Max Bourke. Northern Australia – the fantasy continues

Jun 22, 2015

Current Affairs

The White Paper on Northern Australia. ( accessed June 19, 2015)

The cover of this Report features, a slightly sick (ironically seems to have a fungal disease), young seedling growing in rich black soil. The seedling well reflects the issue, the black soil does not.

When white settlers landed in Australia at the end of the 18th century they brought the techniques and understandings they knew from Europe to farming, the climate and the environment. What else could they do? It has taken over 200 years for many Australians, and some clearly still do not, to understand that the climate, soils, landscapes of Australia are profoundly different from Europe or Asia. The recently released “White Paper on Northern Development” June 2015, suggests we still have a long way to go.

In 1839 the Kew Gardens appointed a plant collector and vegetable gardener who tried growing crops on the Cobourg Peninsula, which sadly failed quite quickly. Since then there has been a long history of hubris about agriculture and development in northern Australia. Boosters almost invariably ignore two major and fundamental problems, soils and temperatures of northern Australia.

Yes there is a lot of “undeveloped” land there but the dry tropics (most of the region) are largely, lateritic soils in a very, very hot climate. So hot that very few of the crops either westerners or people of Asian background currently eat, can be grown there. There are a few limited exceptions to these generalisations but nothing on the scale that is usually trotted out by the boosters.

In 1965 Bruce Davidson in his The Northern Myth, traversed many of these issues. Davidson, an economist with CSIRO, was prevented from publishing his work and resigned. But his core arguments persist, that only with heavy government subsidy, could intensive agriculture succeed in northern Australia (such as on research stations) and now even that seems dubious.

Two extremely well written papers have traversed the issues and both are utterly ignored, not even cited, in the current White Paper. History sadly, and perennially repeats itself.

In 2002 John Woinarski and Freya Dawson surveyed the sorry tale very well, see reference 3. They worked hard to get to the root causes of the problems mitigating against northern agricultural and forestry development. Reviewing 150 years of agricultural developments in the north they concluded, p 104, “Although these developments have inevitably led to personal and environmental casualties such losses have been deemed bearable in the context of a government drive to dominate or stake a claim on these lands, and the pervasive perception that environmental costs weigh little against the land’s limited value and its excessive extent”.

In 2009 a superb review of the science of research in the north and its outcomes, was written by Dr Garry Cook of CSIRO (ref 1 below). It is worth reading alone for its photos of Parliamentary Inquiries and other matters over the last 100 years.

But reviewing the scientific agricultural research over the last 150 years Cook concluded: “At the same time as food and production security concerns are causing growing pressure on the north, there is also growing pressure for land managers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration. The outworking of these factors is by no means certain, because they will be driving the system in differing directions. Concerns about food security will create pressure for land clearing and agricultural development, as happened throughout the 20th century, but concern about carbon emissions has already led to changes in tree clearing legislation and limited the ability of land holders to develop land. Climate change itself is likely to increase variability in an already highly variable climate and increase the risk to agricultural enterprises. Currently a growing tide of extinctions and range reductions are affecting native fauna across the north (99). Strategies to ensure their conservation will add further complexity to the outworking of development pressures.”

The current White Paper appears to totally ignore history. Maybe that is our fate.

Twenty pages of the document are devoted to listing projects, reports, studies that might, though not necessarily, have some bearing on northern Australia and which are already under way. Either this is padding for the report or an exercise in advanced cynicism!

Fifteen years ago the author attended a northern Australia research conference in Darwin representing one of the Federal agricultural R&D corporations. Many fine words were said then about “moving Australian R&D to the north”.

In 2009 the Commonwealth Government produced another report, “Sustainable Development in Northern Australia” (ref 2). In the conclusion to that paper it was stated:

“The north is not a vacant land. It needs to be actively managed for resilience and sustainability, based on a contemporary and informed understanding of the complexities of the landscape and its people. Contrary to popular belief, water resources in the north are neither unlimited, nor wasted. Equally, the potential for northern Australia to become a ‘food bowl’ is not supported by evidence.” Joe Ross, 2009, Chair Northern Australia Taskforce.


Max Bourke AM has a background in agricultural research and public administration. As well he has been Chairman of one of Australia’s largest farming investment businesses and manager of the New Crops programs for the Rural Industry Research and Development Corporation. He has spent much time in Northern Australia in various roles.


1.Cook, G “ Historical perspectives on land use development in northern Australia: with emphasis on the Northern Territory, Northern Australia Land and Water Science Review full report October 2009

  1. “Sustainable development in Northern Australia”. Northern Australia Land and Water Task Force. Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, 2009
  2. Woinarski, J.C.Z., and Dawson, F. (2002).Limitless lands and limited knowledge: coping with uncertainty and ignorance in northern Australia. Ecology, Uncertainty and Policy: managing ecosystems for sustainability. (eds J.W. Handmer, T.W. Norton & S.R. Dovers) (Prentice-Hall.)

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