Key to suc­cess of vi­sion for North lies in mooted re­forms more than money

White Pa­per of­fers sound blue­print

Townsville Bulletin - - OPINION -

THE Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment’s White Pa­per on De­vel­op­ing North­ern Aus­tralia, Our North, Our Fu­ture, has been met with a mix­ture of ex­cite­ment and scep­ti­cism. This is not ter­ri­bly sur­pris­ing. The prom­ise of more money and less red tape was al­ways go­ing to have some stake­hold­ers in rap­tures just as surely as it was go­ing to leave oth­ers rolling their eyes and/ or squint­ing at the fine print.

There are grounds for scep­ti­cism, which I will out­line be­low. First, I think it does need to be ac­knowl­edged that so far this looks like one of the bet­ter pol­icy blue­prints pro­duced by the cur­rent Gov­ern­ment. Prepa­ra­tion, re­lease and re­cep­tion of the White Pa­per have been largely free of po­lit­i­cal op­por­tunism and point scor­ing. This pro­vides some hope that, as we work through the de­tail of how ini­tia­tives an­nounced in the White Pa­per will ac­tu­ally be im­ple­mented, a spirit of open- mind­ed­ness and co- op­er­a­tion will pre­vail.

We should not ex­pect ev­ery­body to agree on ev­ery­thing all of the time, but we can ex­pect to get bet­ter pol­icy de­ci­sions if the ma­jor stake­hold­ers can at least re­frain from dis­agree­ing with each other on prin­ci­ple.

There are plenty of other things to like about the White Pa­per. Up­grad­ing trans­port in­fra­struc­ture on key routes. Mov­ing the Of­fice of North­ern Aus­tralia to North­ern Aus­tralia. In­vest­ing in re­search, de­vel­op­ment and commercialisation. Each of these in­vest­ments makes sense.

How­ever, one of the more as­tute com­ments in the White Pa­per is the ob­ser­va­tion that gov­ern­ments can­not take sole re­spon­si­bil­ity for eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. Their role is to fa­cil­i­tate and nur­ture pri­vate- sec­tor ac­tiv­ity while pro­tect­ing so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal val­ues.

As im­por­tant as gov­ern­ment ex­pen­di­ture is to the north­ern econ­omy, reg­u­la­tory re­forms and other pro­pos­als mooted in the White Pa­per to en­cour­age pri­vate in­vest­ment are likely, over the long term, to be far more im­por­tant.

These are the parts of the White Pa­per that are at­tract­ing scep­ti­cism and, in­deed, con­cern.

Take the sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of land ten­ure. This is the first and most im­por­tant area of reg­u­la­tory re­form iden­ti­fied. It is true that the com­plex­ity of ten­ure ar­range­ments on both na­tive ti­tle lands and pas­toral leases in North­ern Aus­tralia dis­cour­ages in­vest­ment. Re­form is sorely needed. Get this wrong, how­ever, and ten­ure re­form could make things far more dif­fi­cult for ex­ist­ing ti­tle­hold­ers.

We should not be sur­prised that lead­ers such as Noel Pear­son have al­ready raised con­cerns about the north­ern agenda un­der­min­ing in­dige­nous land rights. Na­tive ti­tle is a unique form of ten­ure that once ex­tin­guished ( even vol­un­tar­ily) can­not be re- es­tab­lished.

Another area of re­form is the stream­lin­ing of de­vel­op­ment pro­cesses. Again, there are un­nec­es­sary com­plex­i­ties in the ex­ist­ing sys­tem of en­vi­ron­men­tal ap­provals – com­plex­i­ties that make it hard for small to medium busi­nesses to ini­ti­ate projects and be­wil­der­ing for com­mu­nity mem­bers try­ing to re­spond to de­vel­op­ment pro­pos­als. Both sides of pol­i­tics recog­nise this and have been work­ing to get bet­ter align­ment of state and fed­eral re­quire­ments for sev­eral years.

The key, of course, is to en­sure that stream­lin­ing de­vel­op­ment pro­cesses does not com­pro­mise the in­tegrity of these pro­cesses or the rights of af­fected com­mu­ni­ties to have mean­ing­ful in­put. We do not want a de­vel­op­ment free- for- all that com­pro­mises the so­cial and nat­u­ral as­sets on which our com­mu­ni­ties and economies are built.

What are we to make, then, of the largest fi­nan­cial com­mit­ment out­lined in the White Pa­per, the $ 5 bil­lion con­ces­sional loan fa­cil­ity?

This is in­tended to help the pri­vate sec­tor build road, rail, air­port, energy, wa­ter and com­mu­ni­ca­tions in­fra­struc­ture that would not oth­er­wise be built. Crit­i­cally, the White Pa­per states that el­i­gi­bil­ity for these loans will de­pend on the ben­e­fits ex­tend­ing be­yond the pro­ject pro­po­nent, but it does not say to whom. Should ad­di­tional ben­e­fits go to other busi­nesses? The broader com­mu­nity?

Ques­tions are be­ing raised about whether the Aus­tralian tax­payer is be­ing asked to fi­nance re­source projects that banks and other in­sti­tu­tional in­vestors are walk­ing away from be­cause the risks are too high. We can­not an­swer these ques­tions now, of course, be­cause cri­te­ria for the loans have not been re­leased.

Ques­tions, how­ever, do need to be asked. And north­ern Aus­tralians need to be ready with an­swers of their own.

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