MAJOR infrastructure projects, including significant upgrades to roads, new and improved rail links and new dams and improvements to existing water infrastructure, have been identified as one of the key drivers of the future development of Northern Australia.
In its final report, which was tabled in Parliament last week, the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia also recommends the establishment of a Department of Northern Australian Development and the creation of a 20-year strategy for the staged development of capital infrastructure in Northern Australia.
The Committee was established by the Australian Government in late 2013 and tasked with considering policies for developing Northern Australia, which is broadly defined as the parts of Australia north of the Tropic of Capricorn, spanning Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland and covering an area of approximately 3 million square kilometres.
The Committee's inquiry was conducted in tandem with the government's commitment to produce a White Paper on Northern Australia, which aims to provide a clear and well-defined policy platform for realising the full economic potential of the north. A Green Paper on Developing Northern Australia was released for comment in June and the White Paper is due to be released by the end of the year.
As one of 7 priority recommendations, the Committee calls on the Australian Government to identify key roads for improvement and upgrades, including the Bruce Highway, Stuart Highway, Hann Highway and Peninsula Development Road.
"The Committee regards the development of road infrastructure as critical to the economic and social development of Northern Australia, and has identified these roads as particularly important to the development of the region," the report writes.
"Sealing and flood-proofing these roads along their entire length would allow year round access for industry, tourists and residents, significantly reduce travel times and facilitate economic opportunities."
The Committee recommends a cost-benefit analysis be conducted for a rail line linking Mount Isa and Tennant Creek, as well as for the construction of passing lanes on the Darwin to Alice Springs railway to help improve the speed and efficiency of freight movement on the line.
"The Committee believes that the construction of a rail line between Mount Isa and Tennant Creek, effectively making a direct rail link between Darwin and the east coast may be of enormous benefit to the immediate region and the nation as a whole," the report states.
A number of water infrastructure proposals are also identified, including dams and use of groundwater, with the Committee also recommending that the government proceed with its election proposal to setup the Water Project Development Fund.
While acknowledging constitutional issues surrounding the creation of special economic zones, and the possible distortions in investment decisions, the Committee recommends that the Federal Government conduct a full investigation of the potential and practicality of special economic zones in the region.
In total, the Committee makes 42 recommendations. Some of its other recommendations include for the Australian Government to:
- Commit to facilitating the approval process to enable the re-opening of the Christmas Island casino;
- Ensure that the impacts of the ongoing change in climate are included in all planning processes;
- Support the development of a national institute for tropical sports and sports medicine in Northern Australia;
- Consider the relocation of parts of the public service to Northern Australia;
- Improve access to, speed and reliability of high speed broadband;
- Allow graduates to have some or all of their Higher Education Loan Program debt written-off in return for living and working in locations deemed remote for a significant period of time; and
- Investigate the construction of an abattoir in North Queensland with a view to facilitating private sector investment.
The importance of infrastructure was reinforced by the Northern Territory Government in its 'Response to the Green Paper on Developing Northern Australia', which was also released last week.
"Developing Australia's North to its full potential will be the biggest national-building exercise this country has ever seen and I want to make sure the Territory is at the heart of it," NT Chief Minister Adam Giles said.
In preparing the response, Mr Giles said two firm policy considerations have emerged as being key to the future of the North: investment in economic and transport infrastructure; and the need to address labour and skills shortages.
In its submission, the government calls for upgrades and all weather access to several key arterial roads such as the Tanami Road, Victorian Highway and Arnhem Highway, as well as railway connections from Mt Isa to Tennant Creek and Western Australia's Kimberley region to Katherine and to the AustralAsia line to Darwin.
Other infrastructure identified projects include a gas pipeline to connect the northern and eastern gas markets, an expansion of the East Arm Port and the development of a second port at Glyde.
The final report of the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia is available from the Parliament of Australia website at <http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Northern_Australia/Inquiry_into_the_Development_of_Northern_Australia/Tabled_Reports>.
The Northern Territory Government Response to the Green Paper on Developing Northern Australia is available from <http://www.northernaustralia.nt.gov.au/>.
More information about the White Paper on Developing Northern Australia is available from <http://northernaustralia.dpmc.gov.au/>.