Just as “turning the rivers inland” to “drought-proof Australia” was once a popular idea among big thinkers and ambitious politicians, the development of northern Australia has become a staple for those looking to demonstrate their vision.

During the 2013 election campaign a desperate Kevin Rudd floated a thought bubble about a special tax zone up north. Mining heiress Gina Rinehart, backed by the IPA, also wants northern Australia to be a kind of neoliberal haven with lower taxes and less regulation.

The Coalition isn’t immune from this stupidity, either. It established an “Office of Northern Australia” and a white paper on northern Australia is to be released in June. Its green paper from last year is noteworthy primarily for mentioning climate change exactly twice in over 100 pages. And in last week’s budget, the government established a $5 billion development fund “that will be available for major infrastructure projects like ports, railways, pipelines and electricity generation”.

“A strong north means a strong nation,” the government insists, nonsensically.

The Coalition should know better than most that the development of northern Australia is a waste of taxpayer money. It was the Howard government that, along with the Northern Territory and South Australian governments, wasted hundreds of millions of dollars building one of the world’s least used rail lines, the Alice Springs-Darwin route.

Australia’s infrastructure priorities are down south, in the roads and rail networks of our major cities and regional centres, where the cost of moving millions of Australians and hundreds of billions of tonne-kilometres of freight is rapidly growing in the face of under-investment and a reluctance by politicians to either borrow to invest or embrace effective infrastructure pricing.

Northern Australia isn’t just a vision for dumb politicians, it’s a costly distraction from our real infrastructure needs.

Peter Fray

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