A few Prime Ministers back, Australian politics seemed to be all about Western Sydney. On the conservative side of politics, unremarkable politicians who managed to win and hold former Labor electorates were lionised, while similar wins in other parts of the country were seen as part of the normal ebb and flow of electoral politics. On the Labor side, the region was invoked by the NSW Right (many of whom preferred not to live there) as the basis for its “aspirational” politics. This was all nonsense. The two million or so people who live in Western Sydney vary far more among themselves than they differ from the Australian population as a whole. To the extent that they have any sort of collective identity it hasn’t stopped large numbers of them for voting for (or, for that matter, against) governments led by silvertails from the North Shore, Northern Beaches and Eastern Suburbs.
But since the brief return of Kevin Rudd, the focus has shifted back to an area of more traditional concern: Northern Australia and its supposed need for development. I had hoped to see the end of this when Turnbull became PM, especially given the government’s fiscal woes. But sadly, this is not to be. Not only is the $5 billion development fund still alive, but we are getting stories about Turnbull’s plans to “unlock the North“.
As it happens, I’m in North Queensland right now, and I lived in Townsville for most of the 1990s. Like everyone else in the region I received a special “zone allowance” under the tax system to compensate me for living in a pleasant (if rather warm) coastal city with all the amenities that would be expected by a resident of, say, Newcastle or Wollongong. I understand that this allowance is still available. Nothing of the sort is on offer to people in poor suburbs or declining country towns in the rest of the country.
Like every other place in Australia, the North has plenty of unmet needs for services and, though to a much lesser extent than people seem to think, physical infrastructure. But it is in no sense “locked up”. There are road, rail and air transport links that meet the needs of the region with the same adequacy or lack of it as most other places in the country. Internet access is taken for granted in all but the remotest parts of the region. Ports, and transport links to them, are well developed to carry agricultural and mineral exports wherever they need to be sent. And so on.
Moreover, as with Western Sydney, the region has much the same diversity as the rest of the country, with a corresponding diversity of needs and wants. The cities of Rockhampton, Townsville, Cairns and Darwin differ as greatly from each other and from the rural areas they serve as they do from cities and regions in the rest of Australia.
We don’t need a Northern Australia policy any more than we need a Western Sydney policy. Public infrastructure projects should be assessed on the basis of their merits, and not their location. Private investment should be left to the commercial judgement of those involved. The $5 billion development fund should be rolled back into general revenue and used wherever it is most needed.