Senator Alan Eggleston


One of the most visionary aspects of the coalition's policies of the recent federal election was our comprehensive policy for the North as mentioned in the Governor-General's speech at the opening of parliament. We in the coalition believe there is clear scope in northern Australia for an integrated approach from the Commonwealth, working together with relevant state and territory governments and the private sector, to unleash the development potential of the North to capitalise on the opportunities presented by the so-called Asian century, in which there will be spectacular growth in the middle class of the ASEAN nations to our north, as well as by similar developments in the nations of the Indian Ocean rim to our west. 

Without doubt, now the coalition is in government, our 2030 Vision for Developing Northern Australia will play a pivotal role in the development of the North. This vision was released by now Prime Minister the Hon. Tony Abbott in Townsville on 21 June this year and formed one of the coalition's election policies in our strategic plan for the sustainable growth and future development of northern Australia. We have already taken the first step in the process by conducting extensive consultations across the North, including public forums in Western Australia, which were held
in Kununurra, Broome and Karratha in July, with the then shadow parliamentary secretary for northern and remote Australia, Senator Ian Macdonald, and me. Similar forums were held in north Queensland and the Northern Territory.

This work will culminate in the release of a formal white paper by the newly established parliamentary committee for northern development which will be chaired by the federal member for Leichhardt, Warren Entsch. However, the point must be made that while northern Australia enjoys a number of competitive advantages, many are currently underutilised. In fact, while northern Australia is a land of enormous potential, including in agriculture, mining and  tourism, we in the coalition believe the greatest untapped opportunity lies in the development of the North as the food
bowl for Asia by developing agriculture across the North, particularly irrigated agriculture, followed by realising the great potential for developing the tourist industry in the North.

Turning to the idea of a food bowl for Asia, many people are not aware that by 2020 more than half the world's middle class will live in Asia and Asian consumers will account for 40 per cent of the global middle class. Asia's real GDP is also expected to increase from US$27 trillion to US$67 trillion by 2030. Asia and the ASEAN nations are therefore already the world's biggest and fastest-growing regional economies, while Indonesia is predicted to be the eighth largest economy in a decade. This is why Australia needs to market itself now as the answer to Asia's future food needs. Australia has already been a net food exporter for well over a century, producing enough food currently to feed
60 million people, and our agricultural technology used in other countries, moreover, helps feed some 400 million people. 

The iconic Ord River scheme, which was set up by the Menzies government in the 1960s, has enabled 50 years of research in the agricultural potential of the north. In Kununurra there is a plan to extend the Ord River irrigation area into the Northern Territory, where it is planned to grow sugar which will be exported to Asia. This is a very important precedent in Kununurra, Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle— and you are a man who knows a great deal about the north—that could be followed in other areas across the north of Australia where irrigated agriculture could be established. The CSIRO concluded that five million to 17 million additional hectares across the North are potentially suitable for agriculture purposes. Increasing our irrigation water usage from just six to nine per cent—only three per cent—would mean that, after meeting our own people's requirements, we could feed an additional 100 million people. The Ord River Dam contains six times the volume of water in Sydney Harbour and perhaps water could be piped south to the Fitzroy Valley to develop agriculture on the black soil plains of the West Kimberley. Since the Aborigines there are very much against the damming of the Fitzroy River, the Ord River water could be put to good use in that area. The Pilbara pastoral industry, which has long been overshadowed by the mining industry, is still working successfully. There are cattle stations throughout the Pilbara, all the way along the coast from Karratha to Broome and inland to the Karijini National Park. I have no doubt that the Pilbara agricultural sector can, and should, be an important contributor to the food bowl for Asia concept for the north of Australia. 

There is a huge opportunity for Australia to work with our closest neighbour, Indonesia, in particular, to supply their rapidly growing market for food and other commodities, valued at some $300 million to $400 million a year in the  recent past. 

Moving forward, our focus needs to be on broadening our scope to include the nations of the Indian Ocean rim - which
stretches from Indonesia and India to the Gulf and eastern South Africa as well as the island states of Mauritius and Madagascar—because, in doing so, there are great opportunities for the expertise which exists in the north of Australia, particularly in mining, energy and food production, as well as in services like education, which are needed in these areas. At a recent meeting in Perth, Australia took over the chairmanship of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for two years, and there are high hopes that the Indian Ocean Rim Association will develop over time into an Indian Ocean version of APEC. While APEC took some 20 years to reach the point that it is at now, I am hopeful that the
Indian Ocean Rim Association will mature into a successful partnership in a shorter time than that.  

