tropical Australia.”


Tom Rayner

Davidson was writing about the Ord Irrigation Scheme, the biggest irrigation project in northern Australia. His scepticism was well founded.

Fifty years on, after more than a billion taxpayer dollars and enormous volumes of subsidised water, more than 60 crops have been tried, but large-scale profitable sustainable irrigation industries have failed to persist in the Ord. Sandalwood may in time prove to be a winner, but you can’t eat it. Neither WA nor the Commonwealth appears to want a rigorous, independent benefit-cost analysis of the scheme.

The Northern Australia Land and Water Task Force delivered its final report in 2009. It was the latest of many studies since 1912 to document the formidable climatic, physical and economic constraints in northern Australia to conventional irrigated agriculture, concerns echoed more recently in The Conversation here and here.

The CSIRO Northern Australian Irrigation Futures project concluded that a patchwork mosaic of smaller-scale irrigation based on groundwater, in areas with better soils and transport options, possibly integrated with the pastoral industry for fattening cattle and other livestock, would be a brighter prospect than large dams.

Australia has been running down its irrigation research effort, and will need a substantial re-investment in irrigation science, tailored to tropical conditions, if we are to avoid more expensive mistakes at the expense of taxpayers and the environment.

The environmental, social and cultural impacts of a network of dams and irrigation schemes across one of the world’s largest regions of free-flowing rivers would be significant. Managing these impacts would be difficult in a region where Indigenous interests are deep and enduring. Recent research by JCU and CDU colleagues suggests that existing models of irrigated agriculture are likely to deliver net disbenefits for Indigenous communities.

Studies in the Mitchell River catchment revealed “a profound and asymmetric disconnect” between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous economies – meaning that increasing the incomes of Indigenous people raises the incomes of non-Indigenous people, but not vice-versa. Hopes for “trickle down” benefits from agricultural development to Indigenous communities are likely to be misplaced.

Northern development is about much more than dams

However the Coalition’s 2030 Vision for Developing Northern Australia cannot be dismissed as just a yearning for big irrigation schemes. Looking past the media grabs and the political talking points, there are other worthy elements to this proposal.

Firstly, the idea of a White Paper on northern development should be welcomed, especially if the process provides genuine opportunities for dialogue and input from the people of the north, as suggested previously in this series by Allan Dale.

It’s also sensible to explore opportunities in defence, tourism, infrastructure, energy, education and services, and to invest in a sustained way in the relationships with our neighbours that will be critical if Australia is to prosper in the Asian Century.

Obviously as researchers based in the north, we think the Coalition’s plan for a Cooperative Research Centre has merit in principle. But flagging such an initiative at this stage appears to pre-empt the normally rigorous and highly competitive CRC selection process.


Tom Rayner

Such a CRC would need to focus on building science and planning capacity in the north — especially the collaborations and capabilities necessary to look in an integrated way at these big development questions.

For example, the natural and cultural values of the north are central to its enduring attraction for tourists, but those values would potentially be threatened by ill-conceived or poorly implemented development. Yes, we need much better infrastructure, but we also need to ensure that we retain significant areas with traditional “outback” qualities.

Measures that change river flows (such as dams or bores) will affect freshwater and marine fishing, both recreational and commercial. Movements of skilled labour to particular industry sectors can undermine other sectors, and so on.

There seems to be a nagging fear in southern Australia that if we don’t do more with the north, someone else will. Here in the Top End, we see ourselves as southerners in Asia — looking north to opportunity — as well as northerners in Australia, looking south for examples of what not to do in over-allocating water resources and expanding irrigation on unsuitable lands.

We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Northern Australia is a very special part of the world, with amazing heritage and values. Yes, there is enormous scope for development, but irrigated agriculture is likely to be at best a modest contributor. Bruce Davidson has yet to be rebutted convincingly.

If development is grounded in careful and respectful consultation and engagement with the people of the north, informed by good science done in the north, focused on natural competitive advantage, and subject to rigorous benefit-cost analysis, then we may yet transcend the northern myth.

Part one: Northern Australia should have a say in its own future.

Andrew Campbell is the Director of CDU’s Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods which is funded from a range of government and industry sources including Cooperative Research Centres, and would potentially benefit from any increase in science investment in northern Australia.

Jim Turnour is a researcher within The Cairns Institute, James Cook University leading a project funded by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. He is undertaking post graduate studies through James Cook University within the Collaborative Research Network. He was the Member for Leichhardt in the Australian Parliament between 2007 and 2010.

