Tax havens, gas fields and fail food bowls the new NT plan

Barnaby Joyce with Gina Rinehart.

One of the more disturbing images on federal election night was that of Coalition MP-elect Barnaby Joyce welcoming mining magnate Gina Rinehart as the special guest to his election party. Few things could reveal more clearly the strong connection between corporate power and government under Coalition rule.

It is worth noting some of the policies that Rinehart is promoting for the Northern Territory because, let’s face it, they are likely to happen.

One of her big ideas, which Kevin Rudd adopted before his election defeat, is the creation of a northern Australia tax haven.

Rinehart was quoted in the NT News on April 1 as saying: "Our north is close to our Asian neighbours with their growing needs. But we cannot sit back and think that this will automatically encourage investment and opportunities for growth and increased revenue, unless we can reduce our costs and become more cost competitive.

"The North has a great spirit. Getting the policies right is critical to the success of encouraging more wealth generation in this region, and to me that means less regulation, less taxes, which are critical to being able to be cost-competitive."

When Rudd announced his policy, the Coalition dismissed it as playing catch-up.

The NT already has one of the loosest regulatory frameworks in the country, and has a booming mining sector. Both big parties believe that corporations deserved a bigger tax cut for setting up shop where there is money to be made.

The second great proposal that the Coalition supports is the idea of the northern Australian food bowl, an idea so old it has a moniker — the Northern Myth.

Since the ‘30s, southern agricultural “experts” have looked at the average rainfall in northern Australia and believed it capable of rivalling southern farms for produce. This idea has never succeeded.

As the Environment Centre NT said when the Coalition released a paper on developing northern Australia in February: “The north is a graveyard for failed agricultural projects inspired by ‘visionary’ southern politicians”.

A 2009 sustainability report by the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce said there was no scientific evidence to support a food bowl vision for the north due to poor soils, limited water availability and harsh climatic conditions.

This has yet to stop conservative think tanks and lobbyists from declaring the idea the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Nathan Taylor, chief economist at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia was so pleased with the idea, he promoted it along with another great idea the Coalition wants to trial — vast exploitation of natural gas supplies.

The Australian reported that Taylor told the Fracking and our Gas Future conference in Sydney on July 16: "Most of the potential resource (in Australia) exists in places where we don't have the infrastructure to enable it. This is very different to the US, which had a web of enabling infrastructure they were able to tap into.

"If we start looking strategically at areas like northern Australia and what we can do about unlocking the potential endowment of that region, I think some of these programs might stack up more if, for example, the enabling infrastructure were put in place.

"We need to provide agriculture infrastructure for that to occur, and that doesn't necessarily … compete at all with unconventional energy sources."

Such visions are blind to the impact on the environment in the NT. Access to the vast gas resources in the NT would require clearing huge sections of the natural savanna.

Rob Law, a researcher from the University of Melbourne, debunked many of the myths behind the northern food bowl fantasy. Writing in the Conversation on March 18 he said: “As those that have lived and endured its history will understand, northern Australia seems more likely to reward those that have respected and understood its harsh climatic extremes and environmental limits…

“Expanding agriculture in the north will require extensive clearing of existing savanna woodlands, producing large volumes of greenhouse gas emissions. Estimates of clearing savanna woodlands range from 140 to 220 tonnes of CO₂ per hectare.”

The huge levels of savanna clearing necessary to develop gas in the region would contradict even the Coalition’s weak “Direct Action” policy on climate change.

Climate change will have a detrimental impact on rainfall and land use in the NT, and will be made worse by the exploitation of natural gas.

The September 25 NT News reported that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had released predictions in advance of it’s latest report to be released on September 27. The prediction included statements about what could be expected in the north.

The article said: “By 2030 the sea level around Kakadu is predicted to rise by 8cm to 30cm ‘with severe impacts on the wetland ecosystem’.

“Beef production in the NT would be reduced by almost 20 per cent by 2030 and 33 per cent by 2050, because of increased heat stress and cattle ticks.”

Nature will have the last word and Coalition dreams about the north will remain just that.

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