Submission to the White Pater on Developing Northern Australia

Submission to the White Pater on Developing Northern Australia
By Peter Rickert BSc.
When I studied Biology at JCUNQ Townsville in the early 70’s, Northern Australia had
been little studied, and while there has been a lot of work in the past 40 years, we have
still only scratched the surface in terms of a clear understanding of the natural systems
and how they react to human and climate induced changes. The north, while having been
seriously degraded in wide areas due to the direct effects of grazing and associated fire
management, remains a relatively pristine system by world standards. How we proceed
will determine what we leave for future generations of Australians and the world at large.
While I support the focus on northern Australia, I have serious concerns that a
development frenzy in northern Australia guided by uninformed or misinformed
bureaucrats and populist politics will:
a. cost the country in misallocated resources. At a time when money seems in short
supply, we can ill afford large allocations to risky and poorly researched ventures that
sound good or that have worked somewhere else.
b. leave another Ord river type legacy of misguided enthusiasm. In 100 years we could
see further relics of past enthusiasms that have not stood the test of time. Great
achievements of the past may seem to have come from bold visions and hard work, but
we don’t remember the many that failed because of factors that no-one could have
forseen. We now have the science to help in making better decisions. Let’s use it.
c. cause lasting land and water degradation. Soils and groundwater in the tropical
savannahs is problematic, with little understood acid and carbon cycles that could have
devastating consequences for agricultural ventures. Supply of water is only the
beginning. We need to try to understand the systems that will determine long term
d. introduce further challenges for the aboriginal population. The effects on this already
challenged culture must be considered in detail. To say that development will bring
employment and services may be true, but what else will it bring and do they want that.
Large scale mining projects leave natural and human scars that must be forseen before
projects are approved.
The communities and future investors of northern Australia need to be presented with
evidence based options for the future, and the likely outcomes and associated risks, so
that they can make informed choices about where they want to go. Beware the
bureaucratic and business zealots who will be blinded by visions and grandeur.
The focus must be on evidence based decision making with a conservative approach.