In praise of Abbott's great leap northward

The Coalition's plan to transform Australia by rapidly developing the sparsely populated north shows up Labor on several important issues.

Tony Abbott is often berated for lazing in a policy-free zone, happy to score easy political points over the carbon and mining taxes. As Michael Gawenda pointed out yesterday he is hamstrung on fiscal policy, afraid to act on industrial relations, and actually not too different to Labor on 'stopping the boats', education reform and the NDIS (Why Gillard's contest will be surreal, February 6).

So how about a different policy Tony?

Well today we've got one, courtesy of a sensational leak to Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper of Abbott's vision for a transformation of Northern Australia.

Various versions of the story are running under headlines such as 'Abbott to cut nation in half', but the essential thrust of the policy discussion paper is to use tax incentives (i.e. lower up north), direct public investment and increased migration to kick-start the development of vast tracts of northern Australia.

The major reforms outlined in the document, which has been sent to state premiers for consideration, are (and I quote):

– Developing a food bowl including premium produce which could double Australia's agricultural output.

– Growing the tourist economy in the north to $100 billion and 2.5 million tourists.

– The growth of an energy export industry worth $150 billion with a major proportion of sustainable energy.

– Tripling of resource exports, adding over $100 billion to the economy.

– Relocation of defence facilities to the north to support our strategic and regional objectives and allies.

– Establishing at least two world class medical centres of excellence in the north.

– Creating three to five leading vocational and higher education campuses with world class strengths in selected areas.

– Growing Australia's exports of technical skills related to resources and agriculture to a $7 billion industry.

In short, it is a plan to transform the nation by rapidly developing its least populated regions. There'd be new dams, PNG hydro-electricity to supply baseload power and a 15 year 'rolling priority list' of infrastructure spending.

Darwin, Cairns/Townsville and Karratha would see large increases in their populations, with workers tempted north from overcrowded parts of our capital cities, or, in the case of large numbers of public servants, just told to relocate.

Importantly for the politics of this proposal, the document calls for a review of "current immigration policy". Yes, we'd need Johnny Foreigner to pitch in.

This is all a far cry from the small-Australia policy the Coalition took to the 2010 election, at which time it was promising to limit immigration to an arbitrary, and likely economically damaging, 170,000.

At that time a ludicrous population 'debate' was held over whether or not this vast country, and its massive natural resources, could support 36 million people. (To recap, click the following links, and scroll down, to read: The invention of cloud campaigning, July 2010, and Dick Smith's population bomb, August 2010.)

Labor fudged its side of that debate by saying it wasn't so much the number of immigrants that mattered, but where they ended up living. Its regional development plans, overseen by the newly created cabinet position of Minister for the Regions (Simon Crean), were designed to coax workers out to regional centres across the nation.

But if the Coalition adopts the measures in the new leaked document, we will be on track to 'Big Australia' – which in global population-density terms will still be 'Quite Small Australia'.

Reading between the lines it is easy to envisage miles of swaying sugar-cane-based ethanol production, the clearing of ecologically important land and conflicts with indigenous communities – just some of the issues the Greens will go through with a fine-tooth comb if the policy is adopted.

And rightly so. Any great leap forward in development terms is fraught with environmental and social dangers.

Nonetheless, the Coalition appears to have been working hard on an impressive example of 'joined up thinking' that promises to put Australia on a more even footing with our near neighbours – by populating largely empty regions, producing more food for the growing global population, and offering economic salvation to hundreds of thousands of eager migrants.

There's something very Australian about all of that.

Given the early leaking of this discussion document, however, it's difficult to predict how it will be received by voters, and what the response we'll see from a Labor government that, for now, appears to have been outflanked on these important issues.

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