The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

By Andrew Campbell, Charles Darwin University and Jim Turnour, James Cook University

northern Australia and development in remote Australia will be discussed at www.regionaldevelopment.org.au

Northern Australia should have a say in its own future

By Allan Dale, James Cook University

Northern futures, northern voices: It seems everyone has ideas about how Australia’s north could be better, but most of those ideas come from the south. In this six-part weekly series, developed by the Northern Research Futures Collaborative Research Network and The Conversation, northern researchers lay out their own plans for a feasible, sustainable future.

Recently, Australia’s north has featured front-and-centre in national debates about the country’s future; the election campaign will likely see more claims about what the north can do for the country.

Some cast it as the frontier saviour, a source of bold new resource and agricultural developments both real and imagined. Others dream of securing the north’s expansive landscapes as iconic wilderness.

Northern policy has long been a source of conflict. Debates have raged about the success or otherwise of government interventions in indigenous communities. Quick-draw policy responses on complex issues like the live cattle trade have devastated many communities. Additionally, media images of coast-bound refugees keep the north’s strategic importance centre-stage, raising unresolved tensions about our Asian-Pacific relationships.

Those debates are often crafted by, and for, a southern audience. In my view, we will continue to repeat the mistakes of the past until we rethink governance of northern Australia. Governance is not sexy, but it’s fundamental to making things happen. As a regional water official at a Mekong Basin workshop in northern Thailand recently stated, governance is “how society shares power, benefit and risk”.

The north needs a say too

In the 1930s, Australian treasurer Ted Theodore was calling for northern separatism; few suggest that now. But many in the north would argue there are major flaws in the south’s contribution to our governance and that major policy decisions are often made in the interest of a southern electorate.

The north is different to the south in many ways. It has a low population and institutional capacity. Land tenure is largely public rather than private. It is primarily an indigenous domain. It has enormous mineral and soil wealth, but resource limitations and a vastly different climate. Much of it is closer to populous Asia-Pacific capitals than to Perth, Brisbane or Canberra.

Northerners don’t want separatism, but they do want a genuine dialogue between northern and southern Australia; one focused on how the nation as a whole might secure better northern governance. Australian and state and territory governments should negotiate big policy decisions in the north and manage government policy and programs in radically different ways.

This could emerge through a stronger northern Australian policy and delivery architecture integrated into COAG.

But to work, this kind of architecture must be powerfully engaged with a cohesive and strong pan-tropical alliance of northern Australia’s sectoral interests. It would have to include traditional owners, local government, industry, human service and conservation. Such an approach must also be independently informed by the north’s research institutions.

Problems that need attention

There are land use and tenure conflicts across the north (the dispute over what to do with Cape York is just one example), and we need innovation to solve them. This requires a long-term, cohesive and regionally driven approach to land use and infrastructure planning.

We also need a more consistent approach to negotiating major project development, to build the long-term foundations for regional community development.

Alongside this, we have an opportunity to create a northern-specific ecosystem services economy – an economy that benefits from conservation. We could deliver land owners real economic benefit for managing extensive landscapes better.

Despite the Intervention, the fundamental (top down) model of both local government and indigenous community development has not changed much in 30 years. These approaches disempower and deliver stop-start progress. Fragmented, welfare-oriented, inflexible and annualised government programs simply do not build lasting human capacity.

Finally, to shift the whole economy from an historically boom-bust cycle, the nation must build a tropical knowledge economy. This could underpin productivity in existing industries (minerals, energy, agriculture, fishing, tourism) and help us think about export opportunities right across the globe’s tropical latitudes. This will rely on Australia investing in tropical knowledge development (such as tropical health, agriculture, environmental and disaster management, design and energy) within the north, brokered into the wider tropical region through long term partnerships, trade and innovation clusters and foreign investment.

A smart north is good for all Australians

A progressive and productive northern Australia, with a strong identity and great lifestyle, tightly integrated with its Asia-Pacific neighbours, should attract a diversity of people (with a wide skills base) interested in playing a strategic role in the Asian Century.

We can transform our reputation from the wild frontier on the northern margin of a vast empty continent, to a naturally blessed region providing high-value knowledge-based services in the south of a dynamic, rapidly growing region of 500 million people.

This is indeed about how society shares power, benefit and risk.

If we don’t get the governance right, we run big risks: we’ll entrench a boom/bust economy, whole regions of multi-generational disadvantage and degradation of the nation’s cultural and environmental jewels.

If we can more equitably share power and benefit across the north, we can capture opportunities that may hold the keys to the whole nation’s future.

