Saturday 17 September 2011

Tony Abbott's plan for northern foodbowl

rivers coalition dam map
Source: The Australian

THE Coalition is developing an ambitious plan to double Australia's agricultural production by the middle of the century through a network of new dams in the Top End, which would open up millions of hectares of under-utilised land to food production.

A Coalition policy development taskforce headed by opposition finance spokesman Andrew Robb is eyeing projects across the Top End, including the third stage of the Ord River project in Western Australia and the Daly River in the Northern Territory, and developing dams that have been on the drawing board in far north Queensland on the Gilbert and Flinders rivers.

While Mr Robb said the policy was a "work in progress", it promises to reignite a development-versus-environment war in the north and further inflame tensions between the Coalition and the Greens.

Queensland's Liberal National Party, which is on track to win a state election due by next March, is already developing plans to greatly expand cropping and double food production from the state by 2040.

A government taskforce, established after Labor won office, found there was not enough water available to create a big new food bowl, but the finding was lashed by Senator Heffernan and other Coalition MPs, who accused Canberra of trying to lock up vast land tracts forever.

After meetings across every state, Mr Robb said Australia currently produced enough food for 60 million people, but a program to develop a "mosaic" of agricultural opportunities across the north could boost this figure to 120 million in two to three decades. "This is the century of food security," Mr Robb said.

"The biggest demand is probably likely to come out of the Asian region in terms of growth. "There really are millions of hectares, which, if you add water, you've got dramatically improved productivity and all sorts of agricultural opportunities open up that wouldn't exist.

"We are starting to form the view that, in the next couple of decades, we can materially develop the north and get to a point where we can feed not 60 million people but 120 million people."

Mr Robb said many dams could be developed by commercial interests and there were opportunities - particularly in Queensland - for hydroelectric projects to be attached to the developments. He said dams had become "persona non grata" during the past 30 years, and he lashed the Greens for opposing dam developments, thereby "knocking the stuffing out of regional communities".

Mr Robb said development had become a dirty word in some parts of the political debate and, in many cases, getting dams up and running was just a matter of "political will". He said that even some farm dams faced potential delays of up to two years under current development regulations.

While dam approvals were largely a state government responsibility, federal government support could prove decisive in progressing developments and there would be a role for Canberra in facilitating the development of roads, rail and ports infrastructure. "The role of government will be to ensure that the planning requirements are not onerous, that it doesn't collapse under the weight of regulation," Mr Robb said. "If major projects are identified, state and federal governments should work closely together to deliver the project and fast-track approval procedures.

"There needs to be a culture of development and backing our strengths." These included mining, resources, agriculture and education as the nation moved to take advantage of the Asian century.

Mr Robb said not all of the dams had to be massive developments and many could be developed commercially, backed by irrigation. He said the Coalition's dams policy taskforce had received 44 submissions and had found that a lot of local communities had sophisticated proposals that could be acted on quickly.

The taskforce includes Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce, Queensland Liberal senator Ian Macdonald, Senator Heffernan, opposition climate action spokesman Greg Hunt and opposition parliamentary secretary for the environment Simon Birmingham.

Mr Robb said that while the north had the potential to open up millions of hectares, there were also opportunities in Victoria, NSW and Tasmania. He said that an extra 20,000 to 30,000 dairy cows could be in production at Circular Head in northwest Tasmania if a small dam was built at Arthur River.

Among opportunities being examined by the taskforce are potential dam sites around Richmond, Georgetown and Hughenden on the Gilbert and Flinders rivers. A dam on the Gilbert was first floated in 1898, along with many other sites.

Experts have also proposed building a dam with hydroelectricity capability at Hells Gates in north Queensland, which would feed into the Burdekin Dam.

Mr Robb said the growth of the coal industry in central Queensland made potential dams commercially viable in the region, such as the planned Connors River and Nathan dams in the Bowen Basin that are on the Queensland government's drawing board.

Representations have also been made to the taskforce to support raising the wall of the Warragamba Dam on the Hawkesbury River in NSW as a flood mitigation measure. "There are huge quantities of water in Australia. It is just harnessing it at the right time that is the issue," Mr Robb said.

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