Better Futures Forum
Climate Justice: Building a New Economy for the Northern Territory
By Kirsty Howey and Lottie Boardman
I want to start by acknowledging that I am speaking to you from unceded Larrakia lands in Darwin.
For the Larrakia, the process of colonisation and dispossession was made tangible with the arrival of surveyor general George Goyder from South Australia in 1869. As Goyder drew neat gridlines on a map which would form the shape of freehold blocks to be sold on the London stock exchange (the first failed grand scheme to develop the north), the Larrakia people were divested under imported British law of their traditional lands. To this day, they have not received recognition under Australian native title law for their stewardship of land and waters for many millennia, and I want to acknowledge that connection and the ongoing injustice today.
The annual Developing Northern Australia conference is taking place on Larrakia land in Darwin right now (albeit online due to the snap lockdown announced yesterday). For those who can afford the more than $1200 tickets, they will hear from politicians, public servants, business people and academics about how to grow economic activity in northern Australia.
The conference is a manifestation of the neverending quest to develop the north, the latest iteration of which was spurred by the 2015 “White Paper on Developing Northern Australia”. This mission has been on a constant loop since the 1850s, and the terminology used today has distinct colonial overtones. To take one example, the title of keynote speaker Nev Power’s presentation (one of the architects of the Federal Government’s gas-fired recovery) is “Taming the North”.
Before I turn to what exactly is proposed for our future, I want to dwell for a minute on what has been promised in the past, and what has been delivered.
The narrow northern development agenda has involved the establishment of large-scale mining and petroleum operations, pastoralism, agriculture and aquaculture, but can also involve state exploitation of land, including for defence training purposes, housing, dams or roads.
Yet many of these grand schemes have been a bust. The Ord Scheme – with over $1.3billion of taxpayers’ money spent by around 2016 – is widely considered a white elephant that did not deliver the promised northern food bowl for Australia. A wasteland of legacy mines tarnish the landscape due to regulatory ineptitude – from Rum Jungle’s old uranium mine 100km south of Darwin, to Redbank Copper Mine in the Gulf. The ongoing slow violence of McArthur River Mine looms as a disaster which will have impacts potentially millennia into the future. These are the trailings and tailings of northern development.
We really should know better. Bruce Davidson’s 1965 book “the Northern Myth” tried to dispel the myth that tropical northern Australia could be transformed into a land of milk and honey from which boundless agricultural wealth could be generated. A steady stream of academics since have repeatedly shown the folly of these grand schemes, and the environmental damage that is often their consequence.
But that’s the intriguing thing about developing the north.
Failure simply justifies more of the same.
Now, more than ever, that seems like insanity.
In the Territory, lands and livelihoods will be irreversibly altered if we continue on our current global carbon emissions trajectory, with projected impacts including saltwater incursion into freshwater wetlands and the aquifers that supply drinking water, increased droughts, more severe cyclones, and oppressive heat which may see the NT’s capital, Darwin, experience over 300 days per year of plus 35-degree temperatures by the year 2090. Already three of the Northern Territory’s key ecosystems – our savannas, mangroves, and arid zone - have been assessed as collapsing.
Climate change will worsen existing inequalities in health, infrastructure provision, lack of education and employment opportunities in northern Australia, raising questions about the viability of human habitation in these places without radical changes.
Who will be left to “Develop the North” in this climate-altered future?
With this unfolding reality, you might expect a reset, an avowal to reimagine our futures beyond the usual development parameters.
The Territory Economic Reconstruction Commission report – released late last year in response to the economic ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic - provided an opportunity to do this.
While there were many good things in the report - promises to decarbonise the Territory’s economy and to reach net zero emissions by 2050 - the report also took the Territory backwards by decades by favouring carbon-polluting fracking in the Beetaloo, increasing access to our precious water for largescale irrigation projects, and promoting the gas-fired industrialisation of Darwin Harbour via pipelines and petrochemical plants. Instead of strengthening the Northern Territory’s weak land clearing and water laws, the Northern Territory Government has already followed the recommendations to streamline approval times and ‘cut green tape’. Laws to allowing water speculation for profit by developers (who will nonetheless be gifted our precious water for free) were passed by the Gunner Government only last week, despite vocal opposition from Indigenous organisations and environment groups. We call it a “Jekyll and Hyde” plan for the Territory’s future. It may well be our undoing.
In the face of this dominant vision, the Environment Centre NT has been working with community sector organisations, unions, Aboriginal organisations, academics and other climate and environment organisations on an alternative economic vision for the Territory that centres climate justice. A climate justice approach recognises the capitalist and colonial origins of climate change, its unevenly distributed effects that particularly impact First
Nations peoples, and therefore prioritises climate solutions led and supported by First Nations communities.
An important part of our alternative vision is recognising that the extractive sectors do not provide the majority of jobs in the Territory, and in fact contribute very little to our revenue. The actual jobs in the NT are in the public service, health and social services, education, retail and the not-for-profit sector. We want to see an economic vision that recognises and plays to our strengths and capacities, reduces emissions, improves services where they are needed most, builds the skills of local people, cares for people and country, and makes the Territory more prepared to meet the challenges of the future.
This could be through community-owned solar energy projects that could both reduce energy costs for remote communities and feed into a proposed renewable energy superhighway that could connect projects together, as Aboriginal-owned Original Power promotes.
Another job-creating project would be investing in energy efficient social housing – both new builds and through refurbishment of existing stocks - in Darwin and remote communities. These projects could provide ongoing jobs for communities maintaining those buildings.
Another sector that is already in existence but could grow is the Indigenous carbon farming industry and other First Nations ranger groups that are employed caring for country.
The ideas already exist. What we will continue to work on is the political will to implement solutions that would address together the Territory’s deep social inequalities and the climate crisis.