Agriculture key to reviving Far North's ailing economy
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
© The Cairns Post
Agriculture is the forgotten and under-developed backbone of the Far North's $12 billion economy with untapped potential worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, economist Bill Cummings says.
He told 174 people at the Cairns Chamber of Commerce’s annual state of the economy lunch yesterday that the demand for food from China and India provided the region with a golden opportunity that would require significant investment in improving road, rail and shipping networks to get the product overseas.
While on the property front, researcher and co-presenter Rick Carr said the residential, commercial and land markets had reached the bottom and investors were poised to return to take advantage of the low rental vacancy rate.
Mr Cummings said the region had plenty of the key ingredients of water and production land to grow food. He said the Chinese takeover of the Tully sugar mill was just the start. "The purchase of the Tully sugar mill by Chinese interests signals the global interest in the region," he said. "There are other negotiations going on at present that could see hundreds of millions invested in other crops."
He said satellite technology was allowing experts to compare the global agriculture growing regions, with the Far North leading northern Australia and the equal of southeast/southwest Queensland, Victoria and the Indian peninsula.
However, Mr Cummings said the region’s $1.7 billion agricultural industry remained "under developed" compared with Victoria ($2.3 billion) and southern Queensland ($4.4 billion). He said agriculture boosted the region’s economic growth in the 2000s after tourism started falling from 2005-06 onwards.
Mr Cummings said agriculture had shown consistent growth of between 2 and 3 per cent a year in the past decades. "The $1.7 billion agricultural sector already gives Cairns a major advantage as a regional servicing centre," he said.
Mr Cummings said Cairns had a greater rural population (129,000), than Townsville, including Bowen (104,000), Darwin (102,000) and Mackay (76,000). But, he said, there was an attitude in Cairns that the region did not have the ability to supply basic food commodities demanded by China and India, as well as minerals.
Mr Cummings said many under-estimated the value of the resources sector, which was not just confined to the $150 million fly-in, fly-out sector, and was worth at least $900 million a year. He said FIFO was contributing $150 million while the value of products and services to Freeport Indonesia, Weipa and Papua New Guinea was worth $600 million.
Mr Cummings said the region’s resources, including base metals west of the Tableland, coal in the Laura basin and bauxite, silica sands and kaolin on Cape York, were third behind northwest Queensland and central Queensland.
Mr Carr said the property market was in for a "long, slow haul" which would take at least 12 months. He said the economy was improving, rental vacancies were tightening, providing the opportunity for investors to re-enter the residential market, and homes were "very affordable". "Improved buyer confidence is the key (for a revival of the property market)," Mr Carr said.
Bill Cumming's submission to the Cairns Chamber of Commerce highlights the gross neglect by the collective powers that held the levers to the prosperity of the Far North over the last 50 years.
Agriculture from the moment that man walked upright has been a fundamental building block of an enduring community. Everything else stems from it. Nations and communities that abandon the essence of agriculture do so at their own peril as history shows.
The Far North is no different. Agriculture has been the essential building block of the Cairns region. Tourism, mining and the service industry have developed since and as a consequence. The tourism sector developed because of the Far North's natural attributes and the service industry to service the expanding tourism sector as well as other industries.
Government of all persuasion since the 1960s have placed greater emphasis on all things except agriculture and have basically with drawn from a planned economy.
It was the Hanlon/Gair Labor Governments in the 1950s that did the planning on the major public infrastructure of the Far North. Tinaroo Dam, Barron Gorge hydro station, the Tully River dam and hydro plant. Indeed the Far North led Queensland in the 1950/1960s when it came to public infrastructure and forward planning. The region's growth occurred thereafter and as a result.
However, since then there has been no injection of public funding of such magnitude or planning to safeguard, nurture and promote agriculture. It has been left to private enterprise to do all the heavy lifting and as such the State has withdrawn from traditional state/nation building.
Over the ensuing years various community groups have taken up the cause of agriculture but the focus has been less than targeted and certainly less than persistent. While government has chosen to place emphasis on tourism, mining and the service industry, agriculture has lost its place in the pecking order.
If the Far North is serious about restoring agriculture as a significant contributor to the wealth of the Far North then it should place emphasis on the following:
· funding and construction of the Nullinga Dam at Dimbulah,
· quarantining of prime agricultural lands on the coast littoral strip and the Atherton/Evelyn Tablelands via Government planning instruments,
· in lieu, housing development to be encouraged on less than prime agricultural land between Mareeba, Kuranda and Mt Molly triangle,
· the upgrading of the Kuranda Range to facilitate development and provide an efficient road network between Mareeba and Cairns.
There are a multitude of bodies that have been set up to promote the Far North, all with their own agenda. They literally have been stumbling over each other. What is needed is a single focused voice. These bodies should all be disbanded and in their place one united organisation representing all sectors of the Cairns regional community.