I would like to make some more comments about the great opportunities that exist for the north of Australia. Firstly, I will talk about mining and energy. Although we have a huge mining industry, why can't this be developed into a processing or manufacturing industry as well? Sir Charles Court had a vision of a jumbo steel mill in the Pilbara when the Pilbara mining industry was established. The cost of labour, the cost of power and the poor industrial relations of that time have been cited as reasons for a secondary processing industry not being established. But  today, with automation, the workforce required is smaller so costs are down, industrial relations are much better and, with gas, the cost of power is much less. Given this, why can't Sir Charles's grand vision of a jumbo steel mill in the Pilbara be resurrected, instead of sending our iron ore to Korea, where it is taken off the ships on one side of the port, taken straight to a blast furnace, taken to a steel-rolling mill and then exported from the other side of the port. Why
can't we be doing that in the Pilbara? Should we just continue to export shiploads of iron ore or dirt to China and Japan, or should we be focusing on developing some kind of secondary processing? It is a very interest question. I have been told that the Asians would prefer to be purchasing rolled steel instead of iron ore, and that is a very interesting fact to bear in mind. It seems the problem is not with the market; it is with the producers who are quite happy to just continue exporting ore. Some people even describe Australia as a Third World country in disguise because we are no more than just 'a quarry and a farm' and we are losing most of our manufacturing industries, but I would submit that in the Pilbara there is an opportunity to reverse that perception with locally based secondary processing. 

I will turn next to energy. Northern Australia has the potential to grow its energy export industry to over $150 billion worth in 20 years, and the Pilbara thereby has the opportunity to be the major energy supplier across Asia and the Indian Ocean rim. Another industry of great potential in the North is tourism. Tourism is one of the largest industries in Australia and, according to Tourism Research Australia, it contributes some $87 billion to the Australian economy. The coalition vision is to expand northern Australia's tourist economy to two million international visitors per annum by 2030. People who travel the world to see and explore attractions that are unique and different go, for example, from Europe to Africa. In Australia we have many attractions which are unique and different, from the Queensland barrier reef and rainforests to the wonders of the Red Centre and Indigenous culture in the Northern Territory. In the Pilbara, we have some of the most interesting landscapes in the world, especially in the Karijini National Park. Also, across the region in general, there is rugged beauty, with historic towns such as Cossack and Marble Bar and, of course, the wonders of the Ningaloo Reef, not to mention the Kimberley Bungle Bungles or Purnululu National Park, as well as the beautiful and unique Kimberly coast, accessible these days by cruise boats operating from Darwin and Broome. So there is plenty to see in the North and there is plenty of potential for developing tourism.

One of the most important things that we need to do if we are going to expand our tourist industry is upgrade major
transport arteries and infrastructure. Significant and sustained growth cannot be achieved without doing these things. We need improved roads, we need better hotels and we need more airports, and the coalition white paper will consider tasking Infrastructure Australia with conducting a comprehensive audit of northern Australia's infrastructure needs. When that report is delivered to the government, it is planned that the recommendations will be implemented over a period of 15 years. 

Gaps in communication infrastructure and the high cost of services in the region will also be addressed.  Communications infrastructure is particularly important. In this day and age, mobile phone coverage along the long, lonely highways of Australia should be provided as a matter of course and not regarded as an optional extra service. These days, with solar powered transmission facilities, there is no reason at all why there should not be mobile coverage along the Great Northern Highway, the North West Coastal Highway and all the other long, lonely highways
in Australia, such as the Stuart in the Northern Territory and the Bruce Highway in Queensland.  

The strategic requirements of the North are an important aspect of the coalition's overall strategy for the region, particularly for Australia's defence and border protection. The Defence Force Posture Review last year recommended an increase in the Defence presence in the north-west. Given the massive scale of project developments on the north-west coast - running into many billions of dollars—the ease with which an unauthorised boat recently showed it could access the area and tie up under an oil rig is a cause for concern. If it is that easy for a fishing boat to get into those areas where the oil rigs and other developments are, it would be easy for a boat with terrorists on board to do the same. This is a problem which we need to seriously address.

In the last parliament I was Chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee and I am now Chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, and during Senate estimates I have been active in questioning the ADF about its lack of presence off the north-west coast, pursuing it to increase the naval presence in that area. This is an issue which was raised as a problem a decade ago by the then Governor-General, Michael Jeffery, so it is a problem that has been known about for a long time. It is certainly a weakness in our overall defence position.

A coalition defence white paper will consider basing more of our military forces in northern and north-west Australia,
especially in the resource-rich areas with little or no current military presence but where there is a more tangible need for a military presence than appears to be the case on the east coast. Unless we are worried about an unprovoked
attack from New Caledonia or New Zealand, we might be better served by basing more of our defence forces on the north-west coast.  

In conclusion, overall the coalition sees the North as a land of enormous potential, particularly for capitalising on the opportunities presented by the growth of the middle class in the ASEAN group of countries and similar developments in the 35 nations of the Indian Ocean rim. In all, there are great prospects for agriculture, mining, energy and tourism. We in the coalition believe that it is vital for Australia to position itself now if we are to benefit from the Asian century and all that it offers us in terms of opportunity.
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