Jul 18, 2012

A northern food bowl? Katter’s heard that one before

A new National Food Plan -- backing the case to farm more of Australia's north -- is something Barnaby Joyce and Bob Katter have long called for. Emil Jeyaratnam speaks to them in Canberra.

A new National Food Plan released yesterday by the federal government -- backing the case to farm more of Australia's north -- would have been met with scepticism from long-time advocate Bob Katter. He's heard the arguments before about Australia's role as a "food bowl" for Asia; Julia Gillard pledged in May the country was poised as a global food superpower. "That is the most farcical piece of rubbish I have ever heard," the maverick Queensland independent told Crikey in his Canberra parliamentary office. "They've been saying that for 10 years. And still, there is not a single proposal for a weir or a dam in the whole of northern Australia." Katter, who has consistently fought to irrigate and farm the north for more than 38 years, says it's never been a priority for any government. "It's given second consideration all of the time, so it is given first consideration none of the time," he said. The government's stated plan is more modest than it claims, according to Katter. It will initially invest $6.8 million in a CSIRO study to explore surface storage options in the Flinders and Gilbert River catchments, and will look at a smaller, mosaic irrigation approach rather than large, centralised dams. Frustrated by the lack of actual development, the local council that incorporates the Flinders River catchment in north-west Queensland has pulled out of the federal government's plans. Katter, too, is frustrated by yet another study and wants to see projects implemented to prove that it can be done. "The northern third of Australia -- if it was a separate country -- would be one of the wettest countries on Earth," he said. A landscape that is bone-dry for seven to eight months of the year receives around 1 million gigalitres of rain during the wet -- more than eight times the run-off in the Murray-Darling Basin. One of the more ambitious schemes to harness the seasonal rains was proposed by Dr John Bradfield, the designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in 1938. His plan was to divert rivers from north Queensland all the way to Lake Eyre, irrigating over a million hectares and hopefully inducing more rainfall inland. Katter has tried to keep Bradfield’s dream alive and has worked hard to win support for a revised Bradfield scheme, which would dam the upper-Herbet and Burdekin rivers (but would not divert water to Lake Eyre). Not that he believes it will get up. The main difficulty in utilising the monsoonal rains of the north is the rapid rate of evaporation -- about 65% is lost. To capture and store enough water would require large, deep dams, for which northern Australian has few suitable sites. And the most recent study by the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce found that the "potential for northern Australia to become a 'food bowl' is not supported by evidence". "That is just plain rubbish," according to Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce. "There is definitely the capacity for vast development of our agricultural asset in northern Australia." Joyce is part of the Coalition's own taskforce that has proposed a network of four to five dams across northern Australia that they hope will double Australia's agricultural production by 2050. But Joyce admits that dams are seen to be destructive and is critical of those who use the environment as an excuse to halt all development, claiming the word itself has acquired an omnipotent quality that has stifled all other factors. "The environment is absolutely intricate in considerations," he said. "But it has to be seen in balance with the social and economic requirements of the people of the area." And many of the people in northern Australia are indigenous Australians, who have very few options for sustainable employment. "The only way you can assist any person in any area to get ahead is with an economic base," he said. Joyce also talks of Australia's responsibility as an agricultural nation to meet the demands of a growing global population, especially to our neighbours in Asia. But dams don't come cheap. The chair of the NALW taskforce Joe Ross has questioned the viability of the Coalition's plan, citing the Ord -- which is still being paid off by taxes ­-- as an example of the high public costs of such projects. And with much of the irrigated water expected to be used for pasture and cotton, there are also concerns that food production will not increase. "The role of government is not try to pick the crop, but it is to build the infrastructure," Joyce countered in an interview with Crikey. "Or it just needs to create the tax incentive and licensing provisions for other people to build the infrastructure." And you need to attract enough businesses to have economies of scale. "One cotton farm by itself will go broke. There has to be enough so that you can build a gin to process the cotton," Joyce said. The Queensland Senator wants incentives for local investors, and is critical of the government, which has started a joint study with China to explore how the two countries can develop agriculture in the north. Katter isn't a fan of foreign investment, but sees no other option with local agricultural businesses and the money markets reluctant to invest. "You simply cannot make money out of agriculture in Australia," he said. "Every single agricultural industry is in decline, and in rapid decline." Abandoning any hope of receiving government or local funding, Katter has turned to private foreign investors for a solar power and bio-fuels (ethanol) project near Pentland in north Queensland. "That is the only model I can work with," he said. The man who vowed to help farmers plough "the great inland plain" in his opening address to Queensland's parliament 38 years ago admits he -- and the country -- are running out of options. "It is a very sad day when the only way you can get development is when you let foreigners buy up all your land. What country does that? Well, Australia does that."

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69 thoughts on “A northern food bowl? Katter’s heard that one before

  1. McFly Marty

    To be honest if we’re going to have government largesse i’d rather it go towards the creation of this food bowl, no matter how flawed.

    You can’t feed the masses of Asia with Ford Falcons

  2. Hamis Hill

    Because, Bob, the parties whom you continue to support in parliament have seen fit to burden Australians with world’s highest mortgage debt.
    An extra $750,000,000,000 spent uselessly propping up bank shareholders, with Costello, care of his GST, carving 10% of the top while lounging in (as Keating pointed out) his hammock.
    And that pathetic DLP Stooge Barnaby Joyce, driectly complicit in this economic catastrophe is granted enough credit to be interviewed by Crikey?
    There’s some crapped on credibility here!

