The Australian Government's primary agenda for Northern Australia was outlined in the 2015 Our North, Our Future White Paper on Developing Northern Australia (the White Paper), launched by then Prime Minister the Hon. Tony Abbott MP. The White Paper provides the government's long-term vision for the economic and social development of Northern Australia, with a view to significant developments occurring in the north by 2035. This chapter considers the effectiveness of the White Paper agenda, with a view to identifying actual outcomes and areas for improvement. Many areas in the Northern Australia agenda that are considered briefly in this chapter are also considered in more detail elsewhere in this report, but are discussed here in order to provide an overview of whether improvements in the north have yet been realised.
The Our North Our Future White Paper on Developing Northern Australia
The White Paper outlined an ambitious vision for Northern Australia, stating that 'the Commonwealth Government is putting in place the right policies, at the right time, to unlock the north's vast potential'. It further stated:
With the right policies, success in the north will mean that within a few generations we can expect that there will be a sharp increase in the scale and breadth of activity in each of these industry sectors. The north will be an exemplar of sustainable development.
The White Paper sought to address challenges to development in Northern Australia by:
making it easier to use natural assets, in close consultation with, and the support of, First Nations communities;
providing a more welcoming investment environment;
investing in infrastructure to lower business and household costs;
reducing barriers to employing people; and
In seeking to make these goals a reality, the White Paper outlined actions to develop Northern Australia to be undertaken over the next two, five, 10 and 20 years.
A particular area of focus for the White Paper was reducing barriers to the use of land and water resources, particularly for First Nations communities seeking to undertake economic activities in these areas. The White Paper also sought to foster an improved investment environment in Northern Australia by cutting back on unnecessary regulatory burdens and by bringing international investors into the region. The White Paper stressed the importance of improving infrastructure in Northern Australia as well. It stated:
Infrastructure is critical in linking the dispersed populations and remote businesses of the north. Many northerners say that southern decision makers do not take sufficient account of the north's needs or opportunities. This White Paper will change that.
The White Paper emphasised the importance of workforce reform across Northern Australia in order to lift levels of employment and to create a more flexible labour market system.
The White Paper also highlighted the importance of improved governance for Northern Australia, stating that the Commonwealth Government 'has made substantial policy and fiscal commitments and will be held accountable for them'. It stated the 'vision for Northern Australia in 2035 includes stronger governance arrangements. We do not want to look back in 20 years and regret missed opportunities'.
In seeking to transform Northern Australia, the White Paper outlined actions to be taken in the areas of land; water; business, trade and investment; infrastructure; workforce; and government.
On 19 August 2020, the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources (DISER) announced that it had 'delivered' the following 45 of the 51 measures outlined in the White Paper:
Pilot land reform projects in the north;
Capacity building for native title corporations;
Options to use exclusive native title rights for commercial purposes;
Land administration and township leasing;
New models to manage native title funds for development;
More business friendly information on different land tenure arrangements;
Pursue a set of principles and actions to improve the security, bankability and efficiency of pastoral land;
National Water Infrastructure Development Fund: northern component;
Northern Australia Investment Forum and Northern Australia Value Proposition;
Northern Australia Insurance Premiums Taskforce;
Linking the north with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) connectivity agendas;
Fostering business-to-business links with Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste;
Expanding the Entrepreneurs' Programme to assist tourism;
Enhancing access to the Entrepreneurs' Programme;
A Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia;
Bolstering tropical health research capacity;
Turning tropical research into commercial opportunities;
Links between tropical health research institutions and world class research institutions and the Tropical Health Short Course program for Indonesian professionals;
Increased First Nations ranger biosecurity activities;
Single point of entry for major projects;
Productivity Commission Inquiry into Australia's Fisheries and Aquaculture Regulation;
Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility;
Northern Australia roads package;
Improving cattle supply chains;
Northern Australia freight rail feasibility analysis;
Northern Australia pipeline of projects;
Northern Australia Infrastructure Audit;
Extension to the Remote Airstrip Upgrade program and additional support for the Remote Air Services Subsidy;
Improving aviation and surface transport connections-business stakeholder group;
Support enterprises in the north through the Industry Skills Fund;
Employment targets for First Nations Australians, for road projects (and other relevant expenditure) funded through the White Paper;
Support the NT Government to allow workers licenced from other Australian jurisdictions to have their licences more easily recognised in the Territory;
Reforms to the Remote Jobs and Communities Programme to allow participants to work in local businesses;
Designated Area Migration Agreements;
Expanded Seasonal Worker Programme;
Working Holiday Maker–an additional six months with one employer;
Work and Holiday Visa–second visa if they worked in tourism or agriculture in Northern Australia;
Pacific Microstates – Northern Australia Worker Pilot Programme;
Northern Australia Strategic Partnership;
Shift the Office of Northern Australia to the north;
Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia be made a standing committee;
Annual Statement to Parliament;
Public Sector Secondment;
A Northern Australia themed regulation repeal day in March 2016; and
Strengthen the Australian Defence Force presence in Northern Australia.
