Senator Alan Eggleston


As Senator Macdonald says, I have spent a long time in the north. I went to live in Port Hedland in 1974, which is a while ago, so I do have some experience of the north and the issues that it faces. I must say that never before have the circumstances been so opportune as to warrant the serious promotion of and support for sustainable growth across Northern Australia. But, sadly, the Gillard government is not capitalising on these opportunities.

The vast region north of the Tropic of Capricorn covers almost three million square kilometres and is Australia's gateway to the Asia-Pacific century. This government is simply not grasping at the opportunities that it represents to be taken up and exploited. In fact, the Gillard government is absolutely no friend of regional Australia or of Northern Australia. If it were it would not have closed down the live cattle industry, which is so very vital to the economy of all three northern jurisdictions: the Northern Territory, North Queensland and the north of Western Australia. The live cattle industry, as we all remember, was closed down overnight in response to a single television program which, it seems, exaggerated a situation. There is no doubt that the closing down of the cattle industry which followed the banning of live cattle exports to Indonesia has had a devastating effect on both northern families and our international reputation.

But the real importance of the North and its potential in agriculture at least is that the north of Australia could be the food bowl of Asia. That is a great opportunity that should not be missed.

Senator McLucas interjecting—

I see Senator McLucas shaking her head which is what I would expect, sadly, from a person from a government that has no vision.

Some 60 per cent of Australia's rain falls north of the Tropic of Capricorn and this means that the north, as I said, has the potential to become a vast food bowl for the Asian region. Asia is just over the horizon from the north of Australia. Port Hedland is closer to Denpasar than it is to Perth; from Broome it is even closer and from Kununurra, where there is a great deal of irrigated agriculture, the hop over the horizon to Jakarta or Singapore to sell horticulture freighted in by air is not very hard to see as a great opportunity for future development.

Although we have 60 per cent of Australia's rainfall in the north, we capitalise on less than two per cent of it. The iconic Ord River scheme in my home state of Western Australia—set up, I must say, by the Menzies government back in the 1960s—is a great example of what can be done in the north of Australia. Already, in Kununurra there is a plan to extend the Ord River irrigation area into the Northern Territory, and they plan to grow sugar there which will be exported to Asia. It is a very, very important precedent, which could be followed in other areas around the north of Australia. The CSIRO has concluded that five to 17 million hectares across northern Australia are potentially suitable for a variety of agricultural purposes on account of arable soil. And yet this government is doing almost nothing to capitalise on that potential.

The Northern Australian Land and Water Taskforce, set up by the previous coalition government, was designed to explore the opportunities in the north. Both Senators MacDonald and, I think, Heffernan were on that. This process, however, was nobbled by the Rudd government; it was restricted in its scope and is shaped by the ALP government by influences which were not supportive of further growth in the north of Australia. For instance, it was not asked to look at opportunities for new surface water storages. In addition, the recent National Food Plan, released by Senator Ludwig, was a document devoid of any real vision, and ignorant of the potential of the north. It is little wonder that it sank without trace.
Australia has remained a net food exporter for well over a century, producing enough food currently to feed 60 million people, and our agricultural technology, moreover, helps feed some 400 million people. One simple statistic which is very important to the north of Australia is that the OECD report The emerging middle class in developing countries sets out in stark terms the economic potential that lies ahead for Australia and Asia. It shows the extraordinary projected growth of the middle class in Asia and the Pacific. In 2009, the region accounted for 28 per cent of the global middle class, or 525 million people. By 2030 that figure is expected to increase by 66 per cent to an incredible 3.2 billion people. Europe will be a distant second, with 14 per cent of the world's population.

Over this same period, the middle class in Asia is expected to have a surge in spending power from $4.9 billion currently to $32.5 billion by 2030. By 2020, more than half the world's middle class will be in Asia, and Asian consumers will account for 40 per cent of the global middle class. These people will need to be fed, and northern Australia has the opportunity of providing food to these people.
Senator Macdonald and others have talked about the mining industry, which is also very important in the north of Australia, and one has to say that the Gillard government's mining and resources rent tax, which has increased Australia's sovereign risk, is certainly not doing anything to encourage development in northern Australia and to provide jobs for the local people.

Senator Crossin has talked about Indigenous people, and of course the Indigenous people of the north are probably the poorest of the Indigenous people in Australia. Many of them live on stations and outstations. They lack education, they have health problems which need to be addressed and they often have a sense of despair about the future that lies ahead of them. What we need to do is create jobs for them in the mining industry and in agriculture. But if they had to rely on the Gillard government to provide jobs in these sectors then nothing would change for them, because under the Gillard government, and the ALP in general, nothing is going to be done to promote agriculture or to promote mining in the north.
One of the great opportunities which also exists in the north is tourism. Tourists from around the world come to areas which are different, and the part of Australia that is different is the north of Australia—from northern Queensland and the Barrier Reef through to the Northern Territory and the Red Centre and on into the Kimberley, with the Bungle Bungles, down into the Pilbara with the Wittenoom area and the gorges there, to Exmouth and the Ningaloo Reef. There is great potential for tourist development. There has not been a word from the ALP about setting up a task force to promote tourist development in the north, simply because I think they lack the imagination to see that great potential.

The north is a land of enormous potential. There are great prospects there in agriculture, great prospects in mining and great prospects in tourism; and there is a great need to improve the lot of the Aboriginal people. None of this is going to be happening under the Gillard government because they simply do not have the vision to see the potential which the north offers.
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