Northern Australia Committee Report

I too wish to be associated with the remarks on this pathfinding and, hopefully, 'path-breaking' report. I too want to give credit to Senator Macdonald who has been, as we have just heard, pushing this case for some time. He often makes the point that there are very few politicians from Northern Australia. He could probably give me the number, but there are not many out of the 226 in this place.

Senator Ian Macdonald: Twelve.

Senator CANAVAN: Twelve. Thank you, Senator Macdonald. That is a fairly small proportion. We need people like Senator Macdonald pushing this case, because the only way we can bring somewhere like Northern Australia to the forefront of our debate is by people getting up and pushing it further. This report is another little step towards bringing the development of the North closer. It is starting to snowball. It is starting to get some momentum. This is another turn of the ball here with this report, and I very much hope, as Senator Macdonald said, that the government can now turn words into actions in the next year.

I do want to say that the development of the North should not be something that is of concern to Northern Australians. It is a national priority. It is something that we should all be behind, because too many Australians live in our capital cities—about 60 per cent of our population live in our top five cities. If you look over at the US, their top five cities account for somewhere between five per cent and 15 per cent of their population, depending on how you count their cities. So we are a very concentrated country and we do need to develop the frontiers of our nation.

We only have 16 cities in Australia that have more than 100,000 people, and three of the five youngest towns with more than 100,000 people are in Northern Australia: Cairns, Darwin and Townsville. Interestingly, they were all founded in the decade between 1865 and 1876. There is something significant about that decade. I am thankful that my colleague, Senator McKenzie, who is from Victoria, is here, because the coincidence is that they were founded just a few years after the Burke and Wills expedition of 1860 to 1861, which, of course, originated from her great state in the south of our nation.

One reason we were able to do the Burke and Wills expedition at that time—and it was a massive expedition at great cost—was that we had the wealth to do so. We had the wealth to do so thanks to the gold rush. The Victorian government took the decision to fund the expedition. I was reading a book about it recently. Apparently, there was some speculation that they funded the trip to try to annex north Queensland. That was their real aim. Thankfully, it was not successful, Senator Macdonald, otherwise we would all be playing AFL not rugby league. That did provide a great legacy because it opened up that part of our country. If you spend any time in that part of the world these days you are continuously reminded of the legacy of Burke and Wills. So many areas are named after Burke and Wills. The town of Cloncurry is named after Robert O'Hara Burke's cousin Lady Cloncurry.

We have just had the biggest terms of trade boom since the gold rush and we as a nation should be focusing on how we turn the wealth we have had in the last decade to a new frontier of wealth, as we did 150 years ago, to a new area of our nation. Then we will be able to look back in 20, 30 or 40 years at what we have done. This report is another step in helping to do that. We have amazing opportunities in northern Australia. Many of them are thanks to the development of Asia and the markets that exist over there.

I want to quickly relate a story to the Senate. I was lucky enough to be in Shanghai a few months ago and I enjoyed a very nice T-bone steak in a Shanghai hotel. That 300-gram steak cost A$110. I can tell you that our beef producers are not getting $330 a kilogram right now, but there is lots of money to be made there. There is a huge opportunity for our agricultural industries to take advantage of that demand and willingness to pay. I am very glad, therefore, that this report has identified some specific projects that can help our agricultural industry take advantage of those opportunities and take the next step.

Many water projects have been recommended by this report—and Senator Macdonald went through some before—such as in the Fitzroy Basin the Rookwood Weir and the Eden Bann Weir, the development of the Gulf, the Cave Hill dam, off stream storage near Richmond and other off stream projects that will be viable in the Gilbert and Flinders rivers. We need to invest in roads and ports as well because no farm is an island. They need to be connected to these markets in Asia, so there is a role for the government to make investment, to provide some funds, to help connect those new irrigation opportunities to ports so things can get to Asia—to Shanghai and to Tianjin—and all the places where people are willing to pay good money for our produce.

We hear a lot of talk about the potential for private investment to help with this development. There is no doubt that that will play a substantial role, but in my view that needs to be partnered with some public investment as well in the public infrastructure that governments should provide, such as roads, dams and ports. It is great to see that this inquiry has made such recommendations on all those areas of infrastructure.

I will conclude on water very briefly, so I can leave time for others to make remarks. I was fortunate when the coalition were in opposition to have some role in Senator Joyce's office—he is Minister Joyce now—developing our approach to dams. There is so much water in our north—60 per cent of our rainfall is in the north—but it is really important that we focus as a nation on using water where it falls. It is attractive to think that we can take the water in the north and bring it down here and develop places that are available, but that would be a mistake because water is very expensive to transport. It is very heavy and we do not have a lot of height in our country, so we need to focus on using water where it falls. That is why we should develop northern Australia and that is why I am very glad that this report has identified the areas that we can develop. I look forward to seeing the government response through their green paper and white paper, which I am sure will demonstrate a great and prosperous future for northern Australia.

The official Hansard of this speech is available here.

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