The remaining six measures were announced as 'on track':
Aspiration to finalise native title claims within a decade,
More efficient native title processes,
Reforms to tourism visas;
Improve protections and cut red tape around First Nations cultural heritage;
Cutting red tape for fisheries; and
Despite the DISER declaring its work 'delivered' in these areas, the delivery of many elements of the White Paper—particularly regarding the improvement of infrastructure—is based on the announcement of improvement and commitment of funding, as opposed to the actual works being complete and resulting in tangible outcomes. For example:
Northern Australia roads package
Delivered: The Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications committed $600 million to the Northern Australia Roads Programme and is upgrading high priority roads essential to the movement of people and freight and supporting economic development in the north.
Northern Australia pipeline of projects
Delivered: The Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications published a Northern Australia pipeline of projects on the National Infrastructure Construction Schedule website in 2018. Priorities were informed by Infrastructure Australia's Northern Australia Infrastructure Audit and through consultation with northern jurisdictions.
Given that the White Paper itself states that achieving its vision would occur 'within a generation or two', it appears that many of the projects listed above would not be regarded as 'delivered' or 'complete' within the view of the original White Paper. Certainly, the White Paper's vision for Northern Australia is far more ambitious than the Australian Government's interpretation of its goals, given that it included a vision for economic development in the north that extended out as far as 2060 and plans for development across two, five, 10 and 20 years. The goals of these 20-year plans, which present an ambitious view of what Northern Australia could look like in 2035, remain undelivered.
Evidence received on effectiveness of the Northern Australia agenda
During the course of its inquiry, the committee received evidence from individuals, businesses, government bodies and other stakeholders that described real-world experiences in many of these areas, where outcomes in Northern Australia continue to lag behind many other parts of the country. The actual outcomes of the Northern Australia agenda, and the White Paper, are described below in broad terms. Outcomes are discussed in further detail in the rest of the report in the areas of:
investment, opportunities and engagement with First Nations people;
employment and education;
The committee received evidence from many submitters who were concerned about the lack of progress with the Northern Australia agenda since 2015. CopperString, an infrastructure development company based in North Queensland, submitted that there were ongoing challenges in the economic development of Northern Australia:
Although material progress has been made, structural challenges remain in cultivating an investment environment that enables the full economic potential of the region to be realised. This is exemplified by the long lead-times of investments making use of the NAIF capital and the ongoing imbalance in some areas between Government spending on infrastructure initiatives in Southern States relative to those in Northern Australia.
The Queensland and Northern Territory branch of the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union likewise submitted that the progress of the Northern Australia agenda, as undertaken through the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF), had not reached its full potential:
The NAIF also needs to ensure its relationship with Northern Australian communities and the states and territory is as effective as possible; this is vital to NAIF's success. In practice, the lack of a strong engagement with communities limits potential projects and has significantly impacted on the progress of NAIF. State and territory governments are best placed to assist NAIF in proactively facilitating applications from the private sector.
The Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) was also concerned about the metrics being used to assess the progress of the Northern Australia agenda, noting that most of the initiatives in the White Paper have a finite timeline and involve producing feasibility studies instead of actual works. Much of the White Paper is focused on Northern Australia's traditional industries, as opposed to the social development needs of the region.
The LGAQ submitted that 'the time is right to break down the idea of "Northern Australia" into regions to provide a more manageable and coherent agenda'. The Association submitted:
The LGAQ believes that formal regionally based agreements are required to streamline funding and approval processes, integrate initiatives across different levels of government and identify clear milestones for marking progress. Critically, these agreements should also involve developing an integrated program of infrastructure investment via a "Regional Deals" framework that outlines Federal, State and local government commitments around funding and approvals for major infrastructure projects, including water, roads and transport, telecommunications and energy.
