Governance challenges for northern Australia

Dale, Allan (2013) Governance challenges for northern Australia. Working Paper. Cairns Institute, James Cook University, Cairns, QLD, Australia.

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Over the last decade, Australia's tropical north has featured front and centre in big national debates about the nation's future. As in the past, the north has again been cast as the nation's frontier saviour through bold new resource and agricultural developments, both real and imagined. Yet others have dreamt of the north's expansive landscapes being secured as an iconic wilderness. Big human rights-centred debates have raged about the success or otherwise of Commonwealth, State and Territory interventions in Indigenous communities. Quick-draw policy responses on complex issues like the live cattle trade have had devastating impacts on the confidence of northern industries and communities. Finally, the daily media images of refugees heading to the coast keep the north's strategic importance on centre-stage, raising unresolved tensions about relationships with our Asian-Pacific neighbours.

With some exceptions, these national debates have played out across southern Australia's media, policy-making and academic institutions and think-tanks; a debate largely crafted by, and for, a southern audience. For those of us in the north, it is forgivable to think that the south looks upon northern Australia as one might look upon their own troubled child; a youngster on the precipice between adolescence and adulthood. There seems to be, on one level, that great hope and expectation of a gifted life ahead; the north stepping forth into untold prosperity and longevity. At the same time, there remains a fear that, left to its own devices, the north will spiral into delinquency; a failed state perhaps.

While it could be too easy to cast a discussion about the future of northern Australia in simple north-south terms, the south does have the political power, money and population to deliver big changes in the north. Many in the north, however, would argue that, on a daily basis, they experience flaws in the south's contribution to its governance. There is a common perception that major policy decisions are often made in the interest of a southern electorate without real concern for the rights and interests of those in the north. Other concerns relate to programs that are too short term, fragmented and restrictive to make any genuine changes for the better.

Without further extending the "troubled youth" analogy, this might just be a sign that the north is maturing and is champing at the bit to be more in control of its own destiny. The north, however, is indeed different to the south. It has a far thinner human and institutional capacity. Its land tenure foundations are largely public or communal versus private. It is primarily an Indigenous domain. Its climate and annual cyclonic risk is beyond the typical experiences of those in the south. Much of the north is closer to populous Asian and Pacific capitals than to Perth, Brisbane or Canberra. As such, northerners, by and large, are looking for different governance models. There is a desire to cast existing models aside and to at least explore, in partnership with State and Federal Governments, innovative new approaches.

Northern Australians want people in the south to better understand this unique, majestic land and its importance to the nation. Over recent years, several columnists and academics have had a go at building a narrative about the north, but few have tried to start a genuine dialogue between northern and southern Australia; a dialogue focused on how the nation as a whole might work towards a better future for northern Australia through governance reform. This discussion piece aims to start a national debate about the purpose and direction for such reform. It is not, however, a return to Theodorian-style calls for political separatism. Northern Australia needs southern Australia and vice versa. This means that, at the very least, the nation needs a bolder and united north Australian narrative that takes us from being the post-colonial backwater of three separate governments to a more northern-driven but nationally integrated governance system. It is about Australian and State/Territory Governments radically and collectively reconfiguring their current fragmented and geographically distant approach, to one that negotiates big policy decisions in the north and that manages government policy and programs in radically different ways.

With mature economies in the south, fresh opportunities for major national economic, social and environmental advances rest in the north. Southern powers need to explicitly support the emergence of these opportunities from within the north itself for the benefit of the nation as a whole. This could emerge through a stronger northern Australian policy, fiscal and delivery architecture; perhaps one directly integrated into the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) framework. Such an architecture and associated processes, however, must be powerfully engaged with a cohesive and strong pan-tropical alliance of northern Australia's sectoral interests, inclusive of traditional owners, local government, industry, human service, conservation and other sectors. It must also be independently informed by a cohesive and engaged knowledge-based relationship with the north's key research institutions.