  3. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    I’ll pay the Ford Falcons feeding Asia but I can’t accept Barnaby Joyce’s:

    “The environment is absolutely intricate in considerations,” he said. “But it has to be seen in balance with the social and economic requirements of the people of the area.”

    Is Senator Joyce proposing that if “the environment” is not seen to be meeting the economic requirements of the locals then the environment should be brought into line? Dam some of its rivers, fill in some swamp or other with the overburden from some hole-in-the-ground, blast and flatten it, turn on the sprinklers and generally knock a bit of shape into it? All watered from an east-of-the-divide river. Pumped over the range by what? The golden calf ‘Copperstring’ solar-powered aerial cable from Townsville to Mt Isa. Mt Isa – gateway to a golden land. Deja vu?

  4. michael r james

    There is the usual confusion here about the Bradfield scheme which concerned the northern but east-coast rivers such as Burdekin. So this area is thousands of kilometers from the area discussed by Katter and the current Northern schemes. Also it has since become fairly clear that diverting all that water to the channel country would not induce any extra rainfall in central Australia (or anywhere) because–simply put–you need mountains for that.

    On the other hand, forgetting eco issues, it is physically/geographically possible to build a version of the Bradfield scheme that would divert some of those east coast rivers down to the Darling and its northern tributaries that could provide flow all year round and thru drought periods (because the rain occurs on the eastern side of the coastal range but can be captured high-enough to still use gravity to divert it back to the western side).

    Still, the point is that Bradfield should not be mentioned in the context of the true Northern schemes.

  5. Holden Back

    So let me guess, we’ll socialise the infrastructure charges and any losses and privatise the profits, with the vague threat of ‘foreign investment ‘ looming like storm clouds.

    When Rupert does it, it’s funny.

  6. Hamis Hill

    @Michael, perhaps you know but the hyrologic feasibility study was done in the laye 1970’s by the NSW Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission on a tributary of the Clarence river.
    Environmentalists obviously cannot consider sacrificing one ecosystem to a dam in order to save another ecosystem from natural drought conditions.

  7. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Professor James,
    “…because the rain occurs on the eastern side of the coastal range but can be captured high-enough to still use gravity to divert it back to the western side.”
    Do you have shares in a tunneling company or should I go back to geography school? Where is this gravity defying dam site?

  8. mick j

    As an Australian I have to worry when I (again) read that China is being considered to co develop farming land in the north. The last I heard was that ex PM Bob Hawke was flogging freehold land to the Chinese, for a commission of course. The Tax Office was consulted and stated that a Chinese owned enterprise would “NOT PAY $1 IN TAX” once the land was Chinese owned. So what is in it for the Australian people? And why is the media not up in arms for what amounts to treason?

    Katter and Joyce need to politicise this issue and bring it to the public’s attention so that ordinary Australians understand what is going down here before it is too late.

  9. michael r james

    Hugh McColl,

    I don’t know why you are so snarky. The original Bradfield scheme explicitly relied upon gravity flow because at that time nothing else was technologically feasible. It is in fact exactly how the Snowy scheme operates–taking a lot of the water normally feeding the coastal Snowy river and diverting it westwards.

    In fact the existing Burdekin dam is already at sufficient elevation to support such a westward flow. Of course it needs large tunnels but that is a once-off capital expense that is relatively trivial. It may be that another higher-elevation dam would be more efficient (though obviously lower ones capture more water). Gravity is absolutely key because it is nuts to use energy the way they do in the Calfornia norther water diversion scheme–at one point it is pumped up 1800 m at fantastic cost (and only a small recovery on the other side as the water flows back down to the San Fernando valley).

    Or even further “upstream” in the crazy California scheme where much of the water originates: the San Francisco Bay Delta (junction of the Sacramento and San Joaqin rivers) where a couple of thousand kms of earthen levees coral the waters into channels and then humungous pumps divert about one third of all the water that normally flows in SF Bay into the North-South pipeline. These pumps can move so much water that the river flows can be reversed!

    So giant water capture and diversion schemes can engineered but as any Californian engineer or ecologist or energy expert would say, at insane cost. Only done because they have allowed huge cities like LA and San Diego to be built in one of the driest parts of the continent.

    By comparison the Bradfield scheme is genius because it uses GRAVITY. Incidentally Hamis, that is the problem with the Clarence river scheme: yes, masses of “wasted” water but it can’t be captured and diverted like the Burdekin.
    Understand Charlie?

  10. Frank Campbell

    Jesus wept…these schemes to create a tropical bonanza go back to the 19th century.

    Read Bruce Davidson’s “The Northern Myth” (1965). He was right about the Ord. It failed repeatedly.

    The Katter mentality will never change: use the state (aka the taxpayer) as a milch cow to promote these endless fantasies.
    It’s not that agricultural development of the north can’t or won’t happen- but the road to the mirage is paved with billions of wasted dollars. And plenty of private capital has vanished into the sand too. In the past 50 years alone we’ve seen a moronic procession of sucker investments…from aloe-vera to ostriches…from rice to melons…from tea to coffee…and a great variety of nuts. Katter is the latter.

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