As momentum continues to build around the practical applications of implementing Our North, Our Future, the third Annual Developing Northern Australia Conference, held in Cairns, explored the key opportunities and challenges in progressing the Northern Australia Project.

We’ve picked out the three key takeaways for infrastructure, agricultural and resources projects in the region.

1. Infrastructure projects must adopt a holistic and network-based approach

Presentations from Infrastructure Australia, the Federal Office of Northern Australia and CSRIO emphasised the need for a long-term and network-based approach to infrastructure in Northern Australia. While current infrastructure development in the region remains fragmented and is often isolated from a wider plan, it is important that a “whole of asset life” approach is taken and the interaction of new assets are assessed in terms of how they will work with existing infrastructure assets in the overall supply chain.

Other infrastructure take-outs from the conference include:

  • According to Infrastructure Australia, construction should focus on transport, energy and telecommunication infrastructure.
  • Funding will need to accelerate with CSIRO estimating that A$3bn is needed to upgrade all roads in Northern Australia. An increased provision of funding for feasibility studies in Northern Australia is also required to assess infrastructure needs and better direct government policy and initiatives.
  • Sharon Warburton, Chair of the A$5bn Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) described opportunities to enhance economic growth and amenity in the north through investment in infrastructure across sectors like agriculture, medical tourism and transport. She confirmed that there have been 119 enquiries with 60 current active transactions in the facility’s potential pipeline, and described the NAIF’s focus on transformational projects that will drive long term economic and population growth in the north.
  • The Federal Office of Northern Australia stated that 27 out of the 51 commitments in the Northern Australia White Paper were either completed or in progress with 32 road projects announced in Northern Australia since the white paper.
  • The role for government in infrastructure development should be the provision of information and data, creation of a stable and attractive business environment, investment in foundational infrastructure including lifestyle infrastructure to retain and attract populations, bringing decision makers and stakeholders together, and creating advocacy such as the Northern Australia ministerial forum.
  • To ensure the most useful and productive infrastructure assets are produced, there should be strong advocacy from industry and stakeholders to influence government decision making and provide invaluable local knowledge and thought leadership.
  • Resilient infrastructure will need to address weather extremes in the region.

2. All projects should engage with indigenous stakeholders and address land tenure reform

A key theme from the conference was the need for a greater partnership with Indigenous stakeholders and land tenure reform to allow for development. Presentations were given from traditional owners and native title corporations noting that over 40% of Northern Australia is subject to indigenous land rights under native title, pastoral lease, management of national parks or aboriginal reserve. The nature of such land restricts development by native title holders and industry, including the ability to secure finance and amend the use of the land to undertake agricultural projects.

Joe Morrison, CEO of the Northern Land Council, proposed a modernisation of pastoral leases whereby the crown would transfer the land to native title holders and also to establish a government funded independent body (in similar substance to the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility) dedicated to providing funds to large scale indigenous-led development.

3. Acknowledging opportunities for the development of Northern Australia from a China and wider Asia growth perspective is essential for long-term success

The opportunity for economic growth and development of Northern Australia was emphasised throughout the conference with reference to China’s growth story and that of greater Asia.

A growing world population, combined with a rapidly growing middle class in Asia, is creating increased demand for protein and high-quality, reliable and high-value agricultural products. World food production will need to rise by 70% to meet this demand and Northern Australia is at an advantage geographically to meet an increasing portion of this demand.

Addressing these three points will greatly assist proponents and investors in designing and structuring valuable and critical infrastructure, agricultural and resources projects in Australia’s north.

In terms of upcoming events, the second Northern Australia Investment Forum will be held in Cairns from 19-21 November 2017.