Gloria is back talking about water – with very soggy ideas
You have to feel sorry for the Parrot. No sooner does he get over the
tragic death of Laura Branigan than he seems to find himself on the end
of an undeclared ban from the Labor Party. Still no Mark Latham on the
program two and a half weeks into the campaign, and on Tuesday morning,
even Labor frontbencher Kelvin Thompson turned him down when asked on
to respond to the government’s proposals on water.

Not that Thompson was needed. After all, Gloria had the Prime Minister
on for a cooing session about water. We all know that the Parrot is the
greatest exponent of dams since the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric
Commission. We can only presume Gloria is attracted to all those extra
nesting spaces created by the branches of drowned trees. Not that our
Gloria actually breeds much.

Whatever, the Parrot couldn’t resist raising every mad scheme
imaginable in his interview with the Prime Minister. You began to get
the feeling that in the end the Prime Minister was just playing along,
in the way you politely nod at the muttering of mad Aunt Mavis on
Christmas Day.

The Parrot made it pretty clear he thought water was a critical issue with this typically incisive first question.

PARROT: Prime Minister, on water, which may be the most important issue
facing this country, do you think what you had to say yesterday
addresses this critical issue of water in Australia, where it is, where
it’s needed, how we get more, how we harvest it?

As if the Prime Minister was going to say “No Gloria, I don’t think it
addresses the issue.” If only Kerry O’Brien would ask good questions
like that. We will spare you the Prime Ministers response and move on
to Gloria’s first remarkable idea.

PARROT: A caller this morning rang and said look when we wanted to
build the Opera House we conducted a worldwide search for the best
architects, the best engineers, the best design and get on with it. Why
shouldn’t we create some sort of a prize like that to get architects
from the world to design a mechanism whereby we can best use the water
we have for the purposes we want it used for?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I know, Alan, that there are engineers right now
who are working on different methods of shifting water from the water
rich parts of Australia to the water poor parts of Australia. You don’t
need a prize, and I don’t rule that out. But there is already
sufficient incentive for that kind of thing to occur and certainly if
there were such a project or such a proposal that was workable and
affordable then it is something that could be considered by this fund
very definitely.

PARROT: See, I’ve asked you before, I mean, would you consider, for
example, issuing infrastructure bonds and let us decide where we want
our money to go with the view of really conducting a massive Snowy
Mountains infrastructure rebuilding of Australia. In other words –
rebuild Australia through the infrastructure bond arrangements so that
we’ve got the funding to water Australia, to improve our hospitals, our
roads, bridges and all that sort of stuff.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we have a fund here without issuing bonds. I
mean, there is money dedicated for this and if there are workable,
feasible, affordable ways of shifting water from the water poor parts
of Australia… from the water rich parts of Australia to the water
poor parts of Australia, they can be considered. But these things have
got to work, they’ve got to be affordable and they’ve got to feasible
from an engineering point of view.

PARROT: See 40 per cent of our agricultural production is in the Murray
Darling Basin. It’s only got six per cent of Australia’s fresh water
run off. Whereas you go up north, and north Queensland produces only
one per cent of our agriculture but has got 60 per cent of our fresh
water run off.

PRIME MINISTER: And the same applies to parts of… the northern parts
of Western Australia… I mean, this has long been argued as one of the
things that should be done, we should shift it from one part of the
country to the other. Now my reply to that is that if that is feasible
from an engineering point of view and economically feasible then it is
within the capacity of those who argue it is to put forward projects
and they can be considered by this fund.

PARROT: Or shift, of course, a massive agriculture commitment to where the water is.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, yes. I mean, I just sort of catch my breath on
that for a moment. That is a very very major economic shift and whether
that is achievable or not, I couldn’t say on the run.

Well, why wouldn’t the Prime Minister catch his breath on that idea!
Piping water to the south has always seemed mad because of salinity in
the Murray-Darling Basin. But moving agriculture to the north. Perhaps
Gloria has never heard of Mohammad and the Mountain.

