In 2011, Gina Rinehart flew Barnaby Joyce to India in a private jet, to watch the granddaughter of her business partner marry in front of 10,000 guests. Three months later, the GVK conglomerate bought a majority stake in the billionaire’s ”Alpha” coalmine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin for $US1.26 billion.
In November 2012, Mrs Rinehart published a book called “Northern Australia and then some”, calling for the development of the North and the establishment of a Northern Special Economic Zone (SEZ) with lower taxes and a reduced regulatory burden. The publisher’s summary of the book states:
“The world is full of areas where we have beggars sitting in mountains of untapped ‘gold’. Rinehart’s message is a call to release the untapped human and economic potential through respect of the human right to free enterprise and private property.”
It sounds uncomfortably like Gina wants to abolish Native title so she can have unfettered access to those “mountains of gold”.
In February 2013, the Coalition leaked a discussion paper called Developing Northern Australia: A 2030 Vision which very closely echoed the views expressed by Gina in her book. Tony Abbott called for a “national imagination” to take advantage of the “enormous agricultural potential” of the Top End, including harnessing the “bountiful supply of water”.
He then travelled to Kununurra to stand on the wall of Australia’s largest dam and further discuss a one-third expansion of the Ord River Irrigation Scheme. His focus included “natural resource development in liquefied natural gas, mining and agribusiness” – some key users of water – with little mention of truly utilising natural advantages of the north.
It was ridiculed by Labor and the Greens, discredited by scientists, and generally dismissed as an ill-conceived thought bubble.
Tony Bourke said
”They say that they want to use them to avoid drought, they want to use them to avoid flood and they want to use them for hydro power. Now, if you want to avoid drought, you need to manage a dam that is always full. If you want to avoid floods, you need to manage a dam that is constantly empty . . . if you want to manage it for hydro it has to be constantly flowing.”
Gina Rinehart is part of an organisation called Australians for Northern Development and Economic Vision (ANDEV). They describe themselves this way:
“ANDEV is made up of individuals and businesses in Australia demanding that our government welcome investment and provide economic vision for the country’s future. We want to unleash the potential of North Australia by getting government out of the way.”
In response to the Coalition’s paper, they revealed that they, in conjunction with the IPA, had been working on the exact same idea – go figure. On the same day that the leaked paper was first reported, ANDEV published a media release saying:
“The Coalition’s draft discussion paper on water management, reported in today’s media, is a welcome recognition of the important role dams could play in revolutionising Northern Australia’s economy, according to the Institute of Public Affairs.
“Australians for Northern Development and Economic Vision (ANDEV) have been calling for the creation of dams for over two years and it is refreshing for a major party to finally acknowledge the important role they can play in driving development in Northern Australia,” said Dom Talimanidis, Director of the joint ANDEV/IPA North Australia Project.”
They go on to say that
“The Coalition’s Draft Discussion Paper, Developing Northern Australia: A 2030 Vision received widespread support in the days after it was reported in the media. The Business Spectator praised the Discussion Paper’s vision and foresight here and here. The paper also received support from many groups in Northern Australia, including the Cairns Chamber of Commerce and Mt Isa Mayor and former State Labor MP The Hon. Cr Tony McGrady AM. The Daily Telegraph’s editorial noted America’s economic growth was driven by westward expansion and questions why Australia can’t achieve something similar developing the North.”
Notable for their absence from this group of advocates was anyone with a scientific or environmental qualification. Shortly after, the idea seemed to fizzle out under a barrage of expert criticism.
In April 2013, Barnaby Joyce and Gina Rinehart were both guests at the IPA’s 70th birthday bash. Mrs Rinehart later contributed $50,000 to Mr Joyce’s campaign to enter the House of Representatives, attended his election after-party, flew to Canberra to hear his maiden speech, and afterwards invited a small group of Coalition friends for drinks in her private hotel suite. Aside from Mr Joyce, these included some of Mrs Rinehart’s closest political friends, the Speaker Bronwyn Bishop and Liberal Party senators Cory Bernardi and Michaelia Cash.
Ever ready to push his benefactor’s barrow, we hear yesterday that
“FEDERAL Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has put dams back on the agenda by unveiling a Commonwealth ministerial working group to consider new options.”
The idea of developing the north is not new. The first Commonwealth parliamentary inquiry into the development of northern Australia was held in 1912. In 1934, J. A. Gilruth, published a “Confidential Report on the Northern Territory of Australia”. He believed that statements about the opportunities being neglected in the north could be traced to either (1) those who had read only the biased laudatory accounts, but wished for some‐one else to be the pioneers; (2) those who had an interest in land or a lease and wished to realise a capital gain; and (3) business people to whom any influx of population means a profit.
