Conference canvasses opportunities for Northern Australia

Alicia PereraPilbara News
Developing Northern Australia Conference chairman Allan Dale.
Camera IconDeveloping Northern Australia Conference chairman Allan Dale. Credit: Pilbara News

Vast, rich in resources and full of potential, the north of the nation took centre stage at the Developing Northern Australia Conference in Karratha.

Developing new industries, attracting more people and businesses and adapting to meet changing global demands were key topics of discussion for the 360 delegates who attended the national economic development conference at the Red Earth Arts Precinct last Thursday and Friday.

Economic diversification in northern Australia, especially in the North West, was high on the agenda, with industries of focus including renewable energy, rare earth metals, tourism, agriculture and aquaculture.

Regional Development Minister Alannah MacTiernan said the State Government was working to diversify the North West economy through initiatives including a “renewal” of pastoralism and agriculture, production of renewable hydrogen and more support for small-scale local projects.

“Within our economies... diversification does lead to growth in opportunities and growth in wealth, and it is really important... that we diversify these economies because it is diversification that does drive prosperity and drives that prosperity across the community,” she said.

“Our drive is for prosperity in the North West.”

Pilbara Development Commission chairman Brendan Hammond said diversification was a matter of high stakes, saying the resources-driven north urgently needed a more complex economy or Australia would face a steep decline in living standards when its non-renewable resources ran out.

“When iron ore and oil and gas and gold all come to an end, as they are going to do, if we have not replaced that activity and that level of activity with alternative sources of income, the standard of living of our children and our grandchildren is going to be disastrous,” he said.

“The latest numbers have Australia ranked globally, in terms of diversification, at number 93 ... the fact is that for the 20 years we’ve been going backwards.”

“We’re not going to solve this by adopting new initiatives, it’s not enough —we’ve got to change the way we do business.”

Other challenges canvassed included how to improve live-ability, attract businesses and tertiary education providers, empower indigenous people, improve transport networks and reduce the high cost of living in the north.

ASEAN general manager Sally-Ann Watts and Australian-ASEAN Chamber of Commerce executive director Annette Tilbrook highlighted the growing importance of South-East Asian countries to our north and the new opportunities presented to Northern Australia by their urbanisation, rising prosperity and digital transformation.

“ASEAN is in the middle of the high-growth markets of North East Asia and India and so over the next 50 years it’s this part of the world which is going to be the engine of global growth, and I think we’re ignoring a big opportunity when we don’t engage with those markets which are immediately to our north,” Ms Watts said.

“There are lots of opportunities to participate in the huge growth in infrastructure development in these countries, so I think the significance of the ASEAN economies should be front and centre in the minds of all Australian exporters, importers and producers.”

With the White Paper that initially sparked the Developing Northern Australia agenda now four years in the past, several speakers also said the north needed to come up with a blueprint for taking action.

Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal board member Sue Middleton said Northern Australian held a valuable card in its access to resources and could have a greater impact if its residents clarified their collective vision and launched a movement.

“The north is creating Australia’s economic future and that’s really important because (with) your resource base, your proximity to the fastest-growing economies, your innovative people, you are Australia’s most significant asset,” she said.

“Your offer to the rest of Australia is that you create economic prosperity (and) investment opportunities and returns that all Australians share, and will share for generations to come.”

Conference chairman Allan Dale said the event was a chance to start a conversation about the north that transcended State barriers.

“I see this conference as effectively the community conversation that helps inform the (Developing Northern Australia) agenda, by taking the lessons from and continually improving that agenda,” he said.

“Before these conferences we tended to all be focused on the north-south relationships, and what this conference does… is start an east-west conversation across the north.”

The 2019 Developing Northern Australia Conference was the first to be held in WA in its five-year history.

Next year’s event host will be in Rockhampton, Queensland.

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