Moving our agriculture to the north seems an odd notion. Wheat and
wool, two of our basic agricultural industries, are not normally known
for their success in monsoonal climates. Even a high value crop like
cotton has proved to be more successful in the drier Murray-Darling
basin than the Ord River because the amount of spraying for insect
pests is less.

But it took us no more than a simple bit of Googling and a consultation
with our meager library of books to show that Gloria’s idea is yet
another impossible dream.

Take this description by the Australian Bureau of Statistic of the soil problems across much of Northern Australia.

A large part of the Northern Territory and of the northern part of
Western Australia, exceeding 400,000 square miles in area, is covered
by rocky country almost devoid of soil. Such soil as occurs is usually
shallow, leached and mildly acid, and of generally low fertility. It is
probably incapable of development and provides only sparse grazing for

How about this description of the problems for tropical agriculture in
Kunnanurra, part of the Ord Scheme, taken from “Western Australia – An
Atlas of Human Endeavour”.

“In an area that has abundant land and water and a tropical climate but
is remote from markets, the overriding concerns are economic. Suitable
crops must be high yielding or have a high value.”

Then there are these wonderful descriptions of early agricultural
schemes in the Daly River Region of the Northern Territory, taken from
Allan Powell’s history of the Northern Territory, titled “Far Country”.

For all their vicissitudes, mining and pastoralism were the great
industries of the Northern Territory; but the first vision of the South
Australians had been of great fields of rice, cotton, sugar cane and
coffee, growing in the limitless acres of rich soils which explorers
from Stokes to Finniss had assured them were there for the planting.
The surveys of Finniss and Goyder were based on this vision. With
truth, ‘Slim’ Bauer has said, ‘it is doubtful if mass misjudgement
concerning any feature of the northern environment has ever been more
complete or more persistent’. Even when due allowance is made for the
deceptively rich flora which flourishes after rain, the judgement of
some prospective agriculturalists in selecting land was abysmal. In
1875 the Adelaide government offered a bonus of £5000 for the first
five hundred tons of sugar produced from Territory cane. Spence
Brothers and Ousten, a Melbourne syndicate, took up land for the
purpose on the Daly River. B. C. de Lissa gained ten thousand acres on
Cox Peninsula, across the harbour from Palmerston. With great fanfare
the Hon. J. L. Parsons, Minister for the Northern Territory, visited
him there in 1882. Two years later de Lissa abandoned the area. Twenty
thousand pounds in investment money had produced twelve tons of sugar;
the soils were mainly ironstone and gravel entirely unsuitable for the
growth of cane or anything else. Undermined by de Lissa’s collapse, the
Daly River cane project folded up in the same year without milling
enough sugar to sweeten a cup of tea. Climate, soil and marketing
problems beat later corners like Otto Brandt of Shoal Bay. The
government bonus was never collected. Brandt moved on in 1890 to try
tobacco at Rum Jungle. The first plants flourished; but Brandt sold out
for personal reasons and left the Territory. Soon afterwards his
venture vanished without trace.

Government Residents and their Adelaide masters could not accept these
failures. They saw before them the continued success of the Chinese
market-gardeners and of their own employee, Maurice Holtze, Curator of
Palmerston Botanic Gardens. From 1879 he grew trial crops of coffee,
sugar cane, tobacco, arrowroot, rice, peanuts, tea, cotton and other
tropical crops. Most flourished in Holtze’s gardens; outside, they
failed or were left untried. In 1882 W. J. Sowden visited the promising
gardens of Cox Peninsula, no mean feat, for the government cutter had
to struggle for five hours against wind and tide to cross the harbour.
Carried ashore on the back of an Aborigine, Sowden found several
settlers raising poor cane, caterpillar-ravaged maize, good rice,
peanuts, sorghum, and melons, pigs and poultry. All had gone within a
few years. Sowden also viewed the flourishing coffee plantation of
Poiett, Mackinnon and Co. at Rum Jungle. He judged it to be ‘a truly
beautiful place’ and ‘a magnificent’ estate. Mackinnon expected to
employ five hundred men within three years. In less than that time the
estate was deserted; four hundred thousand coffee plants, crowded too
closely in the nursery, died and impatient shareholders closed down the
company. Holtze went to Adelaide in 1891 as Curator of the city’s
Botanical Gardens; his son, Nicholas, succeeded him in Palmerston and
the gardens experiments went on, with continued success. Commercial
ventures continued to fail, through mismanagement, lack of capital,
poor choice of land and high costs, most of all because no one saw that
the successes of the Holtzes with their seventeen Chinese labourers and
of the market-gardeners were due to an intensity of labour use which
was just not possible on a commercial scale in the Northern Territory.
The chimera of an agricultural salvation for the Territory lingered far
beyond the end of South Australian rule.

