Senate debates

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Matters of Public Interest

Northern Australia

1:40 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to use today’s debate on matters of public interest to again highlight the opportunities that abound in Northern Australia and to remind the Senate that, even now, Northern Australia, with about six per cent of Australia’s population, produces more than 30 per cent of Australia’s export earnings. Before I get onto that, I reflect on nation-building. Earlier this morning, I had the opportunity of attending a briefing from the Australian Antarctic Division on their future plans for science way down at the opposite end of our continent and our nation from Northern Australia. I was reminded, when listening to the AAD officials and Dr Tony Press, how important it is to have a vision in Australia.

Back in 1996, the new coalition government had a vision for getting access to Antarctica so we could get more scientists down there. We could do better work and we could understand world climate changes so much more easily if we could fly scientists down and back by aeroplane. Against a lot of objection and difficulties over a long period of time, that airline is now operational. Just talking to the scientists, one can understand how delighted they are that the Howard government had that vision way back in those days. That led me to look with some pride at other visionary projects constructed or started by the Howard government. Look at the Darwin to Alice Springs Railway—a nation-building, visionary project of the Liberal and National parties. Look at things like the work done to save the Great Barrier Reef, that iconic natural feature. Again, this work was started off, going back further, by the Fraser Liberal government.

Think of the current financial crisis and understand that the government yesterday spent $10 billion on assisting disadvantaged Australians but also on helping the economy. One wonders what Australia would have been like today if the current government had inherited, 10 months ago when it took office, a $96 billion debt rather than a $22 billion surplus, which it did inherit. Again, that shows the visionary outlook of consecutive Liberal-National Party governments. We can only be thankful today that we did have a government who prepared Australia for these sorts of economic global activities that are now happening—

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Leader in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Fierravanti-Wells interjecting

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

and, as Senator Fierravanti-Wells says, provided the current government with the money to do what it has been necessary to do. I look back to another visionary project, that of the Ord River scheme, introduced many years ago by the Menzies government. Look at what that visionary scheme has done. Not always has it been successful, not always has it got plaudits, but it has been a visionary activity that will, in time to come, provide the food for not only Australia but Asia as well. As we look ahead to 15 to 20 years time and realise that the plains of northern China will run out of water, we then realise that there are an enormous number of people in the world that will need food. That Ord River scheme will then, if it has not already, come into its own.

I could speak for hours on the activities, the enthusiasm and the potential of the Ord River, suffice it to say, perhaps, that it does need further visionary activity. It has not occurred in recent years with the Labor government in Western Australia, but I believe now that, with the new government in Western Australia and encouragement from the Commonwealth government, the Ord River Irrigation Scheme Stage 2 can be extended because—again, we do not have time to go into this—it is quite clear that as climate change makes the south of the country drier and as the Murray-Darling basin continues to have difficult times, we have to look where the water is.

So stage 2 of the Ord River Dam scheme is essential. It does require some activity from the Western Australian government and I am confident Mr Barnett and his team will be doing that. I just wish, I hope, I urge that the Northern Territory government would end its malaise and its disinterest in stage 2, which comes across into the Northern Territory and would provide wonderful opportunities for development and production of food. How sad I am that, by 74 votes, the people of the Northern Territory missed out on having a new and energetic government that might extend the development and extend operations for the good of its people up that way. But the Douglas-Daly area is another area that has huge potential for providing food for Australia and food for the world. Again, it needs activity, some visionary approach by the Northern Territory government—sadly lacking now but we can continue to hope and urge the Northern Territory government to get on board and help to develop, in a sustainable way, those areas. So there is a huge potential there.

The potential of Northern Australia is not just in food production: mining and minerals processing already carries the rest of Australia, there is the tourism activity up in the north, the universities. James Cook University is one of the—if not the—premium tropical universities in the world. It is a university with great expertise in tropical sciences that are in high demand around that one-third of the world that comprises the tropical areas of our planet, and the potential continues.

