Economic debate in Australia sometimes fixates on a single aspect of reform, chewing it over again and again before finding a way ahead - or not - and moving on. When he was treasurer in the 1990s, Paul Keating famously observed that if one walked into any pet shop in Australia, the resident galah would be talking about microeconomic policy. Fast forward to 2014 and it seems the galahs are happy to be chatting about the economic potential of northern Australia.
This week, the Federal Parliament’s Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia tabled its final report. No doubt it will feature strongly in the Abbott Government’s White Paper on northern Australia, currently in preparation. In recent months, there have been a series of forums organised among business and policymakers to debate the economic potential of the north. Naturally, all of this talk is of great interest to Queensland policy leaders, particularly those in local government.
The committee’s report is good reading. Much of it is taken up with the policy challenges of improving transport infrastructure, both road and rail, and strengthening security on water supply. It makes seven major recommendations, the first of which is for a Department of Northern Australia to be established (in northern Australia). Others include giving funding priority to upgrades of the Bruce Highway, the Peninsula Development Road and the Outback Way among other major road links.
And it also calls for continued funding of the Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiative, or GABSI, which the LGAQ pushed for following a resolution by members of the Western Queensland Local Government Association meeting in July. GABSI helps control bore water flow and minimise water waste, obviously a key driver of economic growth in the north. With Agricultural Minister Barnaby Joyce indicating the federal government could reinstate funding during this week’s drought tour of properties at Mitchell and Charleville, it looks like momentum is building for a change of heart.