In Summary

While some advancements have been made ‘up north’, Swinburne Council member David Singleton says there is more we can and should be doing to achieve development of Northern Australia sooner, and he believes engineers can play a major role.

This opinion piece was originally published in Engineers Australia, National.

Australia is rare, in a global context. Expansion in significant areas of a country is not a luxury afforded to many nations across the globe when availability of land or economic opportunity is considered. But Australia has economic prosperity and it has land, and plenty of it.

It has abundant arable soil and is endowed with energy and minerals.

According to the CSIRO, there are up to 17 million hectares of arable soil in the north, potentially suitable for a variety of agriculture and horticulture.

Australian writer Gerald (GM) Glaskin wrote: "The north is a country in itself, a third of the size of the United States - three times the size of Texas. It is a land that has slept through the centuries, but can sleep no more ... It is stirring now - stirring and waiting for man [humans] to be sufficiently civilised, sufficiently knowledgeable, to make it his [their] own."

He wrote this in 1960. So why, over half a century later, are we still talking about it and not yet taking full advantage of these opportunities? Fifty-plus years on and the reasons why the idea has merit haven't changed - there are massive opportunities for food and agribusiness, resources and energy, tourism and hospitality, tropical health and medical research and international education, and engineers will definitely be involved.

Development of Northern Australia will require the planning, design and construction of a wide range of infrastructure and property, distributed across this vast land tract. Transport links, ports, energy plants and water storage and distribution systems will be needed to support agriculture, industry and residential development.

The ADC Forum's Northern Development Summit held in Townsville in June 2014 looked at what could be done now and which early wins would get the development process rolling. At the summit, Andrew Robb, federal minister for trade and investment, noted development has started, but we need to now take it to a new level.

We have massive projected population growth in the region, and have many opportunities with all that will come from such growth. Robb pointed out that with the population of the Asia Pacific Region set to blow from 600 million to more than three billion l over the next 20 to 30 years, Australia's north could meet the resulting food and energy needs.

"It demonstrates the sheer scale of opportunity ... there is an abundance of reliable water that we have the know-how to manage efficiently," Robb said, referring to an estimated 152,000GL in total surface water run-off across the north - around 60 per cent of the water that falls in Australia. Currently we capture just 2 per cent of it.

We have an abundance of energy and minerals. The region is home to 90 per cent of Australia's gas, reserves and regions such as the Pilbara, Gladstone and Mackay have developed rapidly by leveraging their natural resources.

With only 10 per cent of Australia's future infrastructure investment going north, how do we put such investment on the nation building agenda? Making this a topic for the national and international agenda is integral to taking development of the north to a new level. Creating a win-win for all Australian residents is essential in closing the population gap between Australia's northern and southern regions.

Over the years we have seen positive developments such as the granting of diversification permits where land owners can do more under their pastoral leases than just graze cattle. Numerous stations are now maximising the productive potential of their land and venturing into agriculture to grow crops like sweet corn, potatoes and melons.

To take development to that new level, we need people from other parts of Australia to head north to build infrastructure, to work and to study. The engineering profession will inevitably contribute to helping Australia rise to the challenge. There will be a number of opportunities to develop better solutions for affordable tropical housing, suited to the climatic conditions. There will be a need for infrastructure planning that avoids some past errors and delivers appropriate, affordable infrastructure.

We also need to ensure opportunities are created for Australia's Indigenous communities across all areas from tourism, resources and energy, agriculture, agribusiness, aquaculture. water infrastructure, and all of the infrastructure and services that will support development.

We could make development viable by offering incentives for people to work in the north. Let's think outside the box and offer recent university graduates a reduction in their HELP debt in exchange for moving to the north and working for a specified amount of time.

Northern development will present the engineering profession with a new challenge, to work smartly and effectively to create Australia's new frontier. This could be an exciting opportunity for the next generation of engineering graduates.

I encourage engineers to sign up to assignments in the tropical north and play a vital part in the development of Northern Australia.


David Singleton is a Council member at Swinburne University of Technology.

He is also chairman of the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia, a non-executive director of several boards including Standards Australia and Centre for Engineering Leadership and Management.