This is a guest post by Syd Stirling, the Labor member for Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly from 1990 to 2008.
In 1999 he was elected Deputy Leader to Clare Martin,and served as Deputy Chief Minister following the ALP’s election win in 2001. He resigned along with Martin in November 2007, and retired at the 2008 election.
This article was first published in the Northern Land Council’s Land Rights News (Northern Edition).

Take a fast flowing northern river that runs enormous quantities of water to the sea every wet season and then breaks into pools during the dry.

Build a dam to store the water for irrigation.

Subsidise farmers to settle and grow crops on the irrigated land.

Spend more than one thousand million dollars of taxpayer’s money over 60 years carrying out the above without ever conducting a truly independent and rigorous cost benefit analysis and then look at the result.

This is the Ord River Irrigation Scheme about to have even more money thrown at it by the Commonwealth, WA and NT Governments, each of which well know what a properly conducted cost benefit analysis would tell them.

The Northern Myth of the great Northern Food Bowl – so termed by Bruce Davidson as far back as 1965 – remains just that.

He foretold in his book just why talk of a great northern food bowl would never be realised.  Despite 60 years of failure it is now undergoing a strong revival.

Years later Davidson again said “In retrospect the most interesting aspect of the Ord River Irrigation Project is that anyone should at any time have thought it would be economically viable”.

He would be greatly disturbed with the events of the past couple of years with the Commonwealth, WA and NT Governments now seeking to push the irrigation scheme across the border into the NT for a Chinese company to grow sugar on the Keep River Plain.

The Abbott government discussion paper on developing the North has as its first dot point “A food bowl including premium produce which could help to double Australian agricultural output”.

What then is the past and current state of the Ord Irrigation Project?

Gazing out of the plane on descent into Kununurra you are struck by the greenness of the country below and frustrated by the inability to determine exactly what is being grown that appears from the air so lush and productive.

On the ground and a short drive north from Kununurra to the Ivanhoe crossing on the Ord River and the greenery is revealed as drab straggly Indian sandalwood plantations, kilometre after kilometre.   A tree that takes 14-20 years to maturity and not a sign of anything edible.

In fact the Ord now hosts the largest commercial Indian Sandalwood production in the world covering more than 60% of the land under cultivation, and has supplanted melons, pumpkins, chick peas, bananas and so on.

So what happened in the past 50 years to arrive at this sad point in the development of the ‘great northern food bowl’?

Cotton thrived between 1963 and 1974 but insect pests required millions of litres of pesticides and when the government removed price subsidies it collapsed.

In 1975 farmers were paid an adequate living allowance provided they kept unused land in clean fallow and a subsidy was paid for land under cotton in the previous year.

Rice came and went for similar reasons with magpie geese blackening the sky and closing the airport so thick were the numbers.

Sugar came and collapsed when production failed to meet anywhere near the amount required to keep the mill viable and the price collapsed.

Buoyed by the potential of new varieties in 2010 farmers planted the first commercial rice crops in the region for 30 years.   After two promising years the fungal disease rice blast was discovered rendering the crops worthless.

Similarly driven by strong global prices a number of farmers grew cotton last year but cold weather reduced yields by half and a wet picking season further reduced production.

Neither rice nor cotton will be grown again this year.

The Chinese interest in the region including the Keep River Plain in the NT is concentrated on sugar possibly for bio fuel production although recent commentary from the company suggests a 10-year period until production.

But we now get to the heart of the matter for the NT Government.

Governments have an obligation to drive economic development in the common good but it has to be driven by reality.   It has to survive a rigorous cost benefit analysis.   It has to be sustainable, economically, environmentally, socially and culturally, and must provide long term secure employment and an economic return in the form of GDP for the jurisdiction.

In the case of the Keep River Plain area being given over to a Chinese company to grow sugar no benefits as outlined above flow to the NT.

Whilst the sugar would be planted, grown and harvested in the NT each of these functions are heavily mechanised requiring few workers.

The cane would be transported to Kununurra for processing into sugar or bio fuel creating jobs in WA that would get the jobs incomes and the GDP increase.

For all this to occur many hundreds of millions of dollars need to be spent clearing land, building roads, creating irrigation channels and preparing for cultivation.

What is the NT Government expected to contribute to this Project?

That the NT Government is interested in participating in this project and handing over the Keep River Plain is beyond doubt.

In November 2012 the project was granted Major Project Status, and over $400,000 was allocated for the Ord Development Unit to pursue settlement of Native Title.

What then is the view of the Native Title holders, a group who retain strong cultural links and association with their country?

They are extremely concerned with the prospect of any development on the Keep River Plain that would change the country in any way.

They hold a view that whilst much of the country was under pastoral use for many years the cattle themselves did not alter or damage the country.

A large irrigation project carving country into lots with deep and wide irrigation channels carrying water from the Ord would in their view not just change their country, it would destroy the deep spiritual significance of the country, its dreaming track and its sacred sites, thereby destroying their intimate connection to it.

As custodians of these sites which run through the Keep River Plain and the dreaming track which runs away to the south they would fail in their lifelong commitment to care for their country,  its sacred sites and its dreaming track, if such a development was to occur.

This failure to protect country would impact on tribes and clans away to the south who are connected through the dreaming track that continues through their country and it would be the Native Title holders of the Keep River Plain who would be held to account.

So just why would the NT Government entertain participation given 60 years of consistent failure to develop a sustainable cropping industry from this irrigation scheme.

Given there is no economic or social benefit occurring to the NT, given there would be enormous social and cultural damage visited on the Native Title holders of the Keep River Plain, and given that the NT Government has no money to contribute to the scheme it is totally irresponsible for the NT Government to be even considering participating in this Project.

The Northern Territory Government needs to take a deep breath and understand that not only is there no win in this project for the Territory, to give over the Keep River Plain for a project of dubious merit at best will cause great pain and create an enormous sense of loss for the Native Title holders which will never be healed.

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