One of the longstanding themes of Australian politics is the idea of northern development. This usually takes the form of the argument for vast taxpayer subsidized irrigation works to enable vastly expanded agricultural production. The Ord River scheme is the main example of this. The economics of these proposals have long been criticized, most famously by Bruce Davidson in Australia: wet or dry? and The Northern Myth. There was a time when northern development was a bipartisan concern, Labor won by-election victory in the north Queensland electorate of Dawson in 1966 on this platform and a review of Whitlam’s key speeches, available in On Australia’s Constitution shows he had an interest in the topic. Some interesting context here. However rural policy was the first area in which Labor took up the cause of economic liberalism as the party had little to lose by offending producer groups. equally rural policy was the area where economic liberalism had the least impact on the Coalition. One example of this was the establishment by the Howard government of a task-force packed with Coalition politicians to investigate opportunities for expanding agriculture in northern Australia. The Rudd government removed the politicians and appointed people who actually knew something about the topic. The final report of the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce has rejected proposals for a massive expansion of agriculture. Conservatives are unhappy, The Australian does its duty to the conservative cause by a some typically slanted pieces here and here and a remarkably meaningless editorial:
All levels of government, however, and the private sector, need a far broader vision to recognise and develop the areas of Australia that have the rainfall, coastal access, and basic facilities, including universities and transport infrastructure, to develop into cities of a million people or more. At the heart of the challenge is a shift in mindset. Australia’s early British settlers, understandably, felt more at home farming and developing the more temperate regions of the south. If the nation is to transform its size and economic base to the next stage, the challenge for this decade is to think laterally and look north.
So much for economically rational public policy. Odder also that climate change, whose reality conservatives disparage, can be cited in support of northern development. Interesting to compare the response to this debate to that about book importation.