Today I want to develop and have a closer look at some of the irrigation potential of Northern Australia. I am indebted to an analysis put out by the CRC for Irrigation Futures and the CSIRO Land and Water Science report No. 13/08, which was published in February of this year. It builds upon work that was committed entitled the Northern Australia irrigation futures: building a basis for developing sustainable irrigation across northern Australia in 2003 by the Howard government as a collaboration between Australian, Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australian governments, CRCs, Land and Water Australia and the CSIRO to develop new knowledge tools and processes to support debate and decision making regarding irrigation in Northern Australia. That very learned document does compare the lower Burdekin catchment area based on the Burdekin River. Of course, that is my home town of Ayr and Home Hill astride the Burdekin River, an irrigation area that has been going for over 100 years now and provides some 80,000 hectares of land currently under cultivation. They compare that with the Ord River irrigation area, some 13,000 hectares of surface water irrigation scheme established, as I have mentioned, in the mid-1960s and producing real wealth from that area. They also compare the Katherine and Douglas-Daly areas of the Northern Territory, with its 2,200 hectares of irrigated areas which really develops agriculture across Australia.

In each of those three irrigation areas, there is potential: in the lower Burdekin area 142,000 hectares of potential, in the Ord River irrigation area another 70,000 hectares of potential and further potential in the Katherine and Douglas-Daly area. Already, the net incomes from those three irrigation areas are respectively $450 million, $60 million and $92 million. So these irrigation areas are currently not only making a magnificent contribution to Australia’s economy but are also helping to feed Australia and the world. But the potential is what is important.

With some extension of the wall of the Burdekin Dam there would be huge increases in activity. Already, 53 per cent of the water from the Burdekin Dam is used for agriculture. There is 17 per cent currently unallocated and it can be extended down the Elliott main channel towards Bowen to provide a considerable additional area of irrigated agriculture land and, as well, could provide substantial hydroelectricity. There is potential to generate 60 megawatts by raising the Burdekin Falls Dam by only a small amount. So there is huge potential there.

In addition to these three places in northern Australia already producing but with potential to increase further, there are new areas which can be developed. I want to just briefly mention the O’Connell Creek proposal on the Flinders River at Richmond, a small town in the gulf area of North Queensland. O’Connell Creek is a tributary of the Flinders, flowing into the Flinders River about 25 kilometres west of the Richmond township. The proposal for this diversion would require a weir on the Flinders River to divert high flows into the O’Connell Creek water storage facility in times of high flow in the Flinders River. It would have a wall and a spillway, with water returning to the Flinders River when the facility is full. There could be a yield of some 55,500 megalitres at 85 per cent reliability, and the facility could be capable of irrigating some 5,000 to 12,500 hectares of irrigable agricultural land. The soils are self-cracking black soils, good for any sort of cropping. The facility will draw some 100,000 megalitres annually, which is only 2½ per cent of the total river flow or 18 per cent of what flows past Richmond.

The Gulf of Carpentaria, which is where the Flinders River runs, has some 23.3 per cent of Australia’s water run-off. I will mention that again: the Gulf of Carpentaria has 23.3 per cent of Australia’s surface water run-off. The mean flow of the Flinders River at Richmond is some 846,000 megalitres; the median flow is some 271,000 megalitres. The proponents of this proposal, the Richmond shire, believe that a 20 per cent allocation from the Flinders River in times of flood is environmentally, socially and economically feasible. They have done a huge amount of work, as has the Flinders Shire Council in relation to its Mount Beckford proposal.

I return to where I started in this speech—that is, to highlight that Australia can only be developed if governments have the vision. I have demonstrated that it has been Liberal governments over the last 50 years that have had the vision for things like protecting the Great Barrier Reef, for things like the Alice to Darwin railway and for things like the Ord River scheme. We need that vision again from Commonwealth and state governments and from enterprising people to ensure that we can develop that part of Australia which holds the future for food supply and for energy supply in our country. After years of neglect by the Queensland, Western Australian and Northern Territory governments, we need a new focus. It is happening in the west. I hope it can happen in the other place, and I certainly hope that the current federal government will borrow some of the enthusiasm and energy of previous Liberal governments and get working on the things needed to develop Australia’s future, which is Northern Australia.