The federal government will this week release its northern Australia white paper.
It is the first time in decades that a government has focused on developing a new frontier of our nation.
Already it has created a sort of Brisbane line in reverse. Cities and towns are now desperate to be above the north of the tropic of Capricorn because there are so many opportunities in the north of our nation.
Australia must move north. Right now, our population is too clustered in the south and in the cities. Despite our collective sentimentality for Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘land of sweeping plains’, few people live on them.
About 60 per cent of Australians live in just our five largest cities. All of those are on the seaboard and none of them is in northern
Australia. Compare that with the US, where the top five cities house 5pc to 15pc of their population, depending on how you draw the boundaries of their cities.
The reality for most Australians is the gritty city of Banjo Paterson where “hurrying people ... shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste”. The cities that Banjo found crowded more than a century ago have become far more bustling since then and are forecast to become even more so.
The current populations of Sydney and Melbourne are already more than four million each. The inter-generational report predicts Australia’s 2050 population will hit 40 million, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics projects Sydney and Melbourne both topping eight million, and Brisbane and Perth 4.5 to five million each.
A proper regional development policy then must focus on developing areas outside our capital cities. I don’t think the people of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane or Perth want twice as many people stacked up in those cities, so regional development is something in the national interest.
Regional Australia policy is not charity: it is essential, visionary and fair. Regionalisation also offers the prospect of a more affordable lifestyle. The latest Real Estate Institute of Australia data show the median residential property price in Sydney is $930,000 and Melbourne $688,000.
Across all capital cities it is $659,000. In all the talk of affordable housing, an alternative source of housing sometimes forgotten is regional Australia. For example, the median price of properties in Cairns is $390,000, in Townsville it is $350,000 and in Rockhampton it is just under $300,000.
We cannot, and should not, force people to move, but we can create the opportunities and jobs that will encourage a move from expensive housing in Sydney to a better lifestyle and lower cost of living in the north.
There is plenty of room for growth: just 5pc of Australians live north of the tropic of Capricorn. Of Australia’s 17 cities with populations more than 100,000 people, only three lie in northern Australia – Townsville, Cairns and Darwin (and they rank 14, 15 and 16 respectively). Northern Australia does hold enormous potential.
It already provides fantastic mineral wealth and can yield far more in future. Primary industries based in northern Australia earn the nation billions of dollars in export earnings, and promise more still through innovation and irrigation. Sixty per cent of the nation’s rain falls in the north. It is important we focus as a nation on using water where it falls.
The idea of sending water from north to south is a mirage. Water is very expensive to transport.
I look to the release of a white paper that identifies ways to capitalise on northern Australia’s strengths, to provide the best regulatory and economic environment for business, and to identify critical infrastructure for long-term growth, public and private planning, and investment.
Then, for Australians crowding the crescent of cities in the south, northern Australia may appear a beacon for those huddled masses
yearning to breathe free.
This article was first published in the Queensland Country Life on 18 June 2015.