Update on Northern Development agenda Thursday, 28 July 2016

Opinion piece by Nerida Horner MIEAust, Engineers Australia Northern President.

It is one year since the release of the White Paper on Developing Northern Australia, which identified policy and infrastructure responses to bottlenecks in the region. Recent focus on northern development is predicated on the notion that Northern Australia needs to point its compass toward the expanding economies of our near-Asian neighbours, whereby virtue of proximity and natural advantage, and aided by clever investment, it will reap benefits significant to the nation’s future prosperity.    

Northern Australia comprises approximately 47% of Australia’s land mass and although it is home to just 5.5% of the nation’s population, it already contributes nearly 12% of Australia’s GDP. Major industries exploit natural advantages in mining, energy, agriculture and tourism, with the mining/resources sector dwarfing all others by output (55.7%), though it employs only 14% of the workforce.  Around 90% of the north is under some form of Indigenous tenure, and the Indigenous population share is 22% compared to just 2.5% in the rest of the nation.  

The economic backdrop in northern Australia is historically an environment of ‘peaks and troughs’, and over the same 12 months, economic conditions have indeed cooled, coming off the back of a recent peak in high minerals exports, major construction activity in nationally significant energy infrastructure (gas processing) and a surge in beef prices. Economic goals focus on diversification to grow industries that will sustain the region and maintain growth through the vagaries of mineral prices. 

Over $30bn of announcements have been made in relation to the white paper directly, including:

  • $700 million for northern priority roads
  • $170 million of National Water Infrastructure Development Funds earmarked for northern Australia ($25 million already committed)
  • $30.6 million to encourage Native Title Corporation and business sector engagement
  • $12.4 million expansion in Indigenous Ranger programs
  • $20 billion over 20 years in Defence, $1.5 billion in the first 12 months, and
  • $5 billion North Australia Infrastructure Fund (NAIF) concessional loans scheme.

Related initiatives have also been announced by State and Territory governments, e.g. the NT’s own infrastructure department’s spending outlook for the coming four years is of the order of $1.1-1.6 billion/year, and the $800 million NT-Qld gas pipeline project is underway. Infrastructure Australia’s northern Australia audit calls for innovation in infrastructure delivery to ensure quality at least cost.

Last month’s Developing Northern Australia Conference highlighted the emerging services economy, where international education, health and tropical medicine will place alongside traditional primary and extractive industries. Indigenous voices also came to the fore, with Indigenous leaders increasingly developing partnerships with business and government in development of their lands.

Some key questions remain in the northern discourse; what role will technology play in reimagining the kinds of ‘northern development’ that will arise? How can the north’s assets be used to transition to a lower carbon economy? Engineers are uniquely placed to contribute to the innovation that will be necessary to help define a more diverse and sustainable development trajectory for the north.