Senator Alan Eggleston



Australia is a big country with some big icons. We have the Great Barrier Reef, Ayres Rock and the Opera House, and some people say the national debt under Labor. But in Western Australia there is the mighty Ord River. Some 650 kilometres in length, with an average discharge of 3.8 million litres per year, the Ord Dam is a huge expanse holding back a volume of water equal to six times that contained in Sydney Harbour. With a basin area of over 46,000 square kilometres, it might not be as big as the Murray-Darling Basin but it is also not as controversial. Named in honour of an early Western Australian governor, the Ord River is not just an important source of water for the region. It is finally set to achieve some genuine economic outcomes for Australia's largest state and to establish permanent agriculture in the north.

The Western Australian government established a small experimental station on the banks of the Ord River in 1941, and thus began the saga of the development of agriculture in the north of Western Australia. Sadly, this small agricultural station was closed just four years later when the Kimberley research station opened on the Ivanhoe Plain. The research station grew crops of rice, cotton, safflower, flax and sugarcane, with results encouraging enough for the Western Australian government to develop an irrigation scheme on the Ord River in due course. Commercial farming began in 1963, the same year that Sir Robert Menzies opened the groundbreaking diversion dam on the Ord.

With the recent announcement for unregulated sugarcane plantations, Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett has brought to fruition nearly a hundred years of research in tropical agriculture in the Ord region. For almost a century, the Western Australian government has sought to reap the benefits of this important river while preserving its natural heritage and environmental beauty. It has not been an easy process but one spotted with occasional misfortune and back to the drawing board moments. As one author wrote, 'The process of decision making on the Ord River scheme involved a seemingly endless sequence of small, incremental and uncoordinated adjustments on the part of both the Commonwealth and the Western Australian governments.'

The north of Western Australia is not only a vast place but also a place of isolation and extreme climatic conditions. The region has a semiarid monsoonal climate, with a warm dry season and a hot wet season from around November to April. Rain in the wet season comes primarily from monsoonal depressions and not infrequent tropical cyclones, and at other times rainfall can be sparse; nevertheless, it is very fertile land. Time and money have been spent on researching how best to utilise in the Ord River region for agriculture in the north. It has taken a long time to get there but it seems that, with this sugar industry development in the Kununurra area, the North is really coming into its own as an agricultural region.

Over the years, Western Australian governments have investigated a number of crops which could be grown in the area. In the early 1920s, attention was given to planting various kinds of tropical plants, but it was soon discovered that water would not be available in the dry season and so that was not considered sustainable at that time. The Ord is a case of extremes in which the river flows through the rich fertile land in proportions of flood in the wet and is simply too low and dry for sustainable agriculture in the dry. Other crops that were considered were cotton, but that was abandoned in 1974, again due in no small part to the irregular climate.

But last week the Western Australian government, in what is the first genuine outcome for the Ord River region, announced its decision to allow development of Ord Stage 2 as a sugar plantation. A Shanghai-based company, run by a Chinese person who has lived in Melbourne, I am told, for 10 years, has been selected. Its plan is to spend up to $700 million over six years to convert almost 13,500 hectares of land in the Kimberley in Ord Stage 2 into sugar farms. According to the Australian Financial Review last weekend, the plan is to sublease the farms to individual growers who will develop sugar plantations. The owning company will buy the sugar cane from the farmers and put it through its sugar mills and then export the sugar from the port of Wyndham to other parts of the world. This approval will allow the Ord River Scheme to be brought back to its original concept of creating irrigated agriculture in the area. Not only is the developer planning to convert underdeveloped country into sugar fields but, as I have said, it will also build a large sugar mill near Kununurra and overall spend a lot of money in that part of the Kimberley. This can only be regarded as beneficial not only for the region but also for Australia as a whole.
It is important to understand that the Ord continues to be a research project. It is naive to think that the northern part of Australia will be easy to convert into a food bowl from which we can feed Asia and the world. The reality of the north is that the climate, as I have said, is far from friendly and there are numerous pests to deal with. There have been many failed agricultural projects in the north, such as the Humpty Doo rice farm in the Northern Territory, which is a testament to the difficulty of establishing agricultural projects anywhere in the north of Australia.

There are those who have criticised the Barnett government for proceeding with the sugar development, but it has to be remembered that for the last half-century the Ord has been working towards this kind of development. The whole focus has been that in the end there would be sustainable agriculture on the banks of the Ord River, and it would seem that this long-term objective is now being achieved. Of all the governments in Australia, the WA government is perhaps the most appropriate to undertake a great development project such as the Ord Stage 2 given the great record of Western Australian Liberal governments in sponsoring the visionary development of the Pilbara iron ore industry in the 1960s and 1970s and the North West Shelf gas project in the eighties. The Western Australian government has a great track record of undertaking enormous projects in the north, and I am sure that, given time, this agricultural development on the Ord River will turn the Ord into one of the great food bowls of Australia.

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