Dr Allan Dale, Chair, Developing Northern Australia Conference; Chief Scientist, Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia; and Professor of Tropical Regional Development, James Cook University also highlighted the importance of appropriate strategic planning:
Northern Australia is rapidly becoming an environment of investment preference—an internationally recognised investment opportunity around what you might say are a whole range of ecosystem service markets. Again, that work requires very good strategic planning to see it through.
From these on-the-ground submissions, it is clear that further work needs to be done and that businesses, organisations and other stakeholders have an expectation of continued progress in the near future. Pew Charitable Trusts summed up its position on the matter:
Our overall assessment of Northern Australia federal policy development and delivery over the past decade is that it is patchy and inconsistent. Parts of the policy agenda have been effective in providing jobs, economic returns for the most disadvantaged, and in improving community resilience and capacity. Importantly this has been done while improving the protection and good management of Northern Australia's natural environment. However other approaches have focused on the creation of high profile, one-off, capital intensive projects which have limited engagement with local communities. Many of these major projects have been focused on resource extraction, which if implemented may have significant negative impacts on existing industries and employment. There appears to be a consistent and un-tested assumption around such projects that an extractive, resource-based economy is the aim, without consideration of whether such development supports local people.
Mr David Malone, Chief Executive, Master Builders NT, described on-the-ground concerns that the Commonwealth Government was not adequately supporting Northern Australia:
Next on the challenge list is more of a question and that is: is the Commonwealth slowly abandoning the north? Talk to many people here and this question very much comes to the fore. They don't believe that it's some particular strategic decision to do so; it's more of a cumulative effect of a myriad of much smaller and unconnected decisions. … Large and crucial Commonwealth agencies have absolutely no capacity here in the north, and gaps between visits by national leaders are measured in years rather than months, even though those leaders fly directly over us. … The question of whether the Commonwealth is committed to the north is something that everybody asks.
Further to the evidence described above, the committee received evidence from a range of First Nations organisations, which largely expressed disappointment with the implementation and outcomes of the White Paper. Witnesses also told the committee that there had been limited engagement and consultation with the NAIF or the Office of Northern Australia (ONA) in relation to the Northern Australia agenda.
The Cape York Land Council (CYLC) told the committee that:
Despite the Northern Australia agenda's positive objectives, we're disappointed at the overall rate of implementation and outcomes achieved to date, especially for Cape York, and consider this is partly because of the agenda's design and implementation model.
The CYLC went further and told the committee that 'Cape York Aboriginal people have enjoyed very limited tangible economic or social benefit from the Northern Australia agenda'. It noted that there has been 'very little' direct investment in Cape York as a result of the White Paper, and the investments in other initiatives are unlikely to provide much benefit to Cape York without a redesign of the agenda and its implementation'. The CYLC stated:
Unfortunately implementation of the Northern Australia agenda has facilitated no jobs in new industries, economic activities or projects on Cape York, there has been no Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund investment in Cape York projects or infrastructure, there is no tropical medicine or agricultural research occurring on Cape York, no increase in regional agricultural or mining exports has occurred, there has been no increase in Aboriginal business owners or activity, and Aboriginal home ownership has not increased.
Mrs Vonda Malone, Mayor, Torres Shire Council, told the committee that there has 'not been an extensive amount of engagement' with the Australian Government's Northern Australia agenda, and that she was not aware of officials from the NAIF or the ONA visiting the Torres Strait. Similarly, Mrs Dalassa Yorkston, Chief Executive Officer, Torres Shire Council, stated:
I think the only real opportunity we've had to hear about NAIF has been through their awareness programs that they provided in Cairns, where council has to register to go along to hear about the scheme and how we can access it. But there been no particular presence into the Torres Strait and no engagement directly with the Torres Shire Council.
When asked what people in the Torres Strait were seeking from the Australian Government's Northern Australian agenda, Mrs Malone told the committee that 'to be included would be nice'. Mrs Malone stated:
It's still quite evident that participation by Indigenous people is very minimal. When I do attend the Northern Australia annual conference and the like, we are there, but we're not there. So how do we make sure that we are truly engaged, because the majority percentage of the land, as you would have heard from the likes of the traditional owners, is owned by Indigenous people.
Ms Marion Scrymgour, Chief Executive Officer, Northern Land Council, emphasised that development in Northern Australia 'cannot be successful unless it properly acknowledges Aboriginal rights and interests, engages fully with Aboriginal people as partners rather than just another stakeholder'. Ms Scrymgour stated that Aboriginal people must be placed 'at the centre of the policy framework in regional and remote areas'. Ms Scrymgour concluded:
Full and appropriate consultation should be undertaken across planning and policy, infrastructure programs and major projects. This requires a shift in the way governments think and the way in which government does business to a new way. Until that happens, attempts at northern development are bound to continue to fail.
