When you’ve been reporting politics in Canberra for nigh on 50 years it’s not unusual to see everything old becoming new again. What is unusual is to see the supporters of the 1960s becoming the opponents of 2013, and the opponents taking on the role of the supporters. So it is this week with northern development and what passes these days for debate.

Labor and the Liberal-National Coalition have changed sides. The conservative parliamentary opposition is now sounding like that “evil socialist” Gough Whitlam did all those years ago. Statements by Assistant Treasurer David Bradbury yesterday had a Menzies-like ring of anti-socialist rhetoric.

Now my fragile memory of events so long ago does recall a peripheral personal involvement in this northern development business: in 1965, between jobs as a reporter, I found myself in Canberra as a personal assistant to the then-chairman of the Commonwealth Public Service Board Sir Frederick Wheeler, charged with developing policies on the political rights of public servants.

It was all quite boringly theoretical research until the morning the great man rang at 7am and suggested I might like to arrive at the office opening time of 8.30am (I had worked out he normally didn’t come in until after 9am and had adjusted my bus catching accordingly) because there was an actual “political rights of public servants” problem.

Dr Rex Patterson, the Commonwealth “director of northern development”, had been endorsed as the Labor candidate for the Queensland seat of Dawson and Sir Frederick, as the head of the public service, realised this might create a problem or two in relations with a Coalition government minister. I recall that with all the wisdom of a student of the very best Westminster traditions, my recommendation of movement of the good doctor into an office without a phone, furniture or files was quickly adopted.

Perhaps fortunately, before the matter could become some kind of cause celebre, the incumbent Country Party [National] MHR for Dawson, George Shaw, up and died and Patterson, with the help of Whitlam, was free to campaign on the theme that “the north will never be developed for the benefit of Australians and their children unless more voices which genuinely support the north are heard in the national Parliament”.

Dr Patterson won the seat of Dawson and Whitlam, soon to move from deputy leader to Labor leader, continued on with the “develop the north” drive that was a feature of his political life from the late 1950s. Here are a few examples (there’s more in the paper ‘Necessary and urgent’? The politics of Northern Australia, 1945-75) of the words of Gough:

“There is little doubt that the Australian people desire a faster rate of development. For many it is an uneasy feeling about an empty and defenceless north … Australia can make a unique contribution in the settling and development of a huge tropical area by an advanced people of European origin.

“The increased export earnings which the north can provide are necessary to raise the productive capacity of the south … what happens in the Fitzroy Basin in Central Queensland or on the Fitzroy in the southern Kimberleys is important to the people who live in Fitzroy, Melbourne.

“We will establish a Ministry for Northern Development. Mr Chifley regularly conferred with the premiers of Queensland and Western Australia on northern development. Sir Robert Menzies, Mr Holt and Mr Gorton never did. I shall.”

So let me end with the wisdom of David Bradbury talking yesterday on Sky News:

KIERAN GILBERT: As you’ve heard, this is just a discussion paper at this stage, a collation of submissions that the Coalition has received. It’s good to have these sorts of debates isn’t it?

DAVID BRADBURY: Look, I’m not surprised that Tony Abbott is walking away from this at a million miles an hour. What is set out in this policy proposal would be an absolute disaster for so many people across this country. Let’s be clear about this. This is a proposal to divide Australia in two and what that means for people in regions like western Sydney, in my part of the world, is that there will be higher taxes for people in western Sydney, we will see jobs that people currently have in places like western Sydney relocated to the far north of Australia. People will be given the option of either packing up your bags and your family and go to the other side of the continent to keep your job, or else, stay where you are, we’re going to jack up taxes and, wait for it, we’ll review immigration laws to see whether or not we can allow cheap foreign labour to come in and fill the jobs that we’ve taken.

GILBERT: You say it’s a policy proposal but it’s not a policy proposal, it’s a collation of submissions that the Coalition’s received. It’s not even an options paper that they’re putting out there yet.

BRADBURY: Like I said, I can understand why they’re trying to walk away from it. If the report in the paper is correct, Mr Robb, who’s overseeing their policy development process — which he’s already told us, Kieran, he and Mr Hockey have told us they’ve got all these policies in the bag, we’re yet to see. Well, we’re beginning to see them and when, all of a sudden, in the full glare of scrutiny, the Australian people see what’s on offer, it’s no wonder they’re walking away from it. Let’s be clear about what we’re talking about in this proposal. We are talking about hundreds of billions of dollars — have a look at what they’re proposing — hundreds of billions of dollars of white elephant infrastructure projects in the far north, funded by increased taxes on people in places like western Sydney. You’re going to have gold-plated footpaths in Karratha while people are stuck in traffic gridlock in places in Sydney.