10 April 2009

Australia 21 workshop on Northern Development

In Darwin on Monday 6 April Australia 21 convened a high-level workshop at Charles Darwin University to discuss how Australia 21 might use its research networks and capabilities to make a contribution to public debate about the future of Northern Australia, and how its future might best be assured.

The meeting was attended by Australia 21 Directors Bob Douglas (A21 Chair), Nick Stump (Project leader), Paul Barratt, Helen Garnett and Anita Lee Hong, and a group of more than thirty people from industry, academia and government with hands-on experience and responsibilities in Northern Australia.

We are still analysing our records of about six hours of discussion in plenary and in five breakout groups, and I cannot be sure exactly what tack, if any, Australia 21 will choose to take in relation to this topic. We are conscious that prescribing solutions to various aspects of the problems of Northern Australia, and the closely connected issues relating to indigenous wellbeing, is a crowded field. One of the core values of Australia 21 is the avoidance of work that replicates what is already being done, and we will not embark on a new program unless we are sure we can add value. To do that, we need to identify the researchable question(s).

To me the lens through which to look at this question is, “What would we have to do to be confident that in fifty years’ time those of us who are left will look back with pride on how, as a nation, we have managed Northern Australia?” No doubt there would be many development trajectories we could be proud of, many pathways to each of them, and fierce debate in some cases about what should make us proud, but this nevertheless strikes me as a useful yardstick to lay alongside any proposals for the future of the North.

Within that framework, it seems to me that Australia 21 could add value to thinking about the future of Northern Australia if it could illuminate for decision makers and the general public any of the following issues:

- How to create a framework for planning to be led more by the people of Northern Australia themselves.

- An acceptable process for ascertaining the wishes of indigenous residents of the North, not as an undifferentiated single entity but in the separate and differentiated groups into which they naturally fall, and taking adequate account of these wishes in the planning process.

- How to make the development process subject to the principle of “subsidiarity”, ie, allowing planning and operational decisions to be made at the lowest possible level, whether that be the Commonwealth, the State/Territory, the regional town or the community. This is neither a trivial issue nor an easy principle to implement; while it is desirable to grant maximum autonomy at the lower political levels, it is important to ensure that decision-making processes take account of wider impacts, without using that consideration as an excuse to disempower local decision makers.

- How to ensure that decision-making is informed by all the relevant scientific, economic and social research, and that research required to support decision making is adequately resourced and undertaken in a timely manner.

- Specification of the nature of the natural values in Northern Australia that it is desired to preserve, and preparation of an inventory of those values.

- Ensuring that the provision of government services is not less supportive in Northern Australia than it is in the south.

- Identification of the regulatory or other frameworks that confound the ability of indigenous Australians to make decisions about their future and to establish indigenous enterprises.

More ambitious, but significantly more worthwhile, would be a study that addressed all these issues and identified the cross-linkages between them.

The extent to which any of this work can be undertaken will be dependent upon Australia 21 being able to find the necessary sponsors to finance it. Australia 21 is a non-profit research organisation which is entirely dependent upon donations, and contributions of time by some of the people who participate in its work. If you wish to make a tax deductible donation, please go to Australia 21 and use the secure online facility on the home page.

Our thanks to Charles Darwin University for providing the facilities for Monday’s workshop.

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