Ideally placed to serve as another food bowl
It is not the role of government to direct or be the principal financier of further major development of northern Australia, or any part of the country for that matter.
But development must occur if we are to back the strengths and comparative advantages of the north, including its rare place in the tropics, to help meet the demands of the exploding middle class across the AsiaPacific.
The middle class is set to grow from 600 million to more than three billion over the next 20 to 30 years. Consequently, this will be the century of food, water and energy security.
Two of the government's key objectives for the north are targeted squarely at helping to meet this increasing demand.
First, we should strive to develop another Australian food bowl, focused on premium produce, which could help to double our country's agricultural output.
We currently feed 60 million people directly and 400 million indirectly through our technology and innovation.
With the right support, investment and further innovation we can double those numbers, and the north can play a very significant role.
The CSIRO has concluded that across the north there is up to 17 million hectares of arable soil, potentially suitable for a variety of agriculture and horticulture. I am not suggesting we are likely to farm anywhere near that, but it demonstrates the sheer scale of opportunity.
And there is abundance of reliable water that we have the know-how to manage efficiently and in an environmentally effective manner.
There is an estimated 152,000 gigalitres in total surface water run-off across the north, or about 60 per cent of the water that falls in Australia, and we capture just 2 per cent of it.
If we captured 6 per cent and used it sensibly, we could feed millions more.
Given the remoteness and high cost of major developments in the north, the typical agricultural and horticultural developments will need to be of a size that will support much of the necessary infrastructure that will get product to market.
Individual enterprises involving 30,000ha of sugar, or 20,000ha of fruit and vegetable crops, or 75,000ha to 100,000ha of specialist crops, will resemble mines in their capacity to largely or fully fund water, power and transport infrastructure.
In Queensland's Gulf Country, for instance, I am also aware of multiple proposals that would see crops such as cotton and sugar grown on individual projects involving up to tens of thousands of hectares.
The Etheridge Integrated Agriculture Project west of Georgetown, for example, would involve 50,000ha of irrigated cropping, including sugar and sorghum.
There would be significant infrastructure investment, including dams, a sugar mill, ethanol production and power generation facilities.
A second key objective is to take our energy export industry to one worth $150 billion annually to the economy by 2030, with a major focus on clean and efficient energy.
The region is already home to 90 per cent of Australia's gas reserves. Regions such as the Pilbara, Gladstone and Mackay have developed rapidly by leveraging their natural resources. Through further major investment other opportunities will open and new resources will be developed.
In supporting development, government's primary role is to put in place the most conducive policy settings possible to enable the private sector to lead and to prosper.
In the second half of next year, I will host a significant investment forum in northern Australia, bringing together some of the biggest investors from Asia and elsewhere to expose them to opportunities on offer and in prospect.
We hope to be in a position to promote investment-ready projects across areas where the north has comparative advantages, including agriculture, aquaculture, energy and resources, tourism and hospitality, tropical health and medical research and education, and all the services, high-end manufacturing, infrastructure, logistics, training, innovation and research and development that cluster around these strengths.
The other defining advantage of the north is that it makes Australia one of the very few developed countries that sits at the intersection of the two great regions of global economic and population growth the Asian region and the tropical region. So on account of our geography, prosperity and innovation, we are in a rare position to provide products, services and IP relevant to the tropics, where 40 per cent of the world's population resides.
But make no mistake, substantial investment is absolutely fundamental if we are to see an admirable northern vision converted into real and tangible development outcomes.
- Trade Minister's Office: (02) 6277 7420
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555