New report reveals major problems in Australian Government programs designed to ‘develop the North’

17 May 2023

Released today, the Mirages in the North: Ending the Northern Myth report has outlined systemic problems with the Australian Government’s program of funding large-scale irrigation projects in the country’s north.

The report, which reviewed expected performance of water resource investments under the Northern Development Program (NDP) against stated program targets and beneficiaries, uncovered no evidence to support that the focus on large-scale irrigation projects have achieved its overarching objectives.

“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,” said the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Deputy Director Tim Nicol.

“Unfortunately, these same rivers and lands have also long been viewed as economic resources to exploit for industrial food and fibre agricultural projects. We have seen spending by successive governments into large-scale irrigation projects in the north with little to show.”

“It’s welcoming to see the Government commit to a review of its 2015 White Paper on Northern Development – this is timely, especially in the face of increased climate change and threats to biodiversity and nature.”

“We know that few large-scale irrigation projects in the north have shown positive financial returns – most indeed end up losing money, and provide little public benefit on social, economic, or employment indicators. For example, the Auditor General of WA found the 2012 Ord River expansion cost $6m per job created,” said Mr Nicol.

“Australia’s north needs investment, but this must be done in such a way that it can generate benefits for communities and support their own objectives. The best way to achieve this is through a process that truly builds on the unique natural, cultural, and social assets of the north. Ultimately, that means ensuring the future health of the rivers that run Australia’s north.”

“It is time to end the northern myth and replace it with an evidence-based development strategy that positions Australia’s north in a modern, sustainable economy,” said Mr Nicol.

The full Mirages in the North report can be downloaded at territoryrivers.org.au/mirages-in-the-north


  • Australian Government policies related to development projects in the North come under the collective banner of the Northern Development Program (NDP). Anchoring this is the 2015 Our North, Our Future: White Paper on Developing Northern Australia.
  • As part of the 2023 Federal Budget, the Australian Government announced a ‘refresh’ of the 2015 White Paper.
  • The report Mirages in the North: Ending the Northern Myth was authored by Dr Daniel Gregg and Daniel Hill and commissioned by the Territory Rivers: Keep ‘em Flowing alliance, of which the Environment Centre NT and the Pew Charitable Trusts are members.
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