Opening up Australia's empty North to settlement and farming

Another revival of an old and unrealistic dream. It fits in with the frequent Greenie cries that the world is overpopulated and about to run out of food. The latest such cry here.  It is true that vast tracts of Northern Australia are mostly unpopulated and used for very little.  And Chinese farmers in the gold-rush days of the 19th century proved that productive farms could be set up there even using very low-tech.  So turning an area about the size of Western Europe into farms seems an obvious thing to do.

And from Adolf Hitler on, Greenies have been shrieking that we are about to run out of food.  So if that had any realism to it, opening up Northern Australia to arable farming  would indeed be an obvious thing to do.

The fact that everyone overlooks is that the international supply of most farm products is in GLUT.  We have too much food available for international trade, not too little.  So if you do convert more of our mostly empty North into farms, how are you going to sell the product?  

The Ord river scheme in North-West Australia was a warning for those who are capable of learning.  There's this huge river and lots of uncultivated fertile land nearby so governments of all sorts have thought to turn it into a resource.   Since the 1940s, it has absorbed many millions of taxpayer dollars. And it's only recently that they have found something worth growing there:  Sandalwood, used to make incense sticks for Chinese religious ceremonies!  No food!

And now that China has become a major food exporter, almost any farm investment would be blind optimism.  China now makes not only most of our electrical goods but also most of those low-priced "Own brand" cans of food in your local supermarket. The abundance that worldwide capitalism produces is in the end what will keep Australias's vast North mostly empty.  Greenie shrieks about overpopulation are a laugh to anyone who knows anything about the subject

A record-breaking drought in the state of Queensland has reignited calls to unlock the economic potential of Australia's under-developed and sparsely populated north.

As those on the land struggle, business leaders are promoting the idea that the region could be transformed into a giant food bowl for Asia.

What's needed, according to Troy Popham, the head of the Townsville Chamber of Commerce, is the vision to create a large network of new reservoirs and pipelines to help a thirsty country cope with prolonged dry spells.

"The rain across northern Australia can be captured and can be channelled to relevant places so that the downstream effects of the water can still be utilised," he says.

"It is going to cost some money, but the rewards that it will deliver to the country are enormous."

Bold irrigation schemes, a 600m Australian dollar ($418m; £290m) upgrade to outback roads, extra money to revamp airstrips, and funds to explore rail freight links are part of a federal government discussion paper released last June.

"No longer will Northern Australia be seen as the last frontier: it is in fact, the next frontier," proclaimed a statement from the governing Liberal Party.

Development challenge

The region, to the north of the Tropic of Capricorn, covers more ground than many countries, and spans Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

It is flush with potential; from agriculture and renewable energy, to tourism, education and tropical medicine.

Crucially, for policy makers it is on the doorstep of emerging markets in Asia.

But the dreams of exploiting the untapped riches of the north that go back almost as far as European settlement in the late 18th Century have remained unfulfilled.

Colonial explorers dragged boats into the mysterious interior hoping to find an inland sea, but discovered only desert and disappointment. Over the years, other lofty ambitions have also turned to dust.

While Canberra's ambition to eventually light up the north is praised by industry groups and farmers, there is - because of the area's sheer scale - caution.

"It is a great principle, but it can end up being useless rhetoric if the government is not willing to drive this investment," says Queensland state MP Robbie Katter, from his offices in the mining city of Mount Isa in the rugged Gulf Country region.

"What many people have in mind is that it would be corporate-style farming with foreign owners or institutional investors that do a big irrigation scheme.

"That benefits a few and really doesn't help solve any of the problems for the established farmers out here."

The cost of upgrading key freight routes would be huge, and take years, but would be worth the time and money, argues Andrew Gray, chairman of Northern Territory Livestock Exporters Association.

"The pastoral industry has been crippled by poor roads," he says.   "We have heavy rain during our wet season. Roads become impassable for passenger vehicles, let alone for the transport of livestock."

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