The CYLC submitted that the Australian Government's Northern Australian Agenda has failed to 'grapple with and understand' the 'most fundamental truth about Northern Australia and its future', and that is that:
…Northern Australia is by and large an Indigenous domain characterised by Indigenous corporations holding the rights and interests of First Nations peoples, or in the process of winning these long overdue rights. The rights attached to this land, water and sea should never be considered as a public domain but rather as a private Indigenous domain in the process of being re-established.
The Northern Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA) also submitted that 'the 2015 White Paper disappointed many First Nations people and organisations in doing little to dispel, and in places reifying, the myth of Indigenous interests as barriers to sustainable northern development'.
Mr Lui Ned David, Chair, Gur A Baradharaw Kod (Torres Strait Sea and Land Council), noted that governments were continuing to work separately from First Nations peoples:
We talk a lot about breaking the walls down, but we continue to work separately from each other. That continues to be the case. I believe that will continue until we have some big agreement that we will do away with working in silos.…Some of the current processes, which I mentioned earlier, and the system itself have no space or recognition of First Nations or traditional owners, which is really sad. Given the way things have tightened now, for some of the huge investments that you need to make, you will need to speak to traditional owners. We have said for the last 12 to 18 months that it would be great if we could be part of the conversation from the outset rather than an afterthought towards the end, which has been the case for a little while.
It is imperative that governments engage in meaningful, ongoing collaboration with First Nations communities in order for the Northern Australia agenda to succeed and for Northern Australia to reach its full potential.
Impact of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented economic and social disruption across Australia, with Northern Australia being particularly impacted. During the course of the pandemic, there was a severe downturn in domestic tourism to Northern Australia, with international tourism ceasing entirely due to border closures. Additionally, as many primary producers throughout Northern Australia are reliant on migrant labour through programs—such as the Seasonal Worker Program, the Pacific Labour Scheme, and/or the Working Holiday Maker program—the agricultural sector was heavily impacted during the pandemic. Ms Rosemary Deininger, Acting Deputy Secretary, Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment reported that her department had worked with the Department of Home Affairs to extend visa and source labour, but that difficulties remained in this area.
Ms Sam Reinhardt, Head of Division, Northern Australia and Major Projects Division, Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources (DISER), whose remit includes the ONA, described the economic damage that has been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in Northern Australia:
Like many parts of Australia, the tourism sector in Northern Australia has been hit hard. The northern climate limits the vast majority of tourism to between April and October, and the timing of border closures has meant that many businesses are facing the very real prospect of limited or no income until April 2021 at the earliest. Agricultural producers are concerned they won't be able to fill their seasonal labour needs if domestic and international border restrictions remain in place. The resources sector has been resilient to date, but ongoing exploration and investment activity is essential for long-term growth.
In July 2020, the Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia announced that the NAIF would continue for an additional five years, with a new end date of 30 June 2026. The minister, the Hon. Keith Pitt MP, noted that the NAIF was going to 'play a critical role in supporting the recovery of Northern Australia from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic'.
Appearing at a public hearing, Ms Reinhardt, DISER, noted that '[t]he extension was announced early to provide certainty to investors and proponents in Northern Australia, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and reflects the stakeholder feedback we've received supporting the continuation of the NAIF'.
The north of Australia has also been supported through the Australian Government's various responses to the pandemic. Notable programs and relief measures are listed below:
The JobKeeper program supported businesses and not-for-profits impacted by COVID-19 by helping to pay the wages of employees.
The JobTrainer package extended the apprentice and trainee wage subsidy program and has committed to fund 340,000 additional training places.
The $40 billion Coronavirus Small and Medium Enterprises Guarantee Scheme offered guaranteed loans and an initial six-month pause on repayments to small and medium sized enterprises.
The International Freight Assistance Mechanism provided $110 million in funding to assist in rebuilding critical global air supply links.
The Regional Airline Network Support provided support to airlines to maintain a basic level of connectivity across their network of regional routes during COVID-19.
$5.1 million to support essential flight services for Cape York and the Torres Strait Islands, Darwin to Jabiru in West Arnhem Land, and Port Hedland through the Pilbara region.
