Key to success of vision for North lies in mooted reforms more than money
White Paper offers sound blueprint
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.