Develop the north

NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT WAS high on the Commonwealth agenda in the 1950s and 1960s, leading to such projects as the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme. It is no coincidence that this was a period of optimism and high morale in the country. But vision for the long-term well-being of the nation has been notably lacking in recent decades.

I shall put a sequence of propositions.

Proposition one: Australia's population is unsustainably small. History warns us that a large prosperous country with modest defence capability, one that is geographically isolated, is going to be, at some point in time, an attractive target for invasion. Events since September 11 have heightened a sense of global instability.

Proposition two: the building and maintenance of an effective 21st-century defence force is dependent on national wealth. With each year that passes the cost rises exponentially, given the technological complexity of the jets, missiles and ships essential to modern warfare. The New Zealand reductions in recent years to already pitifully weak military forces are due principally to the small size of that country's economy.

Proposition three: in Australia's case, the only way to build the gross national product to a level that is prudent for security by, say, 2050 is with a massive growth in population. Malcolm Fraser's total population figure of 50 million is, to my mind, the right order of magnitude. And it is manageable.

There is a counter-argument on defence, put by Martin Wolf in Why Globalisation Works (Yale University Press, 2004), the best book I have read on the workings of the contemporary capitalist economy. Wolf argues that wealth in the past was dependent on land, so it made sense for ambitious states to invade other territories and build land empires. Today, wealth is dependent on knowledge and inventiveness – note Singapore and Hong Kong. The new empires are based on trade.

The Wolf argument is plausible up to a point. However, no small- or medium-size nation can afford to plan its defence future on such optimism about the conflict of nations. Prudence should rule policy about security, and prudence takes more pessimistic projections into account.

A conference on population held in Melbourne in 2002 canvassed other reasons for increasing the size of Communitas Australia. Above all, it stressed the link between immigration and the enhancing of a lively, vibrant and diverse culture. Here, too, is the obvious counter to current demographic concerns about an ageing population.

Proposition four: the environment can sustain a doubling in the population, as long as new arrivals go where the water is. This means settlement of the North. Graham Harris, the chief of CSIRO Land and Water, in response to questions after he delivered an Alfred Deakin Federation lecture in 2001, argued that White Australia had already done its damage to the land. Further increase in population would not make much difference, as long as land and water were managed intelligently.

Proposition five: national development on this scale, of both time and scope, will depend on active, interventionist planning and direction from Canberra. Governments from both sides have missed a golden opportunity in the past 20 years to develop Darwin into a new Singapore or Hong Kong. They failed for want of vision.

Imagine Darwin as our third major city. The ramifications are profound. It would function as an Asian money, securities and trade centre anchored by the stability of Australian democracy and its independent, relatively corruption-free legal and financial institutions. Located on the doorstep of South-East Asia, it would facilitate the inevitable future ties between this country and those to our north. Its more Asian multicultural cast would help adapt a predominantly Anglo-European society to its shifting geopolitical location.

Specific developments would automatically follow – for instance, a fast train link to the south. The vast area of the Kimberley – fertile and water-rich – could be developed from Darwin.

The entire balance and orientation of the nation would change. The current centre of social and wealth mass in the south-east corner would swing up and towards the middle. A greater harmony might follow between the geographical stretch of this vast continent and its human imaginings.

Since Federation, it is as if we have remained, with the partial exception of the building of Canberra, fixated in 19th-century geography. We are still stuck with Burke and Wills at Coopers Creek, unable to bridge the continent.

Australia's medium-term wellbeing hinges on national development. It is time we once again mobilised a sense of communal purpose to manage the future. 

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