The $1 billion COVID-19 Relief and Recovery fund was announced, which seeks to support industries that include aviation, agriculture, fisheries, tourism and the arts.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the importance of greater resilience in Northern Australia. Following flooding in Queensland in February 2020 and in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Nico Padovan, Deputy Chief Executive Officer and Chief Operating Officer, National Drought and North Queensland Flood Response and Recovery Agency, noted that it was imperative that further investment take place in Northern Australia in order to:
broaden the economic base;
build more resilient and appropriate infrastructure;
facilitate prosperous enterprises;
foster connected and cohesive communities; and
support improved access to information and telecommunication services.
Mr Padovan submitted:
We see investment in these areas as being critical to supporting the recovery and future preparedness of these regional and remote communities, ensuring they are best placed to weather a range of potential economic shocks, whether that be flood, drought or, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. We also see that facilitating these priorities will help unlock the economic and social potential of these regions by encouraging innovation and business growth as well as attracting greater investment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront the necessity of ensuring that the Northern Australia agenda can facilitate greater economic resilience in the north. Given the ongoing risk of disruption caused by pandemics, natural disasters and other unforeseen events, the development of Northern Australia must be an immediate priority for all governments.
Across Northern Australia, challenges to improving economic and social outcomes remain. CQUniversity Australia noted that the north of Australia faces challenges that the south do not, and that these challenges 'reflect a mix of factors relating to population, geography, climate and topography, industry, infrastructure, communities, skills and social issues'. Lack of infrastructure, high levels of population mobility and seasonal climatic disruption have been noted as being particularly problematic.
In terms of economic development, the Chamber of Minerals and Energy Western Australia highlighted that, from an economic perspective, the key challenges were the high costs of doing business, lack of infrastructure and difficulties with connectivity. For primary and agricultural producers, challenges remain in:
productivity and adoption of best practice production techniques;
increased biosecurity risk due to lower surveillance capability;
managing weather and environmental extremes, including climate variability and variability of water supply;
skills shortages and difficulties in workforce attraction;
managing development with environmental outcomes and ensuring development is targeted to appropriate land types; and
year-round transport access to markets and supporting infrastructure.
Ms Sheriden Morris, Chair, Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia, noted that the development of the north is a fundamentally difficult task, stating that '[i]f it were easy, it would have already been done'. Ms Morris noted that Northern Australia contains 'about 16 million hectares of land suitable for development', but also explained the difficulties in taking advantage of this potential:
we understand that developing the north is very risky. Variable climate conditions; a really small population, 1.3 million—so, sort of outer Melbourne—and that's across the whole of Northern Australia; very limited infrastructure; poor comms; poor connectivity; and expensive transport make this challenging, but also a conflicting jurisdictional regulatory environment
it's often really difficult to take development concepts and proposals and turn them into reality. Basically, the north is littered with the carcasses of broken dreams; that's a given. Anyone who does succeed has amazing tenacity, usually a serious pioneering spirit and usually very deep pockets, and is looking for some support. You don't make it in Northern Australia unless you've got some of those things on your side.
For First Nations enterprises, these challenges are further magnified. The Indigenous Reference Group to the Ministerial Forum on Northern Development observed that First Nations businesses are subject to the same challenges faced by non-First Nations businesses, as well as unique challenges relating to the particular circumstances and history of First Nations people. The Indigenous Reference Group submitted:
The generic structural challenges faced by all Northern Australian business include small and sparse local markets, remoteness (including limited access during the wet season), poor infrastructure, harsh climate and a degree of political irrelevance that is derived from the electoral imbalance between Northern and Southern Australia. In addition to these structural challenges, Indigenous business in Northern Australia also faces challenges that are the result of two centuries of discriminatory dispossession, oppressive and punitive policy that has resulted in widespread background of intergenerational socio-economic disadvantage among Indigenous Northern Australians. This manifests itself in many ways, including limited inter-generational wealth transfer, relatively limited capacity to engage in the workforce and to own, successfully operate and grow commercial enterprise.
Governments at all levels have the capacity to intervene and reduce some of the challenges that are inherent in Northern Australia's development, particularly in the areas of infrastructure, communications, transport and regulation. If practicable improvements are made in this area, economic development in Northern Australia will be much more achievable for the local, domestic and international stakeholders who are looking to invest in the north. While the north is, indeed, an area of great challenge, it also contains enormous potential.
It is imperative that the Australian Government seek to genuinely realise the long-term goals of the White Paper, as opposed to merely talking up this potential. While the works undertaken so far have resulted in some tangible improvements in the north, there remains substantial work to be done in order to realise the vision of the White Paper and the full potential of Northern Australia. The remainder of this report identifies areas in which further government action will make a real difference.