Allan Dale receives funding for a day a week under the Northern Futures Collaborative Research Network. He is Chair of Regional Development Australia Far North Queensland and Torres Strait.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

RDA ConferenceAustralian Regional Development Conference

15-16 October 2014, The Commercial Club Albury
Secretariat (T) 61 7 5502 2068 (F) 07 5527 3298
Email: secretariat@regionaldevelopment.org.au URL: www.regionaldevelopment.org.au

Regional Aviation and Aiports: opportunities and challenges

Regional aviation and regional airports, have their own challenges and opportunities, how is this impacting on regional development in your area? Regional Aviation has a long history and is celebrated in country towns in memorials and museums.

Airtravel has always been seen as a necessity in such a large country of Australia. Aviation pioneers  like Bert Hinkler, born in Bundaberg and recognised in the Australian Aviation Hall of Fame in Wagga Wagga started the regional aviation tradition. Bert Hinkler designed and built early aircraft before being the first person to fly solo from England to Australia, and sadly dying in Italy during a solo flight on another record setting voyage.

Australia’s only working model of the Wright A Model Flyer, stored at Narromine’s aviation museum. The Narromine Council has finalised its commitment to the expansion of a local aviation museum. Read More

Air passenger travel has become safer and more affordable and growing. There are over 55 million domestic flights in Australia and growing each year (Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics report).

The challenges facing regional aviation and airports is extensive: retaining skilled aviation staff; funding for refurbishment; regional airline profitability; access to major airports;  regional airport security; airplane replacement funding; risk and safety; airport noise; environmental and carbon tax; red tape. The list goes on….

There has been some progress. Some airports like Dubbo are receiving funding, like $40 million towards airport security upgrades. There are incentives for training for aviation, under the Australian Apprenticeships Incentives program, rural and regional employers who take on an apprentice in an area on the National Skills Needs List may be eligible for a payment of $1000. Also Rex regional airlines has highest profit of any Australian airline in the last financial year.

There have been some in-roads into improving regional airports and aviation. But is this progress enough for regional Australia to support sustainable growth that is required for Australia’s future. Are regional Australia getting a fair deal in term of access to affordable flights?

How are regional airlines and airports representing both a challenges and an opportunity for regional development. What are the Commonwealth plans for funding regional airports?

Australian Regional Development Conference will feature keynote presentations on infrastructure and transport.

Call for papers – do you want to speak on regional aviation and regional airports at this conference?

Authors or organisations interested in submitting a paper or presenting a workshop are invited to submit an abstract of no more than 300 words outlining the aims, contents and conclusions of their paper or presentation; or about their intended role in a workshop.

Albury Airport, Regional Aviation

Albury Airport, Regional Aviation

Come and join us at the Albury conference. Albury Airport is owned and operated by AlburyCity and is located just 5km from the Albury business district. It’s the third busiest airport in Regional NSW, with more than 300,000 passengers passing through the terminal each year and over 200 flights a week in and out of the city. Rex, Virgin and Qantas operate direct flights from Sydney and Rex also flys directly from Melbourne.

 

Australian Regional Development Conference

15-16 October 2014, The Commercial Club Albury Secretariat: (T) 61 7 5502 2068 (F) 07 5527 3298 Email: secretariat@regionaldevelopment.org.au URL: www.regionaldevelopment.org.au

 

Do you see what I see? Rural land use

Rural land use planners and policy-makers often face claims and counter claims regarding the impacts of land use change. For example, some residents claim wind turbines have crippling health impacts, while others see only a community asset and environmental gain. Some people suggest plantations decimate rural communities, while others see them as harmless and “just another crop”. How do we go about identifying the true impacts in these situations?

Our recently published study sought to untangle social change and impact in the context of complex land use shifts occurring in southwest Victoria and southeast South Australia. We focused on increases in cropping, dairying, grazing and plantations that occurred between 1991 and 2006, and examined the impact of these changes on rural population and employment. Where many changes occur at once in a region, sorting out the impacts of any one land-use change is not a simple matter.

We used independent data from a range of sources to understand what kinds of social changes were associated with increases in these land uses. We explored whether changes resulted in fewer people living in an area, or an ageing population, or changes in the percentage of the adult population in full-time employment.

We used interviews and surveys to understand how people living in the region viewed and experienced these changes. For example, we asked whether they believed increased plantations or cropping had a negative impact on population, and what any changes meant for them and their neighbours.

A comparison of independently observed social changes with impacts reported by residents revealed some surprising patterns. Increased cropping was the largest and most widespread change in land use across this region, yet very few residents were aware of this change.

Where cropping had increased, analysis of independent data showed it was almost always linked to negative social changes including an ageing population and fewer jobs available. Despite this, the majority of residents did not report experiencing negative impacts of increased cropping.

