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.”