Updated: September 20, 2011
Why damn northern Australia?
This is an Editorial from our National Campaigns Director, Lyndon Schneiders, that appeared on the ABC's, The Drum website.
How many hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars is Tony Abbott prepared to pour down the bottomless pit labelled northern development to keep Barnaby Joyce and Bill Heffernan happy?
Unfortunately it looks like the sky is the limit following reports that Team Abbott is refloating harebrain schemes to farm northern Australia by damming the rivers of the Top End.
In 2009 the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce, created by the Howard Government in 2006, released its final report. The Taskforce had been set up during the most recent frenzy of northern development nonsense run by Senator Heffernan and friends.
Much to the dismay of the northern development cheer squad, the Taskforce, informed by the best science available, found that Northern Australia will never be the food bowl of the world, Asia or even Australia, and it never was going to be even though people have been dreaming it for 150 years (and watching their dreams dashed as yet another ill-fated project falls over).
Under a best-case scenario the taskforce found agriculture could conceivably be increased from 20,000 hectares currently farmed to 60,000 hectares, within a total northern study area of approximately 100 million hectares.
There is plenty of rain in the north, but the taskforce's final report found that building new dams was not appropriate because evaporation is so high, the rain only falls during a short and intense wet season, leaving the rest of the year in effective 'drought' conditions and the water is hard to capture.
The report noted that the river systems and flood plains are so close to the coast that the water runs quickly to the sea and relatively little of the rainfall occurs in the upper reaches of rivers where the topography for dam construction is more favourable.
On top of that the ancient Northern Australian soils are nutrient-poor and highly fragile.
But even without these massive constraints, farming the north would cause a host of environmental woes: polluted rivers, massive soil erosion, salinity and loss of species. This would be on top of the negative impacts on grazing, fishing and tourism industries, not to mention the substantial costs of environmental restoration.
Politics or science?
But Heffernan won't believe it because he was removed as chair of the Land and Water Taskforce when Labor swept to power in 2007 and had the audacity to replace the politician-stacked taskforce with a body with broad scientific, pastoral and agricultural expertise.
Of course the fear-mongering and lies that pass for debate in opposition to real action in response to climate change and saving the Murray-Darling Basin has shown science and knowledge is usually the first victims of political debate in this country, and this is no different.
But then there are the real-life failures that are a little harder to ignore.
Following the most recent northern development frenzy, $220 million of taxpayer funds was ploughed into the long stalled Stage 2 of Ord River Irrigation Scheme in the eastern Kimberley. The brave new world of agricultural development was to be created by a rice bonanza.
In 2010, rural media breathlessly reported the return of rice cultivation to the Ord after an absence of 30 years. This was to be the bedrock crop for the entire Ord region.
With much less fanfare, the same outlets quietly reported two months ago that this year's crop, the second, had been infested with the destructive rice blast fungus that the agriculture department has acknowledged can never be eradicated. It was also the first time that Australian rice crops had been infested.
Good money after bad
Despite this, Team Abbott has indicated it will pour more money into a proposed Ord Stage 3. Have they lost their minds?
It is clear Abbott and friends remain wedded to the ill-considered dreams of northern development and no cost, environmental or financial, will be too high in keeping the extremists within Coalition ranks happy.
Abbott's embrace of the northern myth also puts into clearer perspective his successive attempts to overturn the Queensland Government's Wild River legislation as this legislation protects northern rivers from precisely these types of ill-thought development schemes.
For months Abbott has claimed that his opposition to wild rivers protection is a moral position based on delivering traditional owners the right to veto river protection. It is now clear that Abbott has used traditional owners as a human shield to support his northern development pipedreams and fantasies.
The original article can be seen on the The Drum website.
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