Mirages in the North

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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.

Read the recommendations from the Mirages in the North report:

  • The Australian Government’s proposed refresh of ‘Our North, Our Future’ White Paper should extend to a comprehensive review of the Northern Development Program, including key funding mechanisms such as the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund (NAIF) and National Water Infrastructure Development Fund (NWIDF), with a focus on:
    • Valuing and maintaining assets (natural, social, cultural, physical, and human) that support current wellbeing in northern Australia;
    • Ensuring evidence based development and program pathways:.
    • Consultation with northern Australian communities, in particular with Indigenous Australians;
  • For all future project assessments, implement a formal and mandatory review process designed to address optimism bias in irrigation projects. These processes should:
    • Use proven frameworks, such as the Reference Case Analysis framework as a basis for project benefit review and create independent review mechanisms to avoid regulatory capture of the funding agency;
    • Ensure transparency measures are implemented to enable public scrutiny and independent review of investments.