Life is great in the Sunshine StateWhen the Coalition engaged in a development plan for northern Australia, it was a sign of their intellectual bankruptcy. Their policies mainly benefit large landholders and larger mining companies, proposing more infrastructure built from the public treasury while also promising that those who stand to benefit most from their policies should also be given tax breaks. They are vague and frankly untrustworthy about measures to help ordinary people (e.g. encouraging people to move to urban centres like Karratha or Townsville, skills development), measures that might've had more credibility in the 1950s than they do today.
Every Queensland heart sings a song
To its tablelands and its golden sands
We are proud to say we belong
And our faith is great in the Sunshine State
For our Queensland future is grand
From the northern cane to the western plain
It's a full of promise land
All the while every mile, there's a sunlit smile
And a welcome handshake too
For friendship's great in the Sunshine State
May its sunshine keep smiling for you
- Official state song of Queensland
That policy was largely written by the IPA. No longer independent of those who pay them, the IPA have a pseudo-policy development capacity that the Coalition no longer has, generating dull and senseless prose and meaningless picto-stats on demand to plea for government lolly. Any document with a Liberal/National logo on it longer than a press release has been outsourced, and probably not read by the shadow minister nominally responsible for it. It will certainly not be read by candidates, who are all being treated by Liberal Campaign HQ as though they are as stupid as Jaeiuymz Diaz.
At first it was surprising that the ALP would even try to match such policies, but a quick look at the electoral position in that area explains why:
- Coalition-held seats in far north Queensland like Dawson, Herbert, Hinkler, and
CookLeichhardt are up for grabs;
- Durack in northern WA, as with Capricornia in Qld, is open to a credible appeal from a candidate who would champion communities in those area as distinct from FIFO destinations; skyrocketing house prices are useful only if you want to move out of those communities. Labor, Katter, or a reformed conservative (e.g. Windsor, Wilkie, Oakeshott) independent would be well placed to make such a case - Rinehart's LNP or Clive Palmer's outfit, much less so;
- Wide Bay, the nation's poorest electorate (see tables with supporting data linked from here), is represented by the docile, experienced and relatively moderate Warren Truss. Rightwing parties like the CEC are represented all too well in his electorate and, because the right are morons, it is likely they will try to knock Truss off or replace him when he retires. Any LNP candidate who replaced Truss would be weaker, and probably more than flirt with far-right ideas, putting Labor, Katter or a solid independent in a solid position to take the seat by default; and
- Solomon, which takes in metropolitan Darwin, is currently represented by Natasha Griggs. The local Coalition franchise, CLP, holds the Territory government and has blown its goodwill in the sort of credibility-bonfire to be expected from rightwingers unprepared for office. People will be looking to send them a warning - and if that means Tony Abbott finds it harder to win, too bad for him. Griggs needs to learn that the reason why you stop to help people in accidents is because you never know when an accident might befall you.
This makes Labor's half-hearted me-tooism understandable.
For a start, Katter is preferencing Labor on the strength of that 'commitment'. Katter is preferencing Labor because his politics are all about a sentimental attachment to Queensland Labor policy of a century ago: protectionist and mercantilist, welcoming-handshake inclined, not necessarily racist but none of your southern celebrating-difference bullshit either. Katter's conservatism comes from Labor having moved away from that. Rudd can talk from that heritage but he can't necessarily live it; Wayne Swan was part of that generation that excised that legacy from Queensland Labor's brand, whereas someone like Gillard didn't even know where to start with that stuff.
Rudd can also do things like disendorse the Labor candidate for Kennedy so that Katter has a freer run. This is a bit of political sophistry for which the press gallery exists in order to report on, but which in this instance they failed to even detect: lumping Kennedy in with a slice of suburban Melbourne is irrelevant, point-missing journalism.
Labor's northern development policy, such as it is, is not limited to viewing local communities as life-support systems for mining companies. The reference to the NBN holds out more promise to the future of communities like Mackay and Karratha than a few jobs at some increasingly mechanised mines or non-jobs in agriculture. If only a car company would build a factory at Port Hedland. Seriously though, the policy should have gone into greater detail, but to do so would require answers from infrastructure-deficient communities elsewhere in the country.
Part of the infrastructure problem for the north involves protecting it from extremes of weather, which will only get more extreme over time. These can no longer be regarded as freaky occasions that incur acts of charity from the rest of the country, but as part of the costs of living and doing business in that part of the country. There was none of that in Labor's policy, nor the Coalition's: but few political commitments are so bipartisan as those involved in avoiding issues that are real, large, and uncertain in resolution.
The NT has long sought to diversify its agricultural sector beyond beef cattle. Such success as it is starting to have is coming at the expense of northern Queensland, offering a similar climate for produce that requires it but with less risk of the cyclonic wipeouts that afflict that region. Producers in the region can offer Asian markets neither the mass production volumes nor niche specialisations such as pesticide/fertiliser-free certified-organic niches. From a national perspective, depleting established agricultural communities in northern Queensland to boost those in the Territory is a zero-sum game, yet any post-facto justification of a northern development policy will tout NT agriculture as part of the "good news story" to pitch to gullible journalists.
The biggest thing that the Federal government could do to boost communities in northern Australia is to station more ADF personnel there. ADF personnel are skilled and disciplined and get paid a fraction of what equivalent workers get in the mines - and in times of low unemployment the ADF can barely meet recruitment levels while maintaining standards.
The Great Barrier Reef is a greater economic resource than almost any other use to which that area can be put, including oil exploration. Yet, any credible economic (and hence population) plan for northern Queensland will include creating shipping channels to ports such as Gladstone and Mackay, which will end up segmenting the Reef and leaving each segment worse off environmentally. The reefs and other environmentally-sensitive areas of coastal northern WA are under still greater pressure from ports and offshore developments. Again, neither the Coalition nor Labor address those issues (except in the Coalition's fatuous and self-defeating term "green tape"), which reveals the limits on their commitment to making northern development happen. And before you talk about the Greens saying no to dredging and whatever else - it also reveals their lack of commitment to northern development, too.
Labor, the Coalition, and the Greens don't have much to say about engaging Aboriginal communities in the area with regard to economic or community development in the region, or on any other issue really.
Northern development plans have a wider purpose, however, than what's in them and whether or not it adds up. They're about respect for people who are few and marginalised. They're not stupid: they know that decades of northern development plans have been floated and died, and these most recent ones will almost certainly go the same way. In that sense, northern development is a bit like gay marriage - a small minority of the population is even affected, and a fair subset of those are don't appreciate what's on offer, but they seek the gesture nonetheless in the name of equality and respect. As with gay marriage, most Australians are well disposed to the idea of northern development, and only a stingy, nasty few are actively hostile.
In a political environment of programmatic specificity and rigid adherence to talking points, northern Australia provides the impression of blue-sky, limitless vision. You can look at tablelands and golden sands and see anything you want, I suppose. You can see Rudd or Abbott as Prime Minister. Whatever else might happen, in northern Australia as elsewhere, is in the eye of the beholder.