Agriculture can drive infrastructure development in northern Australia

In the ASPI report ‘Thinking big!’: Resetting northern Australia’s national security posture, John Coyne outlines opportunities and challenges in realising northern Australia’s strategic potential for governments, institutions, and communities. One significant challenge articulated in that report is the absence of adequate infrastructure across the north that is both capable of supporting defence-related supply routes while being economically significant enough to justify non-defence investment and use by other stakeholders.

As Coyne noted, Defence ‘relies heavily on national infrastructure and the wider logistic support system, which is outside its control or management’. Below 26° south, where 95% of Australia’s population lives, a user-pays model provides Defence with that support. In the sparsely populated north, such models stymie infrastructure development, limiting defence logistics.

Developing adequate infrastructure across the north requires an alternative approach that brings multiple stakeholders together to create an economic rationale for such development. Mining, agriculture, tourism, energy and other industries that operate extensively throughout northern Australia, together with governments at all levels, must enhance collaboration to implement infrastructure projects that serve the region. No single stakeholder can deliver the infrastructure that northern Australia requires if it’s to play the strategic and economic role that’s been flagged for it.

While a multistakeholder approach will deliver effective infrastructure, each industry can contribute to the whole by developing the relevant economic opportunities presented by northern Australia. In agriculture, an industry with room to grow in the north, some opportunities are being realised while others remain untapped. The production of high-value agricultural commodities holds particular potential for attracting infrastructure investment across the north. Through research and development, the establishment or expansion of such activities will lead to infrastructure outcomes for northern Australia. Here, the old adage ‘build it and they will come’ is replaced by ‘grow it, and they will build’.

Government investment in transport infrastructure supporting mining industries across northern Australia demonstrates how high-value commodities attract public investment. Coal mining in Queensland has attracted private and public infrastructure development for nearly 150 years. The mining of gold, iron ore, copper and other materials has bolstered infrastructure investment in northern Australia since the mid-1800s. Mining of other minerals like lithium, crucial for electric vehicle manufacturing, presents newer opportunities for attracting public investment. Lithium mining near Port Hedland in northwest Western Australia is being supported by the Australian government through road widening at a cost of $44 million.

While agriculture and mining are different beasts, infrastructure that supports primary production can also serve strategic goals. Infrastructure development can be driven a number of ways. First, there are new opportunities in the form of expanded agricultural areas that would increase northern Australia’s economic performance.

In WA’s Ord River Irrigation Area, recent success with cotton production has attracted significant investment in transport infrastructure. For many years the Ord River region had not lived up to its potential because of a lack of scale to make investments worthwhile and many of the challenges that beset tropical agriculture and hamper production. But thanks to technological and agronomic advances, the region, characterised by favourable soil and abundant rain, produced impressive cotton yields in 2019 and 2020. As the region’s crop production increases, so does the impetus for infrastructure development.

While the abundant rain makes the Ord attractive from an agricultural viewpoint, it also makes the region prone to flooding, with subsequent supply interruptions. Agriculture-driven improvements to transport infrastructure in the Ord and throughout northern Australia could help avoid those interruptions through bridge construction, improving run-off and other measures—making it more suitable for Defence as well.

Nascent agricultural industries also provide incentives for infrastructure development throughout the north. For example, while major tropical fruits like mangoes are grown extensively in northern Australia, the cultivation of minor tropical fruits like durian and mangosteen has scope to increase. Many of those products are consumed in Australia, but they are also desirable to our neighbours. China imported $1.62 billion of durian in the first half of 2020 alone. The fruit, which has seen an explosive growth in value, can be grown around Darwin and in coastal areas of Cape York, but the industry is smaller than it could be. As demand for those commodities increases, infrastructure development to support the industry becomes more attractive.

Consumer demand for ethically produced goods also creates infrastructure opportunities, particularly for the livestock sector. The Northern Australia Beef Roads Program includes measures to improve animal welfare during transport, particularly by reducing ‘road roughness and dust generation’. The $100 million program seeks to make a range of improvements in road infrastructure critical to the beef industry across northern Australia and there are opportunities to augment it. The vast distances between farms or to processing facilities raise animal welfare concerns, providing a rationale for improved transport infrastructure and additional abattoirs across the north, which could shorten travel times for livestock and reduce animal stress. New processing facilities would also attract additional ancillary projects like residential infrastructure.

Many other agricultural schemes have the potential to attract infrastructure investment in northern Australia. They include innovative value-adding initiatives to existing agricultural commodities, the adoption of high-value products, increased water storage, Indigenous-led agricultural production and the construction or upgrade of airports and seaports.

Together with other stakeholders, agriculture can contribute to the infrastructure that northern Australia requires. The CQ Inland Port, near the central Queensland town of Emerald, is a great example of a major multistakeholder infrastructure development in the north. The development, which is primarily intended for use by agriculture and mining industries, includes a bulk grain handling facility as well as an intermodal and container terminal. The facility is located near the intersection of two major highways and the railways that complement them, adding to the strategic transport ecosystem in northern Australia.

A word of caution is in order: while increased agricultural activity could attract the infrastructure investment northern Australia needs, governments and industries must proceed in a sustainable way. Hurried development risks poor long-term infrastructure outcomes and may strain social cohesion across the diverse north. Similarly, casting aside environmental considerations for the sake of expedience exposes the community and environment to threats such as zoonotic diseases, water pollution and biodiversity loss.

While the challenges of northern Australia can seem prohibitive for many endeavours, including agriculture, those constraints can also act as incubators for the innovative and collaborative approaches required to achieve the sort of nation-building that the region requires.