Northern Australia is popularly defined as consisting of all Australian land north of the Tropic of Capricorn. The north has long struggled to secure the investment and development which the south-east of Australia has taken for granted, because it is far away from the Sydney-Melbourne-Canberra parliamentary triangle and its key policy-makers and politicians. The north’s economic and social development has thus been incremental rather than spectacular. But every now and then, a political saviour will emerge who will insist that their political party truly understands the north’s national significance and will transform it if elected to power. But northern development is a dream best viewed in Opposition: once a northern advocate achieves government powers, the political dreams of Northern Australia often lose their allure. The rich history of the politics of northern development is explored in my new book: Northern Dreams: The Politics of Northern Development in Australia (published by Australian Scholarly Publishing).
Because the majority of Australian citizens have always lived in the southern half of Australia, the notion that the people of the north deserve special financial largesse has always been a hard political message to sell. Suggesting in principle that the north was of great national significance was easy enough: in the days of the White Australia policy, Northern Australia’s proximity to Asia was traditionally viewed as a challenge to populate the north with Europeans to deter a possible Asian invasion of the so-called ‘Empty North’. In more recent decades, the north’s nearness to Asian countries has been sold as a potential benefit to Australian trade and commerce. But such abstract truisms have little traction beyond giving something for the punters to sagely nod their heads about. Since 1901, the fear and potential of Asia has given a touch of spice to political speeches about the north, but this has not generally translated into transformative policies on northern development.
In reality, the north’s development has been incremental, rather than spectacular. From World War Two onwards, Commonwealth and state infrastructure such as roads, railways and bridges have alleviated much of the north’s isolation. As the decades progressed, Northern Australia has benefited from increased educational opportunities, air conditioning, cheaper transport, tourism, sporting facilities and cultural infrastructure. This is especially so in the large coastal towns where the majority of northerners dwell.
Incremental reform, however, is not politically “sexy”. By contrast, the notion of a neglected north needing the Commonwealth to “fix it” has periodically attracted northern and southern voters alike since 1901. Every so often, a major federal political party presents a vision for accelerated northern development, building on regional strengths such as sugar, pastoralism, mining and tourism. The circumstances have to be right, but in the history of federal elections, Commonwealth politicians have frequently regarded Northern Australia as electoral gold. There are two main reasons for this. First, despite Australia’s overwhelmingly (sub)urban demographics, many Australians remain nostalgically attached to the notion of “taming the wilderness” and recreating the spirit of the Snowy Mountains Scheme in Northern Australia. Consequently, being an honorary ‘northerner’ at election time can help a national Opposition leader appear both visionary and popular.
The second reason that Commonwealth politicians look to the north for electoral inspiration is due to the very real politics of northern neglect. While physical isolation from Southern Australia is now a folk memory for the majority of northerners, politicians are still able to tap into a sense of emotional isolation experienced by the north. For Australia’s political, economic and cultural movers and shakers are largely centred in New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT: northerners quite justifiably feel left out of the national conversation.
It is difficult for a federal political party to sustain the notion that they are “more northern than the northerners” after the election has been won. Once the excitement of an electoral campaign is over, the southern-based media gets bored with Northern Australia and moves on to personality politics and popularity contests. Consequently, Northern Australia will be perceived by media-focused politicians as having had its time in the sunlight. There are many regions in Australia, all of them unique, and each of them wants their favourite projects funded. Northern Australia will get its share of regional funding, but the Government will no longer have the time or inclination to make Northern Australia a central focal point of its national vision.
But there is always the next election …
Lyndon Megarrity is an historian and tertiary teacher based in Townsville. He has published widely on Northern Australia and Queensland political history. He is currently an adjunct lecturer at the College of Arts, Society and Education at James Cook University. Northern Dreams: The Politics of Northern Development in Australia is available at selected book stores and can be directly ordered from the publisher’s website: