Northern Australia is a unique region renowned for its outstanding and globally significant natural and cultural values. Central to many of these unique values are the intact rivers and floodplains of the north and their boom-and-bust cycles of flooding and dry. These same rivers and lands have also long been viewed as resources that can support an unrealised opportunity to provide for economic development.
This view has invariably been one based on establishing a new industrial scale food and fibre agricultural frontier to rival the Murray-Darling basin through irrigated agriculture. The ‘food-bowl’ vision remains the basis of successive government policies that together form the Northern Development Program.
This report reviews the outcomes, objectives and technical rationale of the Northern Development Program. In it, we find that many proposed irrigated agriculture projects not only fail to meet environmental and social objectives, but also fail on standard economic and financial performance expectations for public investment programs.
Australia’s north needs investment. However, the investments selected under the auspices of the Northern Development Program undermine the true potential of the north. There is an urgent need to reconsider this approach and to implement policies that can generate benefits for northern communities in ways that support their own objectives, and that can do so in a way that truly builds on the unique natural, cultural, and social assets of ‘the north’.
It is time to end the ‘northern mirage’ and replace it with an evidence-based development strategy.