Or this description of the problems of raising sheep.

The cattle survived; the sheep did not. Unable to eat down the rank
growth of the Wet, starved on straw in the Dry, they lost condition.
The seeds of the speargrass worked through their bowel linings and they
died. Giles tried lambing in the Wet; the heat killed the new-born
lambs. He tried lambing in the Dry; the ewes, too poor to retain milk,
rejected their offspring. Except for parts of the flinders and mitchell
grass pastures of the Barkly Tablelands, sheep could not thrive in the
monsoonal areas of the Territory.

And before you think these were just the problems of a century ago, try a more recent example.

The old agricultural activities in the Territory never fully revived
after the war. From 1949 until the mid-1950s, over a thousand acres of
peanuts were sown each year in the Daly River and Katherine areas. All
the old problems recurred and this crop had been virtually abandoned by
1962. But world-wide food shortages in the early postwar years turned
the attention of governments and private companies to the open spaces
of north Australia. The most notable-and controversial-of the resultant
developments was the government backed Ord River irrigation project in
Western Australia. In the Northern Territory the Federal government
confined its agricultural activities mainly to administration and
experiment. The CSIRO made extensive land surveys and in 1946 set up an
agricultural research station at Katherine. In 1952 the Northern
Territory Administration created an Agricultural Section (later
Agricultural Branch). In the same year this body established an
experimental farm at Katherine and two rice research stations near
Darwin. From that beginning the research programme has grown, helped
along from 1960, by the recommendations of a government-commissioned
committee chaired by Professor H. C. Forster, Dean of the Faculty of
Agriculture in the University of Melbourne. The list of experimental
success and failure can be followed in the annual reports of the
Northern Territory Administration, but the Territory is still without a
significant agricultural base. Three large-scale agricultural schemes,
launched by private companies, all failed. The first of these
companies, Territory Rice Ltd, began operations at Humpty Doo, on the
Adelaide River plain, in 1954. Backed by a nominal capital of $5
million, two-thirds of it American, the company boasted of what it
would do with ‘a previously undeveloped heartland of agriculture with
built-in factors guaranteeing low-cost production, within 5000
shipping-miles of one-half of the world’s people and 90 per cent of the
world’s rice consumption’.

Asia was to receive 400 000 tons of rice annually from this project.
Instead, the Company developed little more than pilot plots and
abandoned the whole scheme in 1960. The Top End’s migratory magpie
geese descended upon the tender young rice plants in thousands and a
cable sent by the American principal of the company to his Darwin
manager became famous. ‘Shoot every God-damned goose in the Northern
Territory’, he ordered; but a recent study of the project indicates
that geese were not a major pest, though other birds – whimbrels,
cockatoos and corellas – did considerable damage. Poor farming
techniques, inadequate research into the problems of large-scale rice
farming and a bad choice of site were the main reasons for failure.

So you can understand why the Prime Minister is wary. The list of past
agricultural failures in the North is long, and the biggest problem
apart from the climate is economics. Not many people live up there, so
there is only a limited local market, which means you have to put in an
awful lot of infrastructure before agriculture in the north is even
remotely feasible.

One of the main points of Geoffrey Blainey’s ‘Tyranny of Distance’ was
that agricultural produce had to be valuable enough to overcome the
distance the goods had to be transported to market.

Today the world may be a smaller place, but when it comes to
agriculture, the problem is still transport to market. Even ignoring
the agricultural problems, you still come to the economic difficulty.
Move the agriculture to the north, you move it further from the
national market.

No wonder John Howard sounded wary.