There is a story that does the rounds on Townsville, that at the end of World War II, the US Army suggested it could blow up Castle Hill and use the rock to build a causeway to Magnetic Island. While painfully jogging up that "hill" the other morning, I wished they had done it, or at least removed the top half.
It is amazing what can be done at a time of crisis. At the time of war, the Bruce Highway was the only major road south from north Queensland - making it particularly vulnerable if a quick escape was required. So the US Army did something about it and built an inland route from Cairns to the south; that road still exists today: the Hann Highway.
Another story goes that if the war had continued a little longer. the Americans planned to seal it. To this day sections of Hann remain unsealed, and Queensland can be cut in half if flooding disrupts the coastal Bruce Highway.
The Hann Highway is one of the roads in the north that the government has made eligible for upgrade through its Northern Australia Roads Program. WE have allocated $600 million to the task. Sealing the Hann Highway would reduce the distance between Cairns and Melbourne by 800km in comparison with coastal routes, and save more than eight hours for a truck driving this route.
There is not a lack of opportunities in northern Australia, there has been a lack of infrastructure. Northern Australia receives 60 per cent of our rainfall and makes up 40 per cent of our land mass; and 55 per cent of our exports are sent from northern ports.
Already northern Australia punches above its weight. Only 6 per cent of Australians live in northern Australia but together produce 11 per cent of our GDP. Each full-time employee in Australia produces about $186,000 of economic output a year. In the north, each employee generates about $370,000 of economic output a year. It makes sense to reinvest in the parts of the country that are already making money for the country.
That is why the government has a $6.2 billion plan for northern Australian. There is $600m for roads mentioned above, and another $100m for "beef roads" so that the cost of transporting cattle can be brought down; at times it can cost a third of their final value to transport cattle to market.
We have made $200m available to develop the water resources of the north. The second biggest water catchment in Australia, after the Murray-Darling Basin, is the Fitzroy Basin. More water flows out of the Fitzroy near Rockhampton, into the Pacific ocean than any other river on the eastern seaboard.
We are making further investments in research and development, establishing more flexible land tenure arrangements for indigenous Australians, and investing in areas in which the north has a special advantage, such as tropical medicine.
Last week Resources Minister Josh Frydenburg and I introduced a bill to establish a $5bn concessional loan facility for the north. There is a lot of opportunity in the north but like many new investments, there is a lot of risk too. The Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility will help reduce some of that risk.
At the same time we have designed the funds to protect taxpayers' interests. Successful projects will be picked by a expert board, 50 per cent of debt required for the project will have to come from other sources, and all investments will require the co-operation of federal, state and territory governments.
Growing the economic pie of northern Australia will produce wealth for all Australians, given that 80 per cent of Australia taxes end up in Canberra.
Most importantly, developing our wealth will best position Australia relative to Asia. By 2030, two-thirds of the world's middle class will live in Asia-Pacific region. Our whole country stands to benefit, but Darwin is closer to Jakarta than it is to Melbourne. We also can't take it as a given that Asia will look south to us. Beijing is closer to Berlin than it is to Sydney. Developing our north will bring Australia closer to Asia.
The government's white paper for the development of northern Australia is the first ever for the north.
It is a plan that all Australians should be able to unite around, regardless of where you live or who you work for.