If this approach recasts the way decisions are made for the north, then there are several big reform agendas that need to be the foundational focus of attention. First, as the foundation for both economic development and rights protection, the north needs real innovation in the efficient resolution of land use and tenure conflicts across the landscape. This requires a long-term, cohesive and regionally-driven approach to planning of the north's strategic land use and infrastructure needs. This contrasts the current approach, driven both by either high profile southern conservation campaigns or major development projects that emerge in bull markets. On the economic front, we also need a more targeted and consistent approach to negotiating major project development in ways that lift investor-confidence while not trashing our crown-jewel environmental and cultural assets; approaches that also can build the long-term foundations for regional community development. Alongside this, we have an opportunity to create the basis for an eco-system services economy specifically designed for, and focussed on, northern Australia; one that delivers land owners/managers real economic reasons for managing landscapes explicitly for their cultural, conservation and wilderness values while also keeping the economic foundations for remote communities intact.

At the community-scale, over the past 30 years, the core government model for Indigenous policy and program delivery shifted from assimilation to self-determination, but the policy failures of both have culminated in (the largely top-down) interventions of the last decade and their focus on service normalisation. While addressing critical needs, the new normalisation-based approaches continue to disempower and deliver stop-start progress. The architecture for government delivery largely remains welfare-oriented, inflexible and annualised. Such approaches simply do not build lasting human capacity and often do not work for a region with a rugged landscape, limited human resources and a cruelling wet-dry seasonality. Similarly in that time, local governments across the north have been gradually lumbered with big new policy and delivery responsibilities without linked improvements in revenue.

To shift the whole economy from an historically boom-bust cycle, however, the nation must build the foundations for a tropical knowledge-driven economy that both underpins productivity improvements in our existing industries (mining, agriculture, fishing, tourism) and creates real export-oriented engagement. This outward looking engagement needs to be not just into the Asia-Pacific, but right across the globe's tropical latitudes. This will rely on Australia investing in tropical knowledge development (e.g., tropical health, agriculture, environmental and disaster management, tropical design and energy) within the north. These strengths then need to be brokered into the wider tropical region via long-term partnership building, trade and innovation clusters and the strategic attraction of foreign investment.

This palette of reforms could deliver a progressive and productive northern Australia with a strong identity and lifestyle values to-die-for. Despite the challenging climate, the north could become a place where a great diversity of people (with a wide skills base) want to live, escaping our reputation as the southern hemisphere's salt mines. The cost of failure would be great: a permanent boom and bust economy with more bust and less boom, whole regions of multi-generational disadvantage and the nation's environmental and cultural jewels degraded. If progressed through the right governance reforms, however, securing these opportunities in the north may hold the keys to the whole nation's future.

This paper outlines first why good governance for northern Australia is important to the nation. It details how things actually function in a pan-tropical sense, in northern Western Australia (WA), the Northern Territory (NT) and northern Queensland, and at regional and local scales. It then looks at how the north has been governed through the lens of major conflict themes from our recent history. It also looks at the outcomes that might emerge from a business-as-usual scenario; what happens if the flaws in the governance of the north continue unabated into the future? Finally, it explores (or perhaps dreams) of some of the alternative possibilities for northern governance.

Item ID: 29868
Item Type: Report (Working Paper)
ISBN: 978-0-9875822-1-7
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This report is part of The Future of Northern Australia Discussion Paper Series.

This discussion paper is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia licence. You are free to copy, communicate and adapt this work, so long as you attribute James Cook University [The Cairns Institute] and the author.

Date Deposited: 07 Nov 2013 02:38
FoR Codes: 16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1606 Political Science > 160601 Australian Government and Politics @ 50%
05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050205 Environmental Management @ 50%
SEO Codes: 94 LAW, POLITICS AND COMMUNITY SERVICES > 9402 Government and Politics > 940299 Government and Politics not elsewhere classified @ 50%
96 ENVIRONMENT > 9609 Land and Water Management > 960999 Land and Water Management of Environments not elsewhere classified @ 25%
96 ENVIRONMENT > 9607 Environmental Policy, Legislation and Standards > 960704 Land Stewardship @ 25%
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