Tom Rayner, who works for Charles Darwin University as a Research Leader in the Northern Research Futures Collaborative Research Network, had this to say:
“As a nation, we have witnessed similar clashes between commodities, communities and conservation in the Murray-Darling Basin. As scientists, we have documented the effects of water extraction on floodplains, fish and forests. As farmers, we have experienced diminishing terms of trade and a transition away from the traditional family farm. As taxpayers, we have funded a multi-billion dollar rescue mission aimed at improving river health.
Now, staring down the barrel of a decade of rapid transformation, we confront a critical decision: “Is this a future we want to repeat in northern Australia?”
We know that dams damage rivers – there are literally hundreds of scientific studies detailing effects on connectivity, water quality and biodiversity. It is odd that, at a time when people elsewhere are discussing dam removal, we might want to build more.”
In 2009, the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce produced a report on the potential impact of new development in northern Australia on water balance and quality, the environment, existing water users and the broader community.
The report points out that the rainfall received each year already supports a wide range of uses. These include unique aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems; recreational and commercial fisheries and tourism that are based upon them; a range of largely non‐consumptive Indigenous uses; and consumptive use by irrigated agriculture, stock and domestic and mining. Water is critical to each of these uses, and increased consumptive use will involve a degree of trade‐off between new uses and the range of existing consumptive and non‐consumptive uses.
Conserving and accessing surface water for consumptive use is highly constrained by difficulties in impoundment and groundwater abstraction from one point may influence surface water flow and function at another, and vice versa.
The report also highlights the dangers to existing industries. Tourism, for example, contributes about $2,800 m p.a. to the northern Australian economy, and relies heavily on the largely pristine land and water of the north. Extractive industries such as commercial fishing (>$160 m) are heavily water dependent non‐consumptive uses of water. Opportunities available to these industries would be curtailed by significant consumptive water use or landscape modification. Changes to the natural resource base also impact the value of the Indigenous hybrid economy, upon which up to a third of the north’s population may depend.
Cultural life in northern Australia is extraordinarily dependent on the region’s high natural values. These, in turn, emanate from the intact landscapes and relatively undisturbed flows of the north’s waterways. Development can directly reduce these values by depleting water, reducing water quality or by changing the natural flow of water in the landscape; all of which impact aquatic, marine and terrestrial environments. Development can also indirectly and inadvertently impact these. Roads, for example, can disturb the flow of water across the landscape, altering connections between waterways and floodplains that support communities of vegetation, fish, birds and mammals. The impacts of development on the natural environment are varied, and many are persistent and difficult to correct.
In this, like so many other of this government’s decisions, we seem to be ignoring research and the lessons of the past. A new study from Oxford University has found that the vast majority of large dams around the globe are unprofitable undertakings as a result of exorbitant cost overruns, with actual costs exceeding original estimates by around 96 per cent on average in real terms.
“We find that even before accounting for negative impacts on human society and environment, the actual construction costs of large dams are too high to yield a positive return,” the study said.
Already, the climate in the north is hot and alternates seasonally between arid and very wet. Small areas of arable soils are interspersed with large areas of land suitable only for grazing. The low fertility of soils and the high risks of climatic adversity (floods and cyclones) are major constraints to crop production. Management systems to prevent soil erosion are critical due to the high intensity of rainfall.
Climate change will lead to sea level rise and potentially greater storm surges which will impact on coastal settlements, infrastructure and ecosystems. Some areas will be vulnerable to riverine flooding and more intense cyclonic activity.
In Darwin the number of days over 35 degrees Celsius is expected to increase from 11 per year currently experienced to up to 69 by 2030 and up to 308 by 2070 without global action to reduce emissions. Coupled with the extremely high humidity that Darwin experiences during the wet season, higher temperatures are expected to adversely affect levels of human comfort.
Projections indicate there may be an increase in the proportion of tropical cyclones in the more intense categories, with a decrease in the total number of cyclones. For example, the number of category 3 to 5 cyclones is projected to increase, and by 2030 there may be a 60 per cent increase in intensity of the most severe storms, and a 140 per cent increase by 2070.
In these days of “financial distress” when we are being warned to expect a “tough budget”, it is somewhat incongruous that Barnaby Joyce is prepared to spend $30+ billion building dams to fulfil Gina Rinehart’s demands to develop the North, regardless of the countless studies that warn of the non-viablility of the idea and the damage it would cause.
The paradigm of the “empty north” was derived from colonialist thinking and rejection of Indigenous tenure. The idea of making it the food bowl for Asia, while ignoring the environmental and climactic challenges, could make it a very expensive exercise in futility. I know mining requires a lot of water but have you really thought this through? Is it too much to expect you to listen to scientists and to read the reports that have already been done? Messing with water can be a very dangerous thing and you probably need someone other than Gina to advise you on this.