Three Compelling Reasons for Stronger Cooperation Across Northern Australia
By Dr Allan Dale
Professor of Tropical Regional Development
The Whitepaper on Developing Northern Australia was released with bipartisan and bilateral support in 2015. Some 51 measures were crafted and implemented, and indeed, much has been achieved. The Whitepaper recognised, however, that developing the north would be at least a 20 year venture of national importance. A new edited book, Leading From the North, explores the many challenges that remain, including issues of lagging investment, workforce and liveability challenges.
As one of the book’s editors, I explore the governance challenges facing northern development. I particularly consider that the embryonic success of the whitepaper has relied on strong cooperative governance arrangements between the Commonwealth and the Western Australian, Northern Territory and Queensland governments. These arrangements have flagged in recent years, resulting in a lacklustre refresh of the 5 Year Plan for Northern Australia in early 2021. With a new Minister David Littleproud now taking on the Northern Australian Portfolio, ably supported by Special Envoy Senator Susan McDonald, I am encouraging a stronger return to bilateral cooperation across the north. Indeed, there are three compelling reasons for this to happen:
1. The Need for a Transformational Infrastructure Package: Northern Australia remains under-serviced by critical enabling infrastructure such as roads, rail, ports, water and energy. With now revised criteria for the inclusion of new infrastructure on the Infrastructure Australia Priority list (i.e. incorporating wider social, cultural and other investment drivers), northern and remote Australia has a new opportunity to plan for, invest in, and implement a major program of transformational infrastructure with a focus on our near-northern neighbours.
2. Reforming Development Decision Making: While the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) has been unfairly criticised for slow investment, little attention has been paid to the way we prioritise, plan, assess and approve development proposals. Developers have communicated their clear frustration with these processes. A recent review of the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act suggests that current regulatory arrangements are not protecting the environment either. Finally, the north’s traditional owners have long been concerned the Act does not frame their relationship with development in ways that protect cultural concerns and enable indigenous economic development. I recommend a clear and evidence-based approach to the progression of the EPBC reforms to support the Commonwealth to deliver economic and indigenous development and to achieve environmental benefits in the north.
3. Implementing the Indigenous Reference Group Accord: With most of the north subject to indigenous rights and interests, under the old Northern Australian Ministerial Forum, a strong indigenous voice was formed through the Indigenous Reference Group (IRG). This group of high profile indigenous leaders worked closely with the Commonwealth and the jurisdictions to create the Northern Australia Indigenous Development Accord; a cohesive package of policy-based initiatives to ensure the north’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities lead their own development efforts. This now needs to be implemented.
If our nation is to avoid economic stagnation in the north (with a fragile boom-bust economy, entrenched regional poverty and faltering investment), then a cohesive, long-standing and well implemented approach is needed between the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments.
Leading from the North: Rethinking Northern Australia Development. Edited by Ruth Wallace, Sharon Harwood, Rolf Gerritsen, Bruce Prideaux, Tom Brewer, Linda Rosenman, Allan Dale. ANU Press.