This contrasted sharply with patterns related to increased plantations. Plantation forestry in rural areas has received a great deal of media attention over the past two decades and the majority of residents were well aware of increases in this land use.

Social changes associated with increased plantations depend somewhat on the previous land use. Where the land was previously used for dairying, analysis of independent data suggested that a shift to plantations was linked to decreased population and employment. However, the more common shift from grazing to plantation was not always linked to population loss or decreased employment.

In some districts outcomes were relatively positive, in some negative, and in others there was little change at all. Despite this, the most common perception was that plantations have negative social impacts, decreasing the number of residents and the jobs available in these communities.

The conflict between actual and perceived changes makes more sense when viewed in the light of another finding. Independent data revealed that increased plantations were consistently linked with higher levels of population turnover. In other words, where plantations increased, it was more likely that former residents would move out of district and new residents move in. This pattern of change fits with a common practice in which whole farms were sold and redeveloped by plantation companies, with farm houses leased or sold to new owners.

When people described the impact of population-loss attributed to plantations, this undoubtedly reflected very real loss of longstanding friends, family and neighbours. Where new residents moved into the area, they could not simply replace the vital social networks within this community.

The impacts of these population changes are real and important. Land-use planners and policy-makers have a responsibility to consider how land-use change can be planned to minimise negative effects for rural communities.

This work reveals some of the complexities of both understanding and addressing impacts of rural land-use change. It suggests that people are not always aware of land-use changes. It also shows that perceived social change and impact are not always consistent with independently available evidence regarding that change.

Where a land use is less visible, we may be unaware of quite significant social changes. On the other hand, we may sometimes incorrectly attribute impacts to more visible land-use changes.

The research suggests that what we might think of as the “real” impacts of land-use change – the points at which independent evidence and experience agree – are not necessarily those we most commonly hear in public forums or media reports.

If land-use planners are to adequately address public concern about land-use change, they must understand both the change and the experienced impact of that change, and dig below the surface to understand the nature of that experience.

Kathryn Williams was a key researcher in the CRC Forestry. The following organisations contributed cash and/or in-kind funding to the project (in alphabetical order): Central Victorian Farm Plantations, Cooperative Research Centre for Forestry, Corangamite Catchment Management Authority, Forest and Wood Products Australia, Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority, Glenelg Shire Council, Green Triangle Regional Plantation Committee, Moyne Shire Council, Southern Grampians Shire Council, Victorian Government Department of Primary Industries, and Wattle Range Council.

Jacki Schirmer receives funding from the Cooperative Research Centre for Forestry.

The ConversationBy Kathryn Williams, University of Melbourne and Jacki Schirmer, University of Canberra

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Rural Land use plans

RDA ConferenceAustralian Regional Development Conference

15-16 October 2014, The Commercial Club Albury
Secretariat (T) 61 7 5502 2068 (F) 07 5527 3298
Email: secretariat@regionaldevelopment.org.au URL: www.regionaldevelopment.org.au

Seachange and sustainable growth

Seachange is an Australian demographic phenomenon, where people are moving from capital cities to rural coastal communities.  The rate of growth in rural coastal areas is 60% higher than the national average. The growth of population and coastal tourism is raising the question about what is the level of sustainable growth.

In response to the influx of tourists and new residents to their jurisdictions, coastal councils from around Australia formed the National Sea Change Taskforce.

According to the councils, Almost six million people live in Australian coastal areas outside Australia’s capital cities. The rate of growth in these areas is more than 60% higher than the national average and is gathering momentum. Councils in high growth coastal areas are under pressure for infrastructure, roads, water and sewerage and adequate services, such as public transport, health care, emergency services and education facilities.

Would like to speak at conference on planning, population, coastal environment and sustainable growth?

Australian Regional Development Conference  will be held in Albury NSW on the 15 – 16 October 2014 with a focus on the broad issues of economic, planning, environment and community development.

Sustainable development in coastal Australia

Sustainable development in coastal Australia

Call for papers – coastal planning, environment, demographic trends and sustainability

Authors or organisations interested in submitting a paper or presenting a workshop are invited to submit an abstract of no more than 300 words outlining the aims, contents and conclusions of their paper or presentation; or about their intended role in a workshop.

RDA ConferenceAustralian Regional Development Conference
15-16 October 2014, The Commercial Club Albury Secretariat: (T) 61 7 5502 2068 (F) 07 5527 3298 Email: secretariat@regionaldevelopment.org.au URL: www